Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

RSNSW and Learned Academies Forum 2023

Forum 2023: Our 21st Century Brain


Date: Thursday, 2 November 2023, 8.30 for 8.45 am–5.00 pm AEDT
Venue: Live streaming from Government House Sydney
Video presentations: YouTube playlist
Brochures: for the live streamed program — Summary (2.1 MB), Complete Program (6.3 MB)


The brain underpins our basic instincts and needs, and behavioural responses to the world around us. The brain mediates our compassion, reason, and imagination which are reflected in great works of the arts and sciences. Yet our brain is also the source of distress, dysfunction, and malice. Despite centuries of recurring impacts of tribalism, racism, dehumanisation, and exclusion of ‘outsiders’, we continue to inflict suffering on others.

At the same time, the 21st century brings new challenges that extend well beyond immediate threats to very complex societal challenges such as global security, climate change, massive demographic shifts, resource management, information overload, and artificial intelligence.

Have we reached the edge of our human capacity to respond effectively as either individuals or collective groups?

The context and demands on our brains have been transformed by the very tools we have created, including new information technology platforms, and rapidly developing and deployed forms of artificial intelligence. Diseases of the brain are increasingly prevalent in our ageing population, as are the increasing mental health challenges that are evident across the human lifespan.

Considerable progress across the sciences and humanities has deepened our understanding of genetic, environmental, and social factors that underpin brain development and function. Rising demands on our capacity to respond appropriately to globalised threats bring an urgent need to apply our scientific understanding to the development of just and sustainable solutions.

This year’s Royal Society of New South Wales and Learned Academies Forum focusses on recent progress in unravelling the workings of the brain and opportunities to use our emerging understanding to promote human wellbeing well beyond the 21st Century.

The Forum is held under the auspices of Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC, Governor of New South Wales.  The Royal Society of New South Wales acknowledges the generous support by Her Excellency, the Academies, the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, and Haus Holdings.


08:45–10:00 Official Opening

Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC
Governor of New South Wales

  Welcome and Acknowledgements

President, Royal Society of New South Wales

  Keynote Presentations

Scientia Professor George Paxinos AO DistFRSN FAA FASSA FAHMS
NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow
Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW Sydney

The enigmatic brain: from synapses to neural networks

Professor Lucy Palmer
Viertel Senior Medical Research Fellow
Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health
University of Melbourne

  Speaker via video
Lessons from developmental and cognitive neuroscience

Dr Joshua Gordon

National Institute of Mental Health, USA


Professor Penny Van Bergen

Head, School of Education, Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities
University of Wollongong

William Wordsworth, a British romantic poet, in 1802 used the expression, “The child is the father of the man.” Psychologists have borrowed the poetry to emphasise the outsized influence of early experiences. Speakers in this session will discuss our contemporary understanding of early life influences from 9 months to 25 years on the anatomy and physiology of the brain and the development of human cognitive, emotional, and social capabilities.

10:00–11:15 Professor Adam Guastella
Michael Crouch Chair in Child & Youth Mental Health, Sydney Children's Hospital, Westmead, and
The Brain and Mind Centre, Faculty of Medicine and Health
University of Sydney

  Professor Sharynne McLeod FRSN FASSA
Professor Speech and Language Acquisition
Charles Sturt University

  Professor Anne Castles FRSN FASSA
ARC Laureate Fellow, Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy
Australian Catholic University

  Associate Professor Kate Highfield
Discipline Lead for Early Childhood Education
University of Canberra

BREAK (11:15–11:45)


Professor Phillipa Pattison AO FRSN FASSA

Emeritus Professor
University of Sydney and University of Melbourne

The human brain has evolved an extraordinarily efficient information storage and processing capacity, arguably in response to the increasing social complexity of human life but is also subject to more immediate environmental influences that are social, cultural, and technological in character. In this session, we consider what we know of these influences and their individual and societal impacts, and what this means for human capability.

11:45–13:00  Professor Andrew Chanen
Chief of Clinical Practice and Head of Personality Disorder Research, Orygen
Professorial Fellow, Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne

  The Hon. Dr Andrew Leigh MP FASSA (by video)
Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and
Federal Member for Fenner in the ACT

  Dr Jennifer Kent
DECRA and Robinson Fellow, Urbanism Discipline Research Lead
University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design, and Planning

  Professor Jakelin Troy FASSA
Director, Indigenous Research
University of Sydney

  Professor David Braddon-Mitchell FAHA
Discipline of Philosophy, School of Humanities
University of Sydney

BREAK (13:00–14:00)


Professor Anthony Cunningham AO FRSN FAHMS

Director, Centre for Virus Research, Westmead Institute for Medical Research
Vaccine Theme Leader, Sydney Infectious Diseases Institute, University of Sydney

This session will consider two of the major syndromes affecting the brain in adult life, dementia and long COVID, each with physical, psychological, social and economic impacts for the patient, their families, carers, and society. Both have inadequate treatments. Today there are ~400,000 people with dementia in Australia, expected to double by 2060, and it is now the leading cause of death. Long COVID is a multisystem illness, including ‘brain fog', persisting for weeks or months following COVID infection, often in the mid-adult age group with comorbidities.

14:00–15:00  Professor Glenda Halliday FAA FAHMS
NHMRC Leadership Fellow
School of Medical Sciences and the Brain and Mind Centre
University of Sydney

  Professor Sharon Naismith
Leonard P. Ullman Chair in Psychology and NHMRC Leadership Fellow
University of Sydney

  Associate Professor Lucette Cysique
Cross-disciplinary neurophysiologist
St Vincent's Applied Medical Research Centre — Peter Duncan Neuroscience Unit
UNSW Sydney — Kirby Institute and School of Psychology


Professor Ian Oppermann FRSN FTSE

New South Wales Government Chief Data Scientist and
Industry Professor, University of Technology Sydney

It is argued that one of the major factors that drove the growth in size and complexity of our brains over millennia has been the need to deal with increasingly complex social environments, and increasingly intelligent other members of those social environments – an “arms race” of sorts driven by social interaction. If instead of natural intelligence, we are faced with dealing with increased complexity from the interaction with Artificial Intelligence, what are the changes that we face as humans, and what implications does this have for the long-term development of the human brain?

15:00–16:00  Professor Sally Cripps
Director of Technology, Human Technology Institute, and
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Technology Sydney

  Ms Stela Solar
Director, National AI Centre

  Professor Lyria Bennett Moses
Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Law and Justice, and
Director, UNSW Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation
UNSW (Sydney)


This session aims to bring together the insights emerging from Sessions I-IV and explore their implications for the future. We consider what actions are likely to be necessary, and what Governments and communities need from research and scholarship to take effective action.

16:00–17:00  Professor Ian Hickie AM FRSN FASSA FAHMS
NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow, Professor of Psychiatry, and
Co-Director, Health and Policy, Brain and Mind Centre
University of Sydney


Site by
Privacy policy |  Links to other societies
Editor Login
Disclaimer: Positions expressed on this website by authors of publications and
event presenters do not necessarily reflect those of the Society.
The Royal Society of New South Wales acknowledges the traditional custodians
of the lands on which we live and work, and we pay our respects to Elders past and present.
All rights reserved. Copyright © The Royal Society of NSW.
ABN: 76 470 896 415


We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.