Dinner table neuropsychology

Common sense or ‘folk psychology‘ is what your average person in the street uses to make sense of human behaviour. It says people have affairs because their relationship is unsatisfying, that people steal because they want money and that people give to charity because they want to help people.

Scientists tend to say ‘well, it’s a bit more complicated than that’ but talk of conditional risk factors for behaviour won’t get you very far in a dinner table discussion so ‘folk psychology’ is a culturally agreed form of psychology that is acceptable to use in everyday explanation.

I’ve just been alerted to a fascinating study in the journal Public Understanding of Science looks at how the enthusiasm for pop neuroscience has encroached on ‘folk psychology’ to create a form of ‘folk neuropsychology’ where brain-based explanations are now becoming acceptable in everyday explanation.

Talking brains: a cognitive semantic analysis of an emerging folk neuropsychology

Paul Rodriguez

Public Understanding of Science July 2006 vol. 15 no. 3 301-330

What is the influence of neuroscience on the common sense way we talk about behavior and mental experience? This article examines this influence and the diffusion of neuroscience terms as it appears in everyday language that reflects shared cultural knowledge. In an unsolicited collection of speech acts and metaphors I show that the word “brain” often substitutes for “mind” and brain states are often asserted as the cause of mental states. I also present several examples of visual depictions of the brain, including modern brain scans, which have become the basis for new cultural symbols that are identified with mental experience. Taken together, the linguistic and visual brain metaphors highlight the concrete nature of the brain in contrast to the abstract nature of the mind. This, in turn, provides a physical dimension to the way we conceptualize mental phenomena in ordinary language. Thus, a modern folk neuropsychology is emerging which provides an alternative, reductionist, and sometimes competing network of concepts for explaining the mind in comparison to conventional folk psychology.

The full study is available online as a pdf if you want the details.

Link to DOI entry for study (via @cfernyhough)
pdf of full text.


  1. Andreas
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Looks like the link to the full pdf is broken.

    Thanks for being the best psychology blog!

  2. Andreas
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    …aaand it looks like it’s working and like I could probably use better prefrontal lobes! (Pun intended.)

  3. gregorylent
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    phrenology 2.0

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] In our minds we have a simplified version of how the world works. For example infants have a folk physics. They can roughly estimate the path of a falling object. We have the ‘theory of mind’ that gives us a rough understanding of what goes on in the heads of others (and ourselves). We all have a folk psychology that we have built up over the years from what we have read and what we have experienced as a refinement of our theory of mind. Even than it is still a rough estimate of how brains work. It seems we are now creating a folk neuropsychology. Paul Rodriguez has studied this emerging folk ‘knowledge’ using its effect on language (see citation below). This is brought to my attention by an item in the Mind Hacks blog (here). [...]

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