How The Media Cover The Brain

A psychologist argues that popular notions of neuroscience often miss the point. (Digital Shotgun/flickr)

Jonathan M. Adler, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

Did you know that meditating actually changes your brain? So does falling in love. So does playing Tetris, having an ice cream headache and tweeting too much.

It seems that just about every week we encounter another dazzling breakthrough in brain science that promises to reveal the deep relationship between our lives and our brains. My reaction to such flashy headlines is usually: “No duh.” It’s not that I don’t find the capabilities of modern neuroscience astounding, or because I’m not curious about the mysteries of human nature. I just find the conclusion “it’s in our brain” (whatever “it” is) to be, well, obvious.

The brain is our master organ. It is responsible for taking every input we receive and synthesizing this astounding mass of signals to allow us to navigate the world. The brain takes wavelengths of light and allows us to appreciate a Cézanne or a Rothko. It takes an impossible array of social cues and grants us embarrassment and pride. So, how could our most important experiences not show up in the brain? Where else could they be?

A fascinating study published recently in the journal Neuron takes a critical look at the way the media tend to report on neuroscientific findings. The authors determined that media coverage of brain research tends to lead to three exaggerated conclusions:

First, popular reports of neuroscience suggest that the presence of some phenomenon in the brain somehow proves that it is real. The authors call this “the brain as biological proof.” If the results of neuroimaging show us that looking at the faces of people we love reliably lights up certain brain regions, or if traumatic experiences write themselves onto the brain, then those feelings must be real. This trend implies that the many nuanced parts of our daily lives not yet recorded in the brain have not been scientifically validated and may therefore be subjective and false.

Second, media coverage of brain science indicates that brain variation reveals important essential differences between groups of individuals. Coverage of “the autistic brain” or “the gay brain” reinforces inaccurate notions that groups of people share some homogenous trait that makes them fundamentally different from the rest of us.

Third, portrayals of the brain in the press tend to suggest that it is an organ that itself must be optimized in the service of living to our maximum potential. We should give the “Sodoku Workout” a try to keep out brains young and parents should directly cultivate “strong brains” in their children. This trend misplaces emphasis on cultivating a strong brain as the key outcome, rather than as a means to the desired end.

The fact that a three-pound lump of cells in our heads is responsible for every one of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors is one of the great miracles of the universe. But we have misplaced our desire to understand our world with an over-emphasis on looking for answers in the brain. Neuroscience has immense potential to reveal the machinery of our lives, but we currently expect too much of this young science. As a result, we are unfortunately learning to undervalue things that we have always known are real without neuroscientific evidence. Looking at our loved ones feels good. Not all gay people are alike. Parenting means tending to all of our children’s’ needs. Tetris is wickedly addictive.

Jonathan M. Adler is a regular contributor to CommonHealth and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts

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