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Simple talk, complex minds

Neuroscience is now part of everyday talk, but much of what passes as knowledge is inaccurate

world Updated: Mar 10, 2013 01:17 IST

Scientific concepts have always washed in and out of popular consciousness but, like never before, the brain has become part of contemporary culture.

With the recent announcement of billion-dollar science projects — the Human Brain Project in Europe and the Brain Activity Map in the US — it would be hard to ignore the impact on public spending.

But the sheer penetration of neuroscience into everyday life makes it remarkable. We talk about left- and right-brain thinking, brainstorming and brain disorders.

Differences between male and female brains are the subject of regular press speculation and newspapers publish brain scan stories that claim to explain everything from love to memory.

Young people are warned that everything from video games to sexual activity could “damage their brains” while old people are encouraged to “train their brain” lest they lose its functions.

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Unpleasant experiences from malaise to trauma to mental illness are reframed as primarily neurological problems, while art and music are evaluated for their neurochemical effect.

Brain science is championed as an answer to life’s deepest problems. It reveals “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are”, claims Elaine Fox in her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. Other pop neuroscience books have a similar ring: Super Brain, Buddha’s Brain, The Tell-Tale Brain, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Everyday brain talk has taken up an interesting place in our culture. Academics talk about “folk psychology” — the collection of concepts we use in everyday life to explain our behaviours and mental states to others.

This is distinct from the scientific or systematised psychology used by professionals. When we hear common explanations like “she needs a good cry” or “men are just interested in sex”, that’s folk psychology. It’s a mixture of consensus, experience and prejudice that allows us to give reasons for why people do the things they do.

One of the difficulties scientific psychology has faced is that it gives reasons for behaviour that often conflict with folk psychology.

Most people assume that their experience of their own mind and other people’s actions makes them sufficiently expert to discount any other explanation even if it’s scientifically validated.

The popular interest in the brain means that we increasingly have a “folk neuroscience” strongly linked to personal identity and subjective experience.

Like folk psychology, it is not very precise, sometimes wildly inaccurate, but allows us to use neuroscience in everyday language in a way that wasn’t previously credible for non-specialists.

Folk neuroscience usefully relies on concepts that are not easily challenged with subjective experience. When someone says “James is depressed because he can’t find a job”, this may be dismissed by personal experience, perhaps by mentioning a friend who was unemployed but didn’t get depressed.

When someone says that “James is depressed because of a chemical imbalance in his brain”, personal experience is no longer relevant and the claim feels as if it is backed up by the authority of science.

Neither usefully accounts for the complex ways in which our social world and neurobiology affect our mood but in non-specialist debate that rarely matters.

As politicians have discovered, it’s the force of your argument that matters and in rhetorical terms, neuroscience is a force-multiplier, even when it’s misfiring.

There has been genuine scientific progress thanks to a revolution in understanding neurochemistry, brain-scanning technology and so on have brought us important medical treatments for mental illness and neurological disorders.

But these advances have been unevenly incorporated into public debate. Brightly coloured brain scans are a media favourite.

But they are not maps of brain activity but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function.

This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.

You can see this selective reporting in how neuroscience is used in the media. Psychologist Cliodhna O’Connor and her colleagues investigated how brain science was reported across 10 years of newspaper coverage.

Rather than reporting on evidence that most challenged pre-existing opinions, of which there is a great deal, neuroscience was typically cited as a form of “biological proof” to support the biases of the author.

This enthusiasm for a neurological view of human nature is not solely a media fad. Sociologist Nikolas Rose has tracked how society increasingly defines and manages individuals in terms of the brain and how this tendency has permeated commerce, law and politics.

The birth of lucrative neuromarketing firms are based on this idea. Ad campaigns have traditionally been assessed by asking people about marketing material and seeing how it affects consumer behaviour.

The neuromarketing industry uses brain scans and relies on the belief that this must somehow reveal the “real consumer” despite the fact that no benefits have ever been demonstrated over traditional assessments of buyer behaviour.

Politicians have also been keen to use talk of the brain to support their ideas. During the past year, references to neuroscience were used in the UK Parliament to argue for a range of social reforms from early intervention with problem families to the regulation of entertainment.

One MP argued that unemployment was a problem as it has “physical effects on the brain”. As everything has a physical effect on the brain, we are left none the wiser.

As neuroscience has gained authority over previous ways of explaining human nature, it is not surprising that people will be compelled to use it if they want to try and make persuasive claims about how people are or should be —regardless of its accuracy.

Folk neuroscience has become Freud for Freud-phobes, everyday psychology for the sceptical, although in reality, rarely more
helpful than either. Guardian News Service