STS.010 | Spring 2010 | Undergraduate

Neuroscience and Society


This page includes sample student papers from the Spring 2010 class as well as prior terms, presented with permission of the students.

General guidelines for paper assignments (PDF)

Paper 1: Neuroscience in the News

Length: 6-8 pages

For this assignment, you will critically read a piece of neuroscience journalism alongside the scientific article it reports on, and analyze how experimental research is transformed into news. Start by finding a short (1-3 pp) story in an online or print newspaper or magazine (not a blog) about a neuroscientific experiment that uses fMRI to illuminate some aspect of human behavior or experience (emotions, violence, intelligence, irrationality, attention, etc). Then read the scientific research publication it references (focusing on its introductory and concluding sections).

The following questions should guide your analysis: What claims of significance and implication are made in the scientific publication, and how are these recast as they move into the public domain? What popular cultural assumptions and attitudes are embedded in the original presentation of scientific research, and which are added or amplified in its popular retelling? What hopes, fears, and speculations get voiced in the popularization of the research? What limitations of the experimental setup and qualifications on the results are deleted? How do images and their presentation enhance or distort the research presented in the scientific publication, and in the news story? Your analysis should draw on ideas and concepts presented in lectures and readings from the first three weeks of class (neuro-hype, historical contingency and continuity, localization, visualization, fetishization, iconoclasm, travelling facts, persuasion, etc.).

Note: If you feel that there is not enough material to analyze in the news item you have chosen, or if you want to focus on how one particular point in a study gets picked up and presented in the media, you may look at a set of popular articles based on one scientific article. Alternatively, you may choose to analyze one news story that reports on a small set of scientific articles. If you go this route, remember that the purpose of this assignment is to be as specific as possible in your reading and analysis, so don’t take on additional items at the expense of close and careful analysis.

Sample Student Papers

“Racing to Conclusions: Neuroscience in the News” by Evan Schneider (PDF)

“Neuroscience on the Brain” by Anikia Tucker (PDF)

“Neuroscience in the News” by anonymous MIT student (PDF)

Paper 2: Implications of Social Neuroscience

Length: 6-8 pages

Choose a topic of research in the new subfield of “Social Neuroscience.” We recommend that you choose one of the topics addressed in class, such as morality, empathy, trust, distrust, love, reciprocity, etc. (choosing a different topic is fine, but in that case you will need to do a modest amount of outside research). In your paper, describe how emerging brain research reinforces, unsettles, or changes traditional popular understandings and attitudes about the chosen topic, and reflect on the following questions: What controversies does/could the research stimulate? What social interests or political agendas does/could it support? How might its research questions and directions be influenced by such interests and agendas?

Guidelines for Paper 2 (PDF)

Sample Student Papers

“Neuroscience, Gender, and a Scientific Career” by Jacqueline Rogoff (PDF)

“Wired Morality: Neuroscience’s Unsettling of Traditional Moral Thought” by Jeremy Steeger (PDF)

“Mirror Neurons: How Neuroscience Is Challenging the Way People Understand Each Other” by anonymous MIT student (PDF)

“Playing Cupid: On the Brain and Love” by Jason A. Scott (PDF)

Paper 3: Rewrite

For the third assignment, rewrite one of the first two papers.

Guidelines for Paper 3 (PDF)

Paper 4: Neuroscientific Solution to a Social Problem

Length: 8-10 pages

This paper asks you to develop an analysis of how neuroscience recasts a given social problem, and suggests new ways of addressing that problem.

Choose a social problem (e.g. violence, prejudice, overspending, addiction or another mental illness) for which neuroscience suggests a solution or intervention of some sort (e.g. a new understanding for policymakers, a pharmaceutical application, or a neurotechnology application).

In the course of your paper, (a) describe the problem and its social context; (b) explain how neuroscience came to join the conversation around this problem (i.e. what experiments or research studies or funding initiatives opened the problem to neuroscience?); (c) analyze how neuroscience reframes or changes the terms of the problem; (d) describe the possible interventions into or solutions to the problem that neuroscience suggests or seeks to develop; (e) evaluate the potential dilemmas of those interventions / solutions.

In your analysis, draw on insights and concepts from lectures and readings throughout the course, particularly weeks 8 through 12. Depending on the topic you choose, you may wish to consult outside sources.

Note: Make sure not to choose a problem that is too broad to adequately cover in 8-10 pages (e.g. “mental illness”), or too specific to sustain an 8-10 page analysis (e.g. “amphetamine addiction among teenage girls with autism”). Depending on your approach to the material, a paper on “addiction” could work; so could a paper on “smoking.”

Proposals: Students should bring a printed, paragraph-long paper proposal (outlining plans for the paper) to their recitations during week 12. The proposals will be collectively discussed. Consult with your TA if you wish to propose a different final paper topic.

Sample Student Papers

“The Role of Neuroscience on Addiction and Society” by Juliann Lajoie (PDF)

“The Medicalization of Normality and the Ethical Debate behind Brain Enhancement” by anonymous MIT student (PDF)

“Decision and Preference in Neuromarketing” by anonymous MIT student (PDF)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments