Beware Of The Oversimplifications Of “Folk Neuroscience”

Neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell has a very thoughtful piece in The Guardian about how we think and talk about the brain these days:

“Popular interest in the brain means that we increasingly have a ‘folk neuroscience’ that is strongly linked to personal identity and subjective experience. Like folk psychology it is not necessarily very precise, and sometimes wildly inaccurate, but it allows us to use neuroscience in everyday language in a way that wasn’t previously credible for non-specialists.

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.

It is important to bear in mind that part of this persuasive force comes from genuine scientific progress.  But these advances have been unevenly incorporated into public debate. Brightly colored brain scans are a media favorite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand, but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of 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.

O’Connor’s media review found many negative stereotypes championed under the guise of neuroscience. The researchers, somewhat wearily, noted that: ‘Articles devoted considerable space to demonstrating male-female neurobiological differences and also to evidence that substance abusers, criminals, homosexuals, obese people, and people with mental health conditions had distinctive brain types. Media coverage of such groups tended to correspond with existing stereotypes: for example, articles regularly linked obesity to low intelligence, adolescence to disagreeableness, and women to irrationality.’

This is sad but, perhaps, inevitable. 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 skeptical, although in reality, rarely more helpful than either.

I’m a neuropsychologist who researches the brain and treats people with neurological difficulties. I am a firm believer in the importance of neuroscience as a way of revealing previously hidden aspects of human nature and as a tool to help us overcome some of our most disabling problems. The advances we make in understanding the brain have, and will continue to have, a significant and lasting impact on our lives.

Yet instead of revealing the beautiful complexity at our core, we live in a culture where dull biological platitudes make headlines and irritating scientific cliches win arguments. In response, we do not need a simpler culture but one that embraces complexity.” (Read more here.)

Much has been said about the seductive allure of brain scans, but this is the first I’ve heard of Cliodhna O’Connor’s study of how neuroscience is often used to support pre-existing stereotypes. Something to remember the next time you see a news article purporting to show that brain science has “proven” something we supposedly know all along.

2 Responses to “Beware Of The Oversimplifications Of “Folk Neuroscience””

  1. “Yet instead of revealing the beautiful complexity at our core, we live in a culture where dull biological platitudes make headlines and irritating scientific cliches win arguments.” In my experience, the drive to seek truth in any disciplined way is very rare. Scientists are so very valuable to society.

  2. Great article! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of making sweeping statements about neurological findings when much of the time they actually should make an issue even more complex. The way that our minds work is so puzzling and miraculous to many of us, and when “smart people” in the media made broad conclusions, it’s easy to believe that these findings “prove” something big and important.

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