I’ve got a feature article in The Observer about how our culture has become saturated with ‘neuroscience talk’ and how this has led to unhelpful simplifications of the brain to make the same old arguments.
This is often framed as a problem with ‘the media’ but this is just the most obvious aspect of the movement. Actually, it is a cultural change where the use of a sort of everyday ‘folk neuroscience’ has become credible in popular debate – regardless of its relationship to actual science.
Folk neuroscience comes with the additional benefit that it 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.
The article discusses how this popular neuroscience talk is being used and why is remains popular.
The piece was influenced by the work of sociologist Nikolas Rose who has written a great deal about how neuroscience is used to understand and manage people.
If you want to go in further depth than The Observer article allows I’d recommend his paper ‘Neurochemical Selves’ which is available online as a pdf.
A new book of his came out last week entitled ‘Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind’ which looks fascinating.
Link to Observer article ‘Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think’.
2 thoughts on “The rise of everyday neuroscience”
Most people up to the 1980s didn’t use words like “antioxidant” or “liposuction”. Those words were reserved for scientists until the media began to cover science more vigorously. Then it opened a tinderbox were everyone was suddenly an amateur science.
At that point an opportunity to teach the public was unfortunately taken up by quacks like so many pop scientists.
Great article, I would only say from a non-neuroscientist’s point of view it doesn’t seem like depression, OCD or schizophphrenic patients have benefitted all THAT much from new TXs, it would be cheerful to read more about that if it’s true.
i was surprised to see you list V.S. Ramachandran among all those other books. i’ve never found his books to be guilty of what your article seems to cover, though i really enjoyed the article.