Communication and the brain – Don’t Worry, It’s Science: There’s A Brain Scan


Via Jennifer Ouellette, Melanie B. Tannenbaum over at Nature's SpotOn NYC:

When writing about anything pertaining to psychology or human nature, people love nothing more than a brain image lit up like a Christmas tree. These omnipresent images have been mockingly termed “brain porn”, defined by journalist Alissa Quart as a “willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for nearly everything.” According to a team of British scientists led by Cliodhna O’Connor, many popular science articles will include “logically irrelevant neuroscience information” intended to “imbue an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility” (McCabe & Castel, 2008; O’Connor et al., 2012). You might see scientists or science writers displaying neuroimaging data as proof that their claims are objective or real.

Neuroscience is frequently used to discuss psychopathology in particular, with 36% of “neuroscience” mentions in mainstream articles referring to it (O’Connor et al., 2012). Psychopathology can include anything from dementia, ADHD, and schizophrenia to eating disorders, personality disorders, addiction, depression, and anxiety. Every time you see an article mentioning a study about how “neural correlates,” “brain structures” or “neurological functioning” can explain the above conditions, you should be on high alert for brain porn in action.

On one hand, attributing things like addiction or depression to the brain imbues these disorders with legitimacy. It’s not a choice, it’s not a shortcoming – it’s a disease. Yet this very blessing can also become a sufferer’s curse. Portraying certain brains as homogeneously “different” implies something about what those brains are not: normal. As O’Connor and colleagues note, searching for group-level brain differences implies that there is some sort of fundamentally unalterable contrast between “those” brains and “normal” brains. Although no one ever actually explains what a normal, healthy brain should look like, we do get a very clear picture from these articles of what the people possessing these brains are not – “criminal, overweight, homosexual, or mentally ill” (O’Connor et al., 2012). By drawing a line between “normal” and “abnormal” and pinning any individual differences on presumably unalterable brain structures, this logic reinforces social group divisions and perpetuates essentialist stereotypes.

Describing something like alcoholism as a disease can be a helpful practice in some regards. It legitimizes the need for beneficial social services and attempts to convince non-alcoholics that the disorder does not simply result from some kind of personal failure. However, it can also cause a great deal of harm by reinforcing the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with alcoholics’ brains, and that they are somehow biologically different from “normal people.”

This idea that things only seem “legitimate” once they have a biological correlate raises another point about the worrisome nature of neuroscience portrayals in the media.