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Resisting "Folk Neuroscience"

March 17, 2013, 12:00 AM
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One of the best things I read this week was a piece by Vaughan Bell in the Guardian entitled, "Our Brains, and How They're Not as Simple as We Think." 

Bell, a neuropsychologist and science writer, talks about how neuroscience is penetrating every day life.  That we are now framing the discussion all manner of phenomena--from our mental ills to our life habits--using the brain. 

He writes:

Brain science is persistently championed as an answer to life's deepest problems. It reveals "the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are", claims Elaine Fox in the introduction to her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, which could be the introduction to any number of pop neuroscience books that now fill our shelves. Super Brain, Buddha's Brain, The Tell-Tale Brain, The Brain That Changes Itself – you could stock a library with the new generation of books that encourage us to view life through a neurological lens.

He goes on to suggest that where Western culture once suffered from "folk psychology," rife with inaccuracies about why humans behave the way they do, we are being increasingly bombarded with a "folk neuroscience." He argues:

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.

He has a point. And one that has grand implications for society.

When my book, DIRTY MINDS, first came out, I received a lot of emails.  Many were questions about neuroscience and the nature of love.  But many were "folk neuroscience" type comments.  Things like, "I always knew my basal ganglia was getting in the way of my picking an appropriate partner," and "My husband suffers from a lack of oxytocin that is getting in the way of our intimacy."  We tend to want to embrace the simple explanations--and, often, those that require the least amount of personal insight or work to fix.

But "folk neuroscience" doesn't just play out in love.  It also has implications for law and society.  Think of Todd Akin's irresponsible comment last year about how "legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."  It's not too hard to imagine a day where a politician might call upon "folk neuroscience" to justify alarming policy, oversimplifying the results from studies about sex differences in the brain.  We see neuroscience-related headlines in the news that ignore all the nuance of real science, relying instead on sensational soundbytes.  We spend our time excusing, justifying and blaming the brain. 

But humans are more than just our brains--and it's dangerous to think otherwise.

Certainly, the field of neuroscience is an important one.  We're learning all manner of interesting things about the way the brain works--and how it may influence behavior.  But those answers are seldom concrete, and the best neuroscience studies lead to more questions than answers.  We need to find better ways to resist "folk neuroscience."  Starting now.

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Resisting "Folk Neuroscience"

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