Coverage of Neuroscience in the Popular Media – The New Psychobabble
Reading any newspaper, whether online or in print, whether a serious publication like the New York Times or one that’s more entertainment-minded like Oprah Magazine, you will invariably find an article discussing neuroscience. Even the non-fiction bestseller lists are populated with brain-centered books like Proust was a Neuroscientist, The Female Brain, and A Whole New Mind. While it is certainly heartening that the public is as excited about the latest findings on the brain as are the neuroscientists who do serious study and lab work, neuroscience in the popular media has become nothing short of a farce. The problems with the media’s depiction of neuroscience runs the gamut from citing studies incorrectly, drawing grand, false conclusions from misinterpreted data, and appropriating brain science in the name of explaining phenomena beyond the field’s immediate purview.
Recently, the Sunday Times reviewed a new book by Cordelia Fine entitled Delusions of Gender. In the book, Fine dismantles many of the false conclusions drawn by Louann Brizendine’s bestseller The Female Brain, a popular science book that links differences between the male and female brain to behavioral differences observed in our everyday lives. The review notes how Fine researched the studies cited in Brizendine’s book:
Brizendine claims that the female brain has more mirror neurons (brain cells that fire in mimicry when a person or animal observes others carrying out an action) than the male brain, hence enabling greater female empathy. Brizendine has five references for this assertion: one study, published in Russian, of a postmortem dissection of frontal lobes, in which mirror neurons could therefore not be observed in action; three studies of mirror neurons, none of which compared males and females; and one personal communication with a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard, who, when asked by Fine to confirm the finding, said that not only had she never communicated with Brizendine; her own work had also failed to find any sex differences in mirror neuron functioning.
This sloppy research on the part of non-experts (Brizendine is a psychiatrist) isn’t the only problem, however. Using neuroscience in a very general sense grossly oversimplifies complex phenomena. In business writer Daniel Pink’s bestseller A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink’s main assertion is that the so-called activities of the “left brain,” like linear thinking and verbal or logical skills, are inordinately emphasized over “right brain” activities like empathizing with others and creating artistic works. While it may be true that social institutions reinforce particular ways of thinking to the detriment of progress, the brain is an incredibly complex organ that does not delegate activities neatly into right and left as Pink and many others suggest. In this sense, Pink may use neural activity as metaphor, but why muddy the waters and draw from neuroscience so amateurishly to begin with, when it’s completely unnecessary?
What explains the mass fascination with the field? A recently published Miller-McCune article highlights a few studies indicating that non-experts are drawn to neuroscience for the seeming certainty it affords in explaining our daily behaviors. The article cites a study conducted by UCLA researchers who found that a cohort of undergraduates considered an argument featuring brain scans more persuasive than the same argument featuring a bar graph, despite the fact that both arguments were spurious.
In a similar study published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, entitled fMRI in the Public Eye, researchers, headed by Eric Racine of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, analyzed several news articles in the media, examining how coverage of fMRI investigations and experiments were worded. The researchers determined that popular news articles often explained brain scan studies in such a way as to “prove” the objectivity of a subjective experience, citing headlines like “A relatively new form of brain imaging provides visual proof that acupuncture alleviates pain” or “Fat really does bring pleasure.” Racine and his team furthermore discovered that many news articles anthropomorphize the brain, effectively equating the brain to notions of identity or self. Examples of this phenomenon included “Brain can banish unwanted memories” or “Brain stores perception into meaningful chunks.”
Racine’s work demonstrates that the public treatment of brain studies overestimates the scope of current neuroscientific inquiry. While neuroscience certainly has and will continue to have implications for a wide variety of fields, science journalists and the public at large must understand that there continues to exist a large gap between “brain” and “mind”, and that equating the two seriously misrepresents the advances that cognitive science or neuroscience has thus far made. Even neuroscientists themselves can be guilty of drawing such conclusions. Raymond Tallis notes this erroneous equation of brain and mind in a book review published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology. Criticizing the conclusions drawn from cognitive neuroscientist Chris Frith’s Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, Tallis notes:
The journey from excitable tissue to membership of the community of minds in which we live our lives and have our (importantly) conscious being has been a long one. We shall not, therefore, find the community of minds, and our everyday lives, in the behaviour of excitable tissue, even though the latter is a necessary condition of the former. The illusion that we can do so arises from neuroscientists anthropomorphizing bits of the brain. When they find that those bits don’t deserve the human epithets conferred upon them, they tend to question whether human attributes such as free will, access to reality, self-knowledge or progress towards objective truth, which are evident in the community of minds, really exist. If you fail to find something when you look in the wrong place or in the wrong way, it is tempting to conclude that it doesn’t exist. Physicists can’t find free will, the self, or the ‘I’ in atoms, but they don’t (typically) conclude that, since we are made of atoms, these things don’t exist. Anyway, denying their reality puts science itself, and its large truth claims in a rather awkward position.
In order to avoid this “rather awkward position,” the scientific community must make concerted efforts to educate the public about neuroscience, and science journalists as well as the layperson would do well to approach coverage of studies in neuroscience with a healthy dose of skepticism.
MCCABE, D., & CASTEL, A. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning??? Cognition, 107 (1), 343-352 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.07.017
Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., & Illes, J. (2005). Science and Society: fMRI in the public eye Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6 (2), 159-164 DOI: 10.1038/nrn1609
Tallis, R. (2007). Not all in the Brain Brain, 130 (11), 3050-3054 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awm250