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Why do we study the brain?
  • Writer : KU TODAY
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  • Date : 2018-05-16

Why do we study the brain?


why do we study the brain? - Seong Whan Lee, Sung-il Kim, Hackjin Kim

The brain is the primary entity that influences human thoughts and behaviors. It is clear that in-depth study of the human brain is indispensable in order to understand and respond to the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Brain studies currently suggest alternatives and solutions to various fields of study, while providing insights into society from a completely different perspective. Korea University has many research teams which are studying the brain in its many different aspects. Here, we will introduce the perspectives of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering, the Department of Psychology, and the Department of Education. Let us have a look at how the different fields of brain research at KU may bring hope and transformation to the society of the future.

Brain Engineering: Technology That Improves the Quality of Life and Enriches the World - Prof. Seong Whan Lee, Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering

Brain Engineering is the study of technology which is based on the workings of the brain. It was established in order to study the brain from an engineering perspective and to apply the results to the creation of various new technologies. Specifically, brain engineering researchers study the structure and principles of how the brain processes high-level data, and seek to develop the technology to implement these principles in artificial systems, which interact with the real world. The concept of artificial intelligence, which has recently emerged as a major field of interest, was actually elaborated some time ago. It has now developed into a more comprehensive field that includes more potential engineering applications related to areas of brain studies such as pattern recognition, neural networking, and vision. Even up until ten years ago, people were skeptical about such research, but it is now recognized as a part of the new scientific world, and both government and business are paying great attention to it because of its huge potential. Assuming the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a central axis of the future, artificial intelligence will be a key branch of it. In the future, artificial intelligence based on brain studies will be considered a very important field, because there are limits to studies based on models of human information processing. To overcome such limitations, we must fully understand humans or, to be specific, human brains. One of the projects which my research team participated in was related to the curling robot CurlBrain, whose operations are akin to AlphaGo on ice. Unlike the game of Go, curling offers a wide range of variables and areas of uncertainty, which makes it harder to master. We are involved in programming curling robots that identify the game status through their camera, devise strategies by employing Deep Learning, and move around the ice in order to play the game. This project is especially meaningful in that artificial intelligence has been successfully implemented in order to control these robots, which require human-like advanced thinking. My research team is also working on a brain-computer interface (BCI), which would enable us to control devices such as home appliances. It is a form of interfacing technology that recognizes a person's mental brainwaves and uses them to control these appliances. However, although today’s technology is highly advanced in the field of artificial intelligence, there are still challenges to overcome in this respect.
The purpose of all research projects is to create the technologies that the world demands. In that respect, I believe that brain engineering provides core technologies that can help make people happier and achieve progress for humankind

Understanding the Brain Changes the Education of the Future 

- Prof. Sung-il Kim, Department of Education

Since the entire process of learning occurs in the brain, the provision of appropriate education is impossible without being fully familiar with the workings of the brain. We must understand in order to establish and apply optimal curriculums and teaching-learning methods. Thus, at KU's Department of Education we focus on organizing curriculums and planning learning environments in accordance with the brain development of the learner, and study the ways to provide an optimized environment for each learner based on their brain type. Unlike studies conducted in the fields of Brain Engineering or Psychology, we study the design of teaching-learning or educational methods and how they influence or help to develop learners’ brains. This is why the field of Neuro Education is receiving so much attention today. Regarding this topic, my research team focused on studying the motivation of learners, particularly whether their motivation comes from their intrinsic level of happiness, or whether it derives from their desire to be recognized or rewarded. The research focused on studying whether the brain provides impetus for the different kinds of motivation via similar mechanisms or not. Ultimately, we concluded that an individual's strongest motivation is curiosity. We study how curiosity arises and how it fades, differences in the levels of curiosity among individuals, and the operative brain mechanism in the mental condition of curiosity. If we are able to reveal the mechanism that stimulates learners’ curiosity, we can develop methods for teaching, learning, and evaluating that increase their curiosity, and apply them in actual educational sites. Initially, my research theme was “Where does learners' enjoyment come from?” I was very much interested in understanding the factors that attract interest and motivate the act of studying. I realized that pleasure is a mentally satisfying and comforting state, while curiosity is an intellectually voracious and unsettling state. However, when such curiosity is finally satisfied, individuals feel great pleasure, as dopamine is released and the pleasure center of the brain is activated. Currently the most significant issue is how instant curiosity develops into constant interest. We study whether such curiosity is related to personal temperament and seek to discover how to facilitate learners’ continuous thirst for knowledge. If curiosity is a prevalent feature displayed by students at sites of education, the learning environment will be enjoyable for everyone.
“You cannot understand people’s minds without knowing their brains. That is why brain studies are important in education.”


Looking Into the Deepest Core of Humans Through the Window of Science - Prof. Hackjin Kim, Department of Psychology


When the neurons in the brain start to function, an oxygen supply is required; therefore, hemoglobin, which contains oxygen, moves into the appropriate region. By tracking such movement through an MRI, we are able to identify the brain mechanisms which enable various social impulses such as sympathy, morality, and altruism. Here is an example of a psychology experiment which illustrates what brain science is capable of in this respect: The participants enter an MRI device, each wearing a pair of goggles, and play a simple game with each other. This game is designed to allow the participants to emotionally express the social behaviors or impulses to which they are prone. While the participants play the game, researchers observe the locations and types of movement of their active neurons. This experiment provides scientific explanations for the actions or emotional responses of people in certain situations.
On another track, my research team recently released the results of our research on people's proclivities for ethical consumption. We conducted an experiment in which the participants were left in an MRI device along with various products, and were told to choose which product they would buy. Some of the products were manufactured by social enterprises while others were made by commercial enterprises. If the participants were told that the researcher was observing which product they chose, the choice of the social enterprises’ products, or the decision to consume ethically, became more prevalent. When the brain reaction was examined in this process, it was noticeable that there was an increase in the level of functional communication between the area related to value calculation and the area related to emotions. This demonstrates the scientific reasons for the increase of altruistic behaviors in situations where one’s reputation is being assessed.
Currently, the research team is also studying the brain-scientific aspect of how people’s choices may be affected when they seek the recognition of others under certain social conditions, not only when they feel they must make ethical decisions, but also when they display conformity to others' behavior, or are required to cope with intergroup conflict.
Such studies on brain science act as windows that enable us to see human nature more objectively and precisely. Eventually, based on a systematic understanding of human nature, they may help provide practical solutions to current social problems through their contributions to psychotherapy and education, and their input into policy decisions.
“Essentially, psychological research values the scientific approach. It is the most important tool to objectively measure and verify in a repeatable way human psychological conditions. That is why we have recently adopted the scientific research method.”

Brain engineering can be divided into medical applications and intellectual applications. We see and study the brain from a macroscopic, or functional, perspective. Brain engineering and artificial intelligence research creates technologies that improve and enrich the quality of people's lives. For example, we could use robots to work for humans and increase productivity, or to help those with walking problems. These are examples of brain engineering supporting us in our everyday lives and making life more convenient. The ultimate goal is to technically implement all the good ideas people can conceive of so that the world in which we live may be filled with fulfilled people. (Prof. Seong Whan Lee, Department of Brain and Cognitive Engineering)

If educational experts can gain a better understanding of the brain, schools in their current form will disappear. Regardless of the transformations that will ultimately be wrought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are already experiencing momentous changes in the field of education. With more educative artifacts and information-providing technologies coming onstream to replace human teachers, the primary role of the latter will be to give feedback or provide motivation to learners. The emphasis will increasingly be put on creating learning environments that further learners’ interests and encourage their curiosity. Within such an environment, which is akin to a playground, learners will be able to focus on presenting new ideas, and the section of the brain that is related to creative problem solving will be activated. Furthermore, we must pay attention to designing various environments that suit the diverse brain change processes of individuals. I consider it desirable for a society to accept the diverse capacities of individuals' brains and to offer options to individuals in their selection of the community in which they feel most comfortable.(Prof. Sung-il Kim, Department of Education)

Some people thrive based on their personal relationships, while others struggle in such relationships. Social neuroscience is the study of brain reactions that occur during the course of forming relationships with other people. The studies in this field may provide a completely different perspective and form of insight compared to other fields of study which research similar phenomena. The ultimate goal of social neuroscience research is to draw out the inner impulses latent inside individuals so that they can ultimately discern their deepest selves. Furthermore, on the long journey towards this goal, we can also accumulate scientific solutions to the many practical problems that society faces. The research results of social neuroscience will demystify some parts of human nature that might have been misconceived of thus far, and eventually contribute to great improvement in the relationships among individuals or even groups.(Prof. Hackjin Kim, Department of Psychology)


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