Beyond Thoughts & Prayers: Bridging Brain Research to the Public Sphere (Pt 1)

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From 2009 until 2016 President Obama felt compelled to address the nation no less than 14 times following all manner of mass shootings such as Sandy Hook (2012) and the Orlando nightclub shooting (2016).[1] He delivered six of these addresses in 2016 alone. His addresses circled around the sentiment, now burned into our synapses, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends who have lost love ones.” Such sentiments are appropriate and intended to provide solace. However, families and friends, understandably so, have grown weary of sentiment alone. They want answers. They want to know why this is happening over and over, and why nothing is being done about it. In the face of this parade of mass shooting incidents, not to mention staggering drug overdose and suicide numbers, politicians and policymakers seem powerless to not only provide answers but to also do something to address what has become a national crisis. It would seem that the general public is asking politicians and policymakers to take us beyond Thoughts & Prayers and deliver us to the land of scientific explanation, especially neuropsychological explanation. Here’s the rub. Thoughts & Prayers as a placeholder may reveal a deeper national paralysis.[2]

COVID did many things, both good (e.g., increased levels of preparedness) and bad (e.g., delivered staggering numbers of fatalities). COVID also showed us in ways no one could have imagined just how divided our country is when it comes to science. ICU nurses and doctors were on the frontlines of this divide. They would report taking care of people who, electing not to get vaccinated, would whisper with their last breath, “OK, I give in, I’ll take the vaccine now.” In what must have been a gut wrenching moment for these ICU nurses and doctors, they would compassionately reply, “I wish it were that simple, I truly do, but it is not.” It may well be that Thoughts & Prayers delivers the tacit message, as kindly as possible, that one cannot be anti-science and have science too. Rather than step on the hornet’s nest that would be the science/anti-science divide at a time of crisis and mourning, politicians and policymakers opt instead to simply deliver Thoughts & Prayers out of respect for the families and friends who have lost loved ones.

“None of the seventeenth-century founders of modern science—Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, and Newton—could have imagined the peculiar world of contemporary anti-science polemics,” writes Margaret C. Jacob in the edited volume Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy. Jacob, along with her fellow contributors, remind us that the founding fathers of science poured the foundation upon which democracy rests. It would seem that science and democracy are inextricably intertwined. Writing alongside Jacob, Diana M. Judd makes the observation that science is baked into the American Declaration of Independence when it says: [T]o assume among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitled them…. Judd states: “The goals of science, as Bacon first explained, are to pursue knowledge of the natural world, and to use this knowledge to benefit and aid humankind.” Here’s the rub.

A large swath of the U.S. population no longer believes in science. That’s problem number one. The second problem stems from the fact that even though there are people in the U.S. who want science, there is a backlog of science piling up with few ways for these stockpiles to get to the public so they can “benefit and aid humankind.” The main culprit here? I would argue it is the decline of public intellectualism as described in detail in Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Along with asking for answers, the families and friends of loved ones lost should also be asking, “When is science too much science and not enough doing?”

In July of 1990 President George Bush signed the proclamation that ushered in the Decade of the Brain as it was known. In April of 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). Quoting from the Obama White House Archives we hear, “The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. It aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI).”[3] From 1990 until today (2024) billions and billions of dollars (your dollars mind you) have flowed into brain research. And yet here we are in what could be described as a mental health crisis in the U.S. Why? Allow me to ask, “When is science too much science and not enough doing?” The only answers I can come up with are, again, a large part of our country does not want science and its potential benefit and aid. Further, there are fewer and fewer public intellectuals, especially science-oriented journalists, who have the ability to bring science to the public whether they want it or not.

I have been very fortunate in that I have experienced a lot of science in my day especially in the areas of psychology and neuropsychology. I count among my intellectual mentors such researchers as John Bowlby, arguably the father of attachment theory, and Antonio Damasio, a neurobiologist who has gone out of his way to write a number of popular books designed to enlighten the layperson interested in neurobiology. Damasio also talks about the philosophical roots of science through such books as Descartes’ Error and Looking for Spinoza. Other names I would like to mention are Louis Cozolino, Allan Schore, Elkhonon Goldberg, Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, and Russell Barkley.

Scientific information exists; it’s simply not getting out to the public, a logjam that negatively affects all of us regardless of what side of the anti-science/science divide you are on.

So, why then this blog series? In some small way I’d like to tilt at a few windmills by trying as best as I can to step in and be a public intellectual. I’d like to impart information on the brain and related topics. In doing so I would like to show that there are possible answers concerning such things as mass shootings, drug abuse, suicide, and depression. If for no other reason, I’d like the reader to come away with the impression that a stockpile of science does exist and that the doors to this depository need to be flung open. Maybe people are souring on democracy because they feel the foundations of science sliding away. I get it. But then I read a book like Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain (Third Edition) and I get giddy. Cozolino reveals that in the short time between Freud and now, we have gone from Freud’s intuitions that what troubles us most are unconscious communications impinging on consciousness, to actually knowing exactly what and why certain brain systems are involved in this process. That’s an incredible scientific feat in my opinion, one that opens the way toward healing.

In the next post, I’d like to get things rolling by going back to a time when brains did not exist. For this I will be accessing the information contained in Damasio’s book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious.

Postscript: My apologies. I forgot to make an important point. According to research presented in Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy, beyond studying the natural world and bringing insights gleaned to the public, the founders of science believed that all humans have the capacity for reasoned thought. To their way of thinking, scientific thought is reasoned thought. Well, as we will see, reasoned thought is the purview of the upper brain and its ability to engage in what brain researchers call Executive Functioning (a topic I took up in my previous blog series). So, the founders of science assumed (without knowing it) that all persons would develop EF skills. Hmmm … if only this were true. More to come. Or feel free to read my previous blog series Executive Function and the Art of Diesel-Powered Car Repair to get a head start.



[1] Taken from a 2016 USA Today online article entitled 14 Mass Shootings, 14 Speeches: How Obama Has Responded by Gregory Korte. Here’s the link:

[2] Writing in the edited volume Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy, Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker tells us that if postmodern, anti-science texts have had any impact, “it has largely been the paralysis of Left political movements.” Here’s Smulewicz-Zucker’s bottom line: “Postmodern theory has done more to push the Left into an intellectual morass than to inspire political activism with any clear agenda.”

[3] You can find the Obama White House Archive I mention by accessing this link: