Perspectives

Psychology professor says neuroscience can be useful in handling pandemics

Dr. Jennifer Robinson

As the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, psychology and even brain chemistry may play increasingly important roles in how people deal with the global health crisis. Auburn University’s Jennifer Robinson, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and director of the Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences Program, says neuroscience—the study of the structure and function of the nervous system and brain—could lend important insight into successful ways to weather the storm in future pandemics.

How might neuroscience be utilized/helpful in a future pandemic?

There are many different facets of neuroscience that could help in a future pandemic.First, there's the "neuromarketing" piece that relates to how information is presented to maximize compliance. Second, there's a whole separate health piece as we learn more about the virus and its neurological and psychiatric effects. Third, we are all going through a global pandemic together, but our experiences will vary substantially. Some will be left with a lot of trauma from losing loved ones, or the mere pressures that are afflicted as a result of the pandemic. Others will have long-term neurological effects from the virus itself; and still others, especially essential workers, are likely going to experience neurological/psychological effects associated with long-term stress. Solutions to any one of these circumstances will necessitate neuroscience, but neuroscience alone will not be able to address any of these complex issues. I think it really just highlights the importance of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research efforts.

What aspects of neuroscience have you seen evident in how the country has handled the COVID-19 pandemic this year, and do you think it plays a role in the mask debate, et cetera?

I may be a bit biased, but I always feel that neuroscience can lend insight into human behavior. For example, there's a whole branch of neuroscience called "neuromarketing" that uses brain imaging to better understand how the brain responds to commercials and other advertisements. Companies hire neuromarketers to determine if parts of the brain related to reward processing and emotion "light up," which would be a good indication that their ad is effective.

However, viewing an issue like mask compliance requires a much broader perspective than only neuroscience can provide. I think the pandemic has highlighted the necessary interdisciplinary research that must be conducted. The current situation has so many elements that require numerous disciplines to come together—for example, in psychology alone, I can see a need for personality, decision-making, social and cultural psychology disciplines.

Studies are continually being conducted to examine how brains are wired and how they react to various stimuli. Why is it important to learn about this?

I think it's important to learn about how the brain responds to stimuli because our brains are at the root of our behaviors, our cognitions and our emotions. The more we understand, the better we will be able to leverage that information to treat neurological disorders, develop better mental health treatments, improve health outcomes, or have more effective advertising (which can be both good and bad).

The neuroscience major/bachelor’s degree is fairly new at Auburn. How have you seen the program progress, and where do you see it going in the future?

The neuroscience major is off to a great start, and we are fortunate to have such an incredible group of students. I suspect that the major will continue to grow and flourish, especially as initiatives such as the Center for Neuroscience mature and interdisciplinary research increases. One benefit of the major is that it is extraordinarily flexible in terms of post-graduate opportunities.

Last Updated: July 30, 2020