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The case for climate neuroscience


The case for climate neuroscience

In a new paper, brain scientists lay out how their field could probe the reciprocal relationships between the changing climate and the brain.
November 21, 2023

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Scientists across many disciplines are increasingly aware of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their research, as well as how their work could contribute to climate action. Doctors have proposed a new field of ‘climate cardiology,’ for example. And now scientists who study the brain are entering the fray.

“Humans are causing climate change, which, in turn, very much impacts the human brain. Unfortunately, we do not yet know the full extent of these negative impacts,” says Kim Doell, a neuroscientist at the University of Vienna in Austria and an author of a recent paper making the case for using brain activity recordings, scans, and stimulation in climate change research.

“Neuroscience, in collaboration with many other fields, can help us to better understand the reciprocal relationships between the changing climate and the brain,” Doell says.

In the paper, published in Nature Climate Change, Doell and an international group of nearly a dozen colleagues summarize the findings of climate neuroscience so far, and sketch out a road map for future research.

Neuroscience can help build an understanding of how exposure to extreme heat, storms, fires, and floods related to climate change affects brain structure, function, and health, and how these changes translate into impacts on behavior. For example, it’s known that heat exposure increases anxiety and interpersonal conflict, and the awareness of impending climate change itself causes anxiety and distress. But the neural mechanisms underlying these effects aren’t yet clear. Unraveling them could lead to strategies to protect brains— and society at large—against the negative effects of climate change, the researchers argue.


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Such studies could also contribute to climate adaptation. For example, exposure to nature and green spaces is known to have positive effects on the brain—and on sustainable behaviors. But heat waves and wildfire smoke are increasingly keeping people indoors, curtailing those benefits. Neuroscientists could investigate whether people could gain similar benefits from exposure to plants or animals indoors or immersive virtual reality environments.

At the same time, neuroscience could also probe the neural processes underlying environmentally friendly or harmful behaviors. While this approach is in its infancy, it can be surprisingly powerful, Doell reports. “One of our recent projects showed that signal extracted from the brain while undergoing functional MRI was a reliable predictor of how often people report engaging in different sustainable behaviors,” she says. “This means that we can actually use the MRI scanner to help us better understand why people do and do not act to protect the environment.”

In turn, such studies could yield new strategies for climate communication and behavior change—perhaps better and more targeted ones than arise from the focus groups or self-report usually used in design of these interventions.

One study last year revealed that stimulating a brain region involved in putting oneself in another person’s shoes made people more likely to make sustainable decisions in a laboratory game. This suggests that messages that activate this region and its associated mental processes could be key to getting people to take action now for the sake of a livable climate for future generations.

At the same time, neuroscientists need to remain cognizant of the climate impact of their highly technical and international field. Running a state-of-the art brain scanner five days a week for a year consumes as much energy as 18 U.S. homes, and neuroscientists’ collective travel to one of their most important annual conferences has the climate impact equivalent to the annual energy usage of almost 6,000 U.S. homes, the researchers point out.

“Overarchingly, people seem to be interested but perhaps not yet fully convinced,” Doell says of the reaction to the new paper among her fellow neuroscientists. “We hope that this perspective piece, in addition to multiple research papers that are currently in process, will really help to demonstrate the utility and feasibility of leveraging neuroscience for climate change research!”

Source: Doell K.C. et al.Leveraging neuroscience for climate change research.” Nature Climate Change 2023.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.

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