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Why should school students study neuroscience and cognition?

Vishnu Agnihotri, Academic Director, GenWise


To see the upcoming sessions from GenWise related to Cognitive Science, scroll down to the bottom of this post.


I have never studied neuroscience, cognition or psychology formally but over the last few years I have been fascinated by the subject and have read books and articles, and watched films on the subject. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about what kinds of things children should learn in school, I keep evaluating whether what I am learning is important for children to learn too.


Having thought about this and experimented with running courses on cognitive science, I am convinced that neuroscience and cognition should be introduced to every school student. Let me share why.


1. It is a highly engaging subject and can be a doorway to creating an interest in Science. There are many striking experiments on perception that can be conducted using simple materials. These create ‘aha moments’ and create curiosity about the mechanism of cognition. 


For example, in the Rubber Hand Illusion, the subject places his hand in a box or behind a screen, and an artificial rubber/ plastic hand is placed in front of the subject. Both are stroked at the same time using a paintbrush. The subject looks at the rubber hand and, after about a minute of synchronous stroking (by the experimenter), usually experiences the illusion that the rubber hand “feels like their own.” The nature of sensation is determined by inputs from different senses and this experiment shows how vision influences the experience of ‘our body’. In this case- vision, touch, and proprioception (awareness of movement of a limb or its position) integrate to constitute our experience.



Some students are either not interested in biology or have developed a fear for it, as it is ‘science’. Experiments such as these, or interesting case studies from the history of science can be a way of getting them engaged in biology.


2. Neuroscience is a truly interdisciplinary subject and helps students to start breaking the silos across disciplines. Whether students pursue a career in neuroscience or not, in today’s world, they need to be able to make connections across disciplines to make sense of things, see opportunities and solve complex problems. As the scientist EO Wilson says-


We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.


Studying neuroscience is one way of developing an interdisciplinary perspective because knowledge in the subject has been constructed through work in different fields like computer science, biology, psychology and medicine. Today there is even a branch of economics called ‘behavioural economics’ and artists and designers too look to neuroscience for tips on how their work can be more impactful.





3. Understanding cognition helps students to develop better learning habits. Learning about ‘how learning works’ can help students develop more effective learning habits. For example, ‘mind wandering’ is a major issue for students and research shows that being able to focus attention in the first 5 minutes of a study session (‘settling in’ period) increases the ability to focus throughout the session. Chunking information into meaningful groups helps retention. Also trying to ‘retrieve’ what has been learnt (write down or speak what was learnt) is far more effective than reading the content repeatedly, underlining it etc.


From: MARGE- A Whole Brain Learning Approach, by Arthur Shimamura (PFC stands for Pre-Frontal Cortex)


Learning about the plasticity of the brain could also help students to improve their attitude towards learning- viewing the brain as something ‘trainable’ through deliberate effort and practice, and develop a ‘growth mindset’ instead of viewing themselves as having a ‘fixed ability’.


4. Understanding cognition helps students to become better critical thinkers and manage themselves better. Critical thinking is today recognized by researchers as the integration of different faculties. For example, when we see a provocative piece of information or a message, are we able to employ self-regulation and focus on the information, are we able to recognize cognitive biases that may be present and correct for them to critically analyze and evaluate the situation? Appreciating these processes involved in critical thinking help students to reflect on their thinking processes and their ‘executive functions’ (their ability for self-regulation).


From: Integrative Framework for Critical Thinking, by Christopher P Dwyer


5. There are many exciting career opportunities in neuroscience. Cognitive Science is a rapidly growing field and newer applications are always emerging. There is a strong demand for people with advanced training in neuroscience in both research and industry. Apart from offering intellectually stimulating work that has great impact, many careers in neuroscience can also be financially lucrative- whether one works as a neurosurgeon, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) specialist, a machine learning engineer, a pharmaceuticals scientist or a cognitive neuroscientist.


How does one start learning neuroscience?


There are many ways to get started on learning neuroscience.


1. Some classic books that are very engaging are-

  • Phantoms in the Brain by VS Ramachandran

  • The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other stories by Oliver Sacks

  • The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons by Sam Keane

2. There are excellent lectures and documentaries too on YouTube and MOOC platforms like EdX and Coursera. Some examples

  • Robert Sapolsky’s series of 25 lectures on YouTube

  • Fundamentals of Neuroscience on EdX

  • The brain that changes itself on Amazon Prime


Upcoming Sessions and Courses from GenWise


1. Touch, Tickle and Poke - the Neuroscience of Touch, one-off session, facilitated by neuroscientist Leslee Lazar from IIT Gandhinagar, for ages 13+ including adults on Sat, Oct 31 at 4 PM. For more details and to register, visit https://www.genwise.in/events-3/touch-tickle-and-poke-the-neuroscience-of-touch-appreciation-session-2


2. Neuroscience Bootcamp, 7 session course,, facilitated by neuroscientist Pratik Mutha, from IIT Gandhinagar, for grades 8-12 starting Sun, Nov 22 at 9 AM. All the sessions are on Sunday mornings. For more details and to register, visitt https://www.genwise.in/events-3/neuroscience-bootcamp