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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  • Will

    Great article.  I think this is part of a larger trend to say whatever sounds good and tell good stories in the media, as opposed to saying what we think we know and then where doubt lies.  It can also be expanded slightly more broadly to psychology studies in general. People want to hear that science has figured out everything the brain does, everything about human behavior, but in reality the brain is so complex and neurology is such a young field, that we may never know the answers.  The media needs to be more patient as opposed to writing everything that will get a good response.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/OGGRE5HZOOGI4HQJGLDYOU2M4I Douglas

      Neuroscience is very complex.  And we will never fully understand the brain.  It’s an interesting point how the media comes to their conclusions as opposed a Neurologist who would be looking for a deeper understanding of the function of the brain.

  • Tuomas Pernu

    Nice that these things get noticed. Another paper on the same subject:

    Tuomas K. Pernu (2011). Minding Matter: How Not to Argue for the Causal Efficacy of the Mental. Reviews in the Neurosciences 22 (5): 483-507.

    http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/revneuro.2011.22.issue-5/rns.2011.043/rns.2011.043.xml

  • Mindspin

    felt like i was reading a high school paper haha.

  • Soulman

    Have the newspapers reported on this report of their reports? I should bloody well hope so.

  • Outofbox

    Considerin  g the source for most “input” into the masses’  brain, there is a reason they call it the “boob tube”.  With what “science’ has learned about the brain, we have became like Pavlov’s dogs for the marketers!. 

  • Mcsas

    It’s my understanding that the salient issue in brain research is neuroplasticity. The ability to direct our thoughts to rewire brain circuitry to beneficial effect. It doesn’t get much media coverage although I heard a leading researcher in this field on NPR two weeks ago and purchased his book, The Emotional Life Of Your Brain, by Davidson and Begley.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/OGGRE5HZOOGI4HQJGLDYOU2M4I Douglas

      i have heard about this book and plan to read it.

  • Sjfone

    There will be more media coverage of neuroscience, with the head injuries from contact sports.

  • Trenalg

    I intensely dislike the picture with the article.  We are not like that!

  • homebuilding

    Some of these same ‘researchers’ suggest that psychotherapy is meaningful when the vast majority of individuals who decide to pursue it drop out after one visit.   Perhaps research as to why just about anything in life is more valuable, in terms of personal adjustment, should be pursued.

    • Sarah B

      Your comment regarding the ineffectiveness of
      psychotherapy does a huge disservice to the field of psychology as well
      as to people who do indeed derive benefit from therapy. Researchers have
      consistently documented the benefits of cognitive-behavioral therapy,
      and that it does also change the brain (no surprise there). CBT for
      depression and anxiety has been shown to have stronger long term effects
      than medication alone has had.

      The issue you are addressing is something different altogether. What motivates an individual to remain in psychotherapy is very
      different than whether psychotherapy actually works. On average, people
      tend to find benefit after 12-16 sessions. It is hard work, and while
      some people decide it may be too difficult (emotionally, time commitment, etc.), they cannot then know the
      what the benefit would have been had they stayed the course. This does not mean it would not have helped at least in some capacity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Melzer/1062739751 Peter Melzer

    I find it cynical that a journal like Neuron publishes an opinion critical of the fashion in which the media treat news on brain function and behavior. This prestigious journal with a high impact factor has published numerous studies on cerebral function using functional magnetic resonance imaging. 

    Functional magnetic resonance imaging permits us to visualize changes in local cerebral blood flow. Local cerebral blood flow is known to increase with nerve cell activity. The method may help us identify cortical areas involved in a behavior based on presumptive nerve cell activation. 

    This knowledge can certainly be invaluable to neurosurgeons and neurologists in their decision making.  However, the blood flow is averaged over a volume of tissue containing tens of thousands of nerve cells at least. The method does not reveal which nerve cells drive the blood flow and how they precisely precipitate the behavior examined. The underlying nerve cell mechanisms remain elusive and can only be inferred. A journal with the name Neuron that publishes studies telling us so little about neurons contributes in no small way to the admonished confusion in the media.

    Read more about functional magnetic resonance imaging here:

    http://brainmindinst.blogspot.com/2009/03/fmri-mental-processing.html 

    • Jonathan Adler

      Interesting critique, Peter.  I certainly agree with you that the popular understanding of neuroscience in general (and fMRI in particular) is severely under-informed and this critique extends to many scholars as well.  I actually applaud the journal Neuron for publishing this study, as it places their primary reports of brain science in a greater cultural context.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/OGGRE5HZOOGI4HQJGLDYOU2M4I Douglas

      Nice job of cutting and pasting Pete.

  • John Monteleone

    Very good column. The problem, I believe, is the impulse to treat neuroscience as the fundamental theory of human nature. That way, the results of neuroscientific experiments can confirm what’s real, true, accurate about us, and the rest is dismissed as conjecture, folk theory, or bias. One reason to resist this impulse is that neuroscience is so new we aren’t yet fully clear on the limits of its explanations.  

    • Jonathan Adler

      Great comment, John!  Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • TobySaunders

    I don’t understand the first problem… ‘If the results of neuroimaging show us that looking at the faces of people we love reliably lights up certain brain regions…then those feelings must be real’… what? I don’t understand the phrase ‘those feelings must be real’. I’ve never, ever seen a study say ‘neuro-imaging proves feeling to be real’… feelings are subjectively obvious. Feelings aren’t controversial: the source of feelings can be questionable, but we don’t rely on neuro-imaging to verify the existence of feelings.    ‘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’… I don’t know what that means either. ‘Parts of our daily lives not yet recorded in the brain’?! What is being said? I understand the other two problems.

    • Jonathan Adler

      Toby, I agree with you: we don’t need to rely on neuroscience to verify the existence of feelings.  But this is precisely one of the trends the researchers identified in popular media portrayals of brain science.  They implicitly imply that the brain is the source of “biological proof.”

  • Sjfone

    Yeah man, I use my encepahlon  for critical decisions by playing endless hours of video games and reading supermarket tabloids.

  • Wdt4567

    Please!  The word “Media” is plural.  Headline should be: “How The Media Cover The Brain.”

    • Rachel Zimmerman

      According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000):
      “Frequently, however, media stands as a singular noun for the aggregate of journalists and broadcasters: The media has not shown much interest in covering the trial. This development of a singular media parallels that of more established words such as data and agenda, which are also Latin plurals that have acquired a singular meaning.”
      But AP style says media is, in fact, plural, so I’m changing it. Thanks for noticing.

      • Jonathan Adler

        Thanks for noticing this, and thanks for correcting it.

    • http://callumjameshackett.tumblr.com/ Callum J Hackett

      Language is not prescriptive; there are no rules set in stone. Shakespeare would be terrified at the way you use English. Get over it.

  • Joealbiani

    The flaw in all this is to assume that mind and brain are the same. They are not. In the Grand Play we call life we are characters, this is our brain’s focus. The actors who play the characters are the mind. So we believe the specific reality our senses and brain give us without question. It is as if we were watching channel 5 all our life not knowing there are countless other options all equally valid all happening at the same time and in the same “space”. As long as we focus out there as reality we will never get in touch with the real power, our mind and, there is nothing out there.
    Go to thegrandplay.com to consider other options.

    • http://callumjameshackett.tumblr.com/ Callum J Hackett

      I believe this falls into the article’s third description of misconceptions.

      • Griath

        The third example is an implication that the brain can be ‘stretch-trained’ or ‘power-harnassed’. What Joe was describing is your direct interaction with the world, your perspective and what you view as reality. As he said, ‘you’ are the actor and the ‘outside’ is the stage. The third description would point to the actor changing the way he interacts with the stage to become a better actor, while Joe was I believe trying to hint at the actor understanding that he is subjective to what is happening around him and being aware of the fact that his ‘reality’ is entirely his own.

        • http://callumjameshackett.tumblr.com/ Callum J Hackett

          Have you seen the website he linked to? It just takes the idea of subjectivity and then peddles a load of ridiculous pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo.