Move Over Data, Brain Capital is the New Oil


What consequences will big data and artificial intelligence have on brain health and economics?


In 2019, the software company Cloudflare made its initial public offering. Two of its 3 co-founders celebrated, while its third co-founder lived with a difficult diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia. A recent article in Wired chronicles his heart-wrenching decline, from a superstar programmer to a shell of his former self.1

It is tragic to lose a brain with incredible aptitude. Countless others have suffered and will suffer the same fate: a brain robbed of its full potential.

Disruptions to brain health, such as mental health conditions and neurodegenerative diseases, are becoming increasingly prevalent. These disorders, many of which are preventable or at least treatable, carry heavy tolls on families and communities. Additionally, they cost the global economy trillions of dollars per year in lost productivity; in 2010, it was estimated that brain health disorders cost $2.5 to $8.5 trillion.2 This cost is expected to double by 2030.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the global decline in brain health. Not only does the COVID virus directly attack the brain (leading to symptoms ranging from brain fog to seizures), but the pandemic has also generated excessive fear, anxieties, sleep disturbances, and forced social isolation.3 In addition to the personal toll, there is a concrete economic cost: McKinsey & Company suggest that roughly 90% of employers have noted declines in employee behavioral health during the pandemic (along with concomitant losses in productivity).4

How will the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data influence these trends? Will they pose new dangers to brain health and the current economic order? Or could they be beneficial too?

Disruptions Stemming from Automation

The use of data is a double-edged sword; while AI can help us tackle tough problems in areas like climate change and healthcare, it also presents a risk to millions of individuals’ livelihoods. McKinsey estimates that automation threatens to displace “as many as 375 million workers—or roughly 14% of the global workforce” by 2030.5

To manage this transition, business, civil society, and government leaders must initiate large-scale reskilling efforts. In these programs, brain skills will take center stage. Meta-cognition—that is, self-awareness of your own learning process—is central to this. Since any individual’s work skills will have a limited shelf life in a fast-changing world, the ability to understand and learn new things throughout one’s life is crucial.

Employees of the 21st century must continuously acquire knowledge, creativity, and flexibility to race with, and not against, machines. Doing so means re-imagining our brains and their value.

Introducing Brain Capital

Brain Capital is a form of capital relevant to a complex, interconnected, and fragile global economy that puts a premium on brain skills and brain health.6 Brain skills include self-control, emotional intelligence, creativity, mindfulness, compassion, altruism, systems thinking, metacognition, critical thinking and cognitive flexibility; these skills are all dependent on brain health. Optimized Brain Capital creates flourishing, a state when people find fulfillment in their lives, social connectedness, and accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks.7

The growing role of artificial intelligence in the global economy has inspired the saying that “data is the new oil.”8 While the importance of data is hard to overstate, we believe that the convergence of several factors makes Brain Capital a resource essential for understanding and assessing the success of our modern economy and society.

The Brain Capital concept applies at the individual, organizational, national, and global levels. The individual certainly receives a massive payback from investing in Brain Capital. Similarly, organizations who can nurture and support Brain Capital will find performance and results significantly improving. At a national level, we believe that policymakers will increasingly recognize the importance of optimizing Brain Capital for national progress. If the nation takes care of Brain Capital, many things will then take care of themselves. At the global level, many of the immense challenges that can only be solved collectively—climate change, biodiversity loss, for example—require co-operative problem solving and associated skills emphasized by Brain Capital.

Improving Mental Toughness and Resilience

A focus on Brain Capital can help nurture key higher-level brain skills, like resilience, mindfulness, grit, adaptability, and confidence. Resilience is essential to navigating shocks of constant change, and the shocks of the 21st century are set to be of unprecedented magnitude. Climate change, nuclear weapons, biotechnology, cyber-terrorism, and advanced machine learning systems might all pose existential risks to humanity, as well as increasing stress at the individual level. To respond to the inevitable crises of this century, we must show extraordinary resilience, both collectively and individually. COVID-19 has shaken the global psyche and socio-economic systems. Renewed commitment to inventing new methods and approaches will be essential to help our economy and societies recover from the COVID-19 crisis and to transform it, hence enhancing its resilience to future shocks and crises. 

More Robust Critical Thinking

In recent years, misinformation and science denialism have played a large role in global politics and public opinion. Misinformation in the era of COVID-19 is directly harmful, encouraging unsafe practices based on false but popular beliefs (eg, masks can lead to oxygen deprivation).9 The President of the Red Cross even labeled the dissemination of fake news about vaccines a “second pandemic.”10 Strengthening brain skills can help people evaluate existing information, become better critical thinkers, and avoid the proliferation of dangerous fictions.

Brain Capital and Data

While we believe Brain Capital deserves to play a larger role in the global conversation and policy, the title of this piece does not intend to disparage the importance of data. On the contrary, we believe that the 2 resources are complementary and inextricably linked.

Data are needed to improve brain wellness: artificial intelligence is enabling automated mental health solutions and aiding in the early diagnosis of neurological diseases. Digitization of existing, proven techniques allows scaling of benefits (eg Noom with cognitive behavioral therapy and Headspace with mindfulness meditation). The scaling of proven techniques is critical in low- and middle-income countries where there are not enough trained mental health care workers—hence e-health, m-health, and telemedicine are vital.11 More broadly, computational neuroscience is a burgeoning field. The BRAIN initiative in the US, which seeks to map functional circuits in the brain, is leveraging the latest and greatest in computational techniques. In Europe, the Blue Brain Project is using supercomputers to build a digital simulation of the brain. The Human Connectome Project seeks to compile data on the connections between neurons in the brain. There is also growing interest in the development of brain-computer interfaces (such as Musk’s Neuralink) which aim to further interweave minds with machines.12

Similarly, Brain Capital is the key resource needed to improve the data ecosystem: investment in brain health and brain skills helps foster the growth of curious, intelligent, well-adjusted knowledge workers to extract and use data. Further, Brain Capital will help ensure that society can function at the intersection of intelligence and wisdom, instilling robust ethical frameworks into actions that ensure more equitable progress.13

Looking Ahead

Despite the current planetary emergencies and challenges that await us, there are reasons to be hopeful. For instance, the economic importance of mental healthcare has inspired many business leaders to act. McKinsey & Company14 and Deloitte15 have both recently published reports on the importance of mental health in the workplace. The Thrive XM index (created in partnership between Thrive Global, SAP, Qualtrics, and Fortune) aims to quantify employee well-being and its impact on business goals. An article in the Harvard Business Review comments that “$4 is returned to the economy for every $1 spent caring for people with mental health issues.”16 As many have come to believe that mental healthcare is an important and underserved market, money has followed in suit. Venture capital funding for mental health startups has skyrocketed: a recent editorial in JAMA Psychiatry notes that in 2019, VC firms “invested a record-breaking $637 million in more than 60 different mental health–oriented companies, which is more than 22.8 times the investment in 2013.”17

All this initial evidence points to the immense benefits of optimizing Brain Capital at every level. We hypothesize that Brain Capital has enormous positive externalities and spillovers. If Brain Capital is optimized at the individual level, it has a strong positive effect on family, community, and co-workers. If my organization nurtures Brain Capital, it makes my work (and life) better, and contributes to the nation, including in reducing individual and economic losses from brain disorders. If the nation focuses on Brain Capital, individuals and organizations all benefit.

We also hypothesize that the constituent elements of Brain Health and Brain Skills are themselves highly synergistic. If my critical thinking improves, my creativity also goes up. If I emotional intelligence is strengthened, resilience, grit and confidence improve. If my mindfulness improves, the propensity for mental illness declines.

Overall, we believe that a focus on Brain Capital will set up a synergistic cycle resulting in a significantly better society and economy.

A Brain Capital Grand Strategy

Based on these hypothesized benefits, a diverse group of global experts recently proposed a Brain Capital Grand Strategy aimed at building on the Brain Capital, and reorienting the global economy around optimizing for higher Brain Capital.6The group prescribes an in-all-policies approach, suggesting a role for Brain Capital in policy areas ranging from Foreign Affairs & Trade (where a “brain health diplomacy”18 approach is proposed) to Aerospace & Aviation (where, for instance, long-duration spaceflights may present unique mental health challenges).19 Additionally, they outline a Brain Capital Investment Plan, leveraging traditional (eg venture capital, government grants) and novel (eg new collaborations like the Healthy Brains Global Initiative) sources of capital. Finally, the team of experts encourage the development of a Brain Capital Index to formalize and track Brain Capital over time.


Brain Capital is of the utmost importance. By focusing global efforts towards continually building brain skills, early detection of negative changes, and treating brain disorders, we can help meet the challenges of the 21st century. We must build a future that prioritizes people and gives individuals the resources necessary to develop their full potential and well-being.

William Ellsworth is a machine learning researcher at Stanford University. Erin Smith is an associate with the PRODEO Institute. Dr Chapman is the founding director of the Center for Brain Health at UT Dallas. Mark Heinemeyer is CEO of PRODEO. Jeremy Kranz is SVP and Head of Technology Investing, GIC. Dr Fu is a venture partner at Alsop Louie Partners. Dr Nevin is a partner and Chief Economist at PWC Nigeria. James T. Hackett is a senior oil and gas executive and investor. Dr Hynes is head of the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit.Dr Ayadi is president of the Euro-Mediterranean Economists Association. Dr Eyre is a co-founder of the PRODEO Institute and adjunct associate professor with the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Trials (IMPACT) at Deakin University.


1. Upson S. The devastating decline of a brilliant young coder. Wired. April 15, 2020.

2. Harvard School of Public Health, World Economic Forum. The global economic burden of non-communicable diseases. September 2011.

3. Carson J, Eyre H, Lavretsky H. Dear mental health innovators: the COVID-19 honeymoon is almost over. Psychiatric Times. May 19, 2020. 

4. Coe E, Enomoto K, Gupta A, Lewis R. National employer survey reveals behavioral health in a COVID-19 era as a major concern. McKinsey & Company. June 9, 2020.

5. Illanes P, Lund S, Mourshed M, Rutherford S, et al. Retraining and reskilling workers in the age of automation. McKinsey & Company. January 22, 2018.

6. Smith E, Ali D, Wilkerson B, Dawson WD, et al. Brain Capital grand strategy: toward economic reimagination. Molecular Psychiatry. October 26, 2020.

7. Seligman MEP. Happiness is not enough. University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness. April 2011.

8. Bhageshpur K. Data is the new oil—and that’s a good thing. Forbes. November 15, 2019.

9. Goodman J, Carmichael F. Coronavirus: ‘deadly masks’ claims debunked. BBC Reality Check. July 24, 2020.

10. Kaur H, Thomas N. ‘Fake news’ about a Covid-19 vaccine has become a second pandemic, Red Cross chief says. CNN. Updated December 1, 2020.

11. Maulik PK, Thornicroft G, Saxena S. Roadmap to strengthen global mental health systems to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Int J Ment Health Syst. July 29, 2020.

12. Shih JJ, Krusienski DJ, Wolpaw JR. Brain-computer interfaces in medicine. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012;87(3):268-279.

13. Eyre HA, Ellsworth W, Fu E, Manji HK, et al. Responsible innovation in technology for mental health care. Lancet. 2020;7(9):728-730.

14. Pfeffer J, Williams L. Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution. McKinsey Quarterly. December 8, 2020.

15. Chapman S, Kangasniemi A, Maxwell L, Sereneo M. The ROI in workplace mental health programs: good for people, good for business. Deloitte Insights. 2019.

16. Aarons-Mele M. We need to talk more about mental health at work. Harvard Business Review. November 1, 2018.

17. Shah RN, Berry OO. The rise of venture capital investing in mental health. JAMA Psychiatry. September 16, 2020.

18. Dawson WD, Bobrow K, Ibanez A, Booi L, et al. The necessity of diplomacy in brain health. Lancet Neurol. 2020;19(12):972-974.

19. Chang DD, Storch EA, Black L, Berk M, et al. Promoting tech transfer between space and global mental health. Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance. 2020;91(9):737-745.

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