STS.010 | Spring 2010 | Undergraduate

Neuroscience and Society


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

Course Overview

In recent decades, research in the field of neuroscience has spilled into the national media on a daily basis, suggesting new interventions and applications in social domains such as law, education, and economics, and challenging us to redefine our understandings of responsibility, choice, and what it is to be human.  In this class we will think critically about the relationship between neuroscience and society.  What are the ethical, legal, social, and policy implications of emerging neuroscience?  How does neuroscience reflect social attitudes and agendas, and how, in turn, does it reshape those attitudes and agendas?

To begin to answer these questions, the course will consider topics such as brain imaging and the popular media; the neuroscience of moral reasoning, empathy, and trust; the new fields of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing; the ethical implications of neurotechnologies such as cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals; neuroscience in the courtroom; and the neuroscientific recasting of social problems such as addiction and violence. Guest lectures by researchers in the brain sciences, class discussion, and weekly readings that draw from science studies, popular media, and neuroscientific research.

Students are expected to attend class, read assigned materials carefully and thoughtfully, and participate in recitations. As a HASS-D/CI course, emphasis is placed on oral and written communication.


There will be two one hour lectures per week. You must attend all the lectures. You may take notes on your laptops if you wish, but please refrain from email, internet surfing, and other such activities.


Readings are assigned for each lecture. Carefully read the assigned texts in advance of each class.


Active participation in your assigned weekly recitation section is required. Students should come to every recitation meeting with a sentence from each reading that convinced or did not convince you (be prepared to discuss why), or with a question that each reading raised for you, pertaining to class themes. You may also bring any questions you have on the week’s lectures. These sentences and questions will act as prompts for collective discussion on the readings and topic for that day. Unexcused absences from recitations will be penalized.


In your recitation sections, each of you will give a formal presentation (10-15 minutes long) on the readings for a given day, and facilitate subsequent discussion.

Writing Assignments

HASS-CI (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences - Communications Intensive) subjects require at least 20 pages of writing divided among a number of assignments, at least one of which is to be revised and resubmitted. In this class you will write two 6-8 page papers, and one 8-10 page final paper, for a minimum of 20 pages. You will revise and resubmit your first or second paper in consultation with your TA.


Grading will be evenly distributed:

Section participation 20%
Four written assignments (20% each) 80%


I. Framing the brain
1 Introduction  
2 Neuroscience in historical context I  
3 Neuroscience in historical context II  

Picturing the brain (neuroimaging)

Guest lecture by Hans Breiter, MD, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital

5 Public circulation of brain images  
II. Making brains mean
6 Computer as brain, brain as computer  
7 Rational brain, impulsive brain  
8 The moral brain Paper 1 due

The empathic brain (social neuroscience)

Guest lecture by Susan Lanzoni, PhD

10 Finding god in the brain (Neurotheology)  
11 The brain on love  
12 Male and female brains  
13 Homosexual brains  
III. Social problems: problematic brains
14 The addicted brain Paper 2 due
15 The stressed brain  

Prejudice in the brain?

Guest lecture by Emile Bruneau, PhD

17 Violence in the brain?  
IV. Interventions

Brains on the stand

Guest lecture by Ruth Greenberg, Esq.


Crime and punishment

Guest lecture by Monty Brower, MD

20 Disciplining the brain Paper 3 (rewrite) due
21 Treating the brain  

Enhancing the brain

Guest lecture by Emily Wanderer, graduate student in MIT Science, Techology and Society

23 The consumer brain  

Branding the brain (neuromarketing)

Guest speaker: Nate Greenslit, PhD

V. Conclusions: brave new neurosociety?
25 Neuroethics  
26 Final reflections Paper 4 due

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments