By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | May 15, 2014
Have you talked with someone about brain science lately? Chatted with colleagues about a research report or something you heard on the news? Did a friend tell you she does crosswords or sudoku to keep her brain sharp? Has a relative started taking antidepressants to address an “imbalance in brain chemistry”?
I have these types of conversations all the time. I’m very fond of my brain and I’m fascinated by brain science. And I’m not alone. Media reports on neuroscience have been increasing over the past decade—a good neuroscience study can lead the evening news, and references to brain science are making their way into our everyday conversations. Over this same period, there has been genuine and sometimes spectacular progress in neuroscience, with new discoveries building understanding and treatment options for a range of medical and mental health conditions.
That’s great. But the brain is unfathomably complicated, brain science is complex, and you’ve probably noticed that popular media doesn’t always do justice to complexity. They often miss finer points of the science while emphasizing the sensationalistic. (For more on how the media is doing on brain science, see this excellent paper by Cliodhna O’Connor and colleagues.)
As a culture, we are developing a body of “folk neuroscience” that tends to be linked to personal attitudes and subjective experiences rather than true scientific data. It turns out the media often uses poorly formulated interpretations of neuroscience as “biological proofs” that support negative biases. We read or hear it, we believe it, and we reinforce our own stereotypes and negative biases.
Neuroscientist Vaughan Bell wrote a recent column in The Guardian looking at this phenomenon. He explores some of the stereotypes reinforced by the media through poorly interpreted neuroscience. These include differences in male-female brains (men can read maps, women can have conversations), the idea that brain types of criminals and substance abusers are structurally different from those of other humans, and articles that commonly link obesity to low intelligence.
Neuroscience is now beginning to address areas once covered by the social sciences. We’re more likely today to hear that biology, not social milieu, drives our behaviors. Sociologist Nikolas Rose warns against the reductionist quality of much of this thinking. He reminds us that neural connections are constantly being rewired in response to our social and environmental experiences. Biology alone is not our destiny.
Vaughn Bell concludes his column with a helpful list of 5 common misconceptions influenced by folk neuroscience.
The brain has a rational side (left) and a creative side (right). That’s not quite correct. While some processes may be more concentrated in one region of the brain, both sides are active and necessary. People need both hemispheres to be successful in rational and creative activities.
Dopamine is a brain chemical that creates pleasure. Not really. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a complex role in a range of functions, including movement, memory, sleep and concentration. It’s also associated with feedback for predicted rewards, but not with pleasure per se. For a pretty deep (but comprehensible) dive into dopamine, read Bethany Brookshire’s article about this marvelous and complicated brain chemical.
Depression is caused by low levels of serotonin. Drug companies have promoted this idea since the advent of the SSRIs in the 1980s. There is no evidence to support it.
The brain is rewired by video games, media violence, porn, social media or other current scourges. Well, yes, it is. But only because the brain is “rewired” by everything it experiences. Remember—there’s constant interplay between social and environmental elements and the brain’s neural connections.
We can’t control our brains, but we can control our minds. People tend to see the mind-brain split differently. To Bell, they are the same thing described in different ways. “Trying to suggest one causes the other,” he tells us, “is like saying wetness causes water.”
This list is a fine reminder that we need to be vigilant in our understanding of neuroscience. Our suspicion quotient should rise when we hear brain science used to reinforce stereotypes, imply simple solutions to complex problems, or suggest that social determinants—connections to family and community, access to services, past experiences, future opportunities—don’t play a major role in good physical and mental health.