Me Human: The Big Discussion

Katie Gilligan from the CoGDeV lab attended Me, Human: The Big Discussion at the Science Museum on September 19th. Her blog below outlines some of the highlights of the event. 

Overview of the event
The Me, Human event has been running in the Science Museum for the past two months. This event which is open to members of the public, gives individuals the opportunity to take part in experiments that explore how different sides of the brain control different activities. As part of their residency at the Science Museum, Dr. Gillian Forrester and her team hosted Me, Human: The Big Discussion, a panel discussion on the big questions in the study of human brain and behaviour.

The three panel members, Professor Uta Frith (Renowned Developmental Psychologist), Professor Ben Garrod (Primatologist, BBC Presenter), and Tony King (Aspinall Foundation – conservation and release) brought unique and intriguing perspectives to the conversation on brain and behaviour.

Prof. Uta Frith emphasised that to answer the big questions in science, we need to take small steps that are embedded in a larger context. She outlined her idea of “Slow Science”, the main premise of which, is that we have less quantity and more quality in our research. Instead of engaging in a race to accumulate publications, she argued that limiting the number of publications that researchers can publish a year, would push them to ensure that they are publishing their best work.

Prof. Frith also touched on the new fear of the term “innate” that has crept into behavioural research. She highlighted that pre-natal development is very innate with a clear biological basis that has been established through evolution, and that innate behaviours are particularly evident in the early years, e.g., reflexes. The panel also discussed the irony that although we are willing to accept “innateness” in other species, we are reluctant to accept that some behaviours may be innate in humans.

Prof. Ben Garrod spoke about communication and in particular, the importance of engaging in scientific discussion with non-academic audiences. One audience member asked the panel what we should do about the dissemination of inaccurate and misleading science in the media? In response Garrod emphasised the importance of not letting those spouting inaccurate science, be the only voices. We all, as researchers, have responsibility for science communication and making sure that the right messages get to the public.

As the discussion developed, Tony King emphasised the responsibility that we have for looking after the world we live in, and all three panellists highlighted the extensive damage that humans have already done to the planet. Having worked for many years in conservation, he questioned whether an improved understanding of evolution would give people a greater sense of empathy toward other species, and encourage them to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices. He emphasised local programmes as the way forward in driving climate change initiatives.

Take home message
Led by the brilliant Dr. Gillian Forrester, this event showcased several impressive women in STEM, at various stages in their careers. Forrester highlighted the female dominated team of researchers who have worked on the Me, Human project over the past two months and the vital role that women scientists had in making this, and other scientific research come to fruition. The event was also an excellent example of good science outreach. It was well attended by not only researchers, who were actually in the minority, but by other professionals and members of the public. The presenters focused on making the topics discussed accessible to non-experts and the discussion was lively and engaging.

Overall, the presenters agreed that although we will never be able to fathom how the human race might evolve over the upcoming millions of years, right now we have a responsibility to our planet and its other inhabitants. 

Written by Katie Gilligan