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What Neuro-revolution?

It feels to me like interest in the brain has exploded. I’ve seen huge investments in brain science by the USA and Europe (the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project), I’ve read about the rise in media coverage of neuroscience, and above all, I’ve noticed how journalists and bloggers now often frame stories as being about the brain as opposed to the person.

Look at these recent headlines: “Why your brain loves storytelling” (Harvard Business Review); “How Netflix is changing our brains” (Forbes); and “Why your brain wants to help one child in need — but not millions” (NPR). There are hundreds more, and in each case, the headline could be about “you” but the writer chooses to make it about “your brain”.

Consider too the emergence of new fields such as neuroleadership, neuroaesthetics and neuro-law. It was only a matter of time before someone announced that we’re in the midst of a neurorevolution. In 2009 Zach Lynch did that, publishing his The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World.

Having said all that, I’m conscious that my own perspective is heavily biased. I earn my living writing about neuroscience and psychology. I’m vigilant for all things brain. Maybe the research investment and brain-obsessed media headlines are largely irrelevant to the general public. I looked into this question recently and was surprised by what I found. There’s not a lot of research but that which exists (such as this, on the teen brain) suggests neuroscience has yet to make an impact on most people’s everyday lives. Indeed, I made Myth #20 in my new book Great Myths of the Brain “Neuroscience is transforming human self-understanding”.

Now there’s even more evidence that the neuro-revolution is on hold. Cliodhna O’Connor and Helene Joffe at UCL in London have just published in-depth interviews with 48 members of the British public and their main finding is that people mostly feel that neuroscience is irrelevant to them.

The researchers recruited a socially diverse sample balanced by age and gender. Half read tabloid newspapers, the others read broadsheets. None had any formal education in psychology or neuroscience. The participants were interviewed for about half an hour about what ideas came to mind when they thought of brain research.

O’Connor and Joffe said a particular feature of the interviews was the participants’ initial bemusement and discomfort about the topic. People said brain science is interesting, but 71 per cent thought it wasn’t salient in their lives. The majority claimed they never encountered brain science in the media. Pushed to elaborate on the field’s irrelevance, many answered that they simply saw brain research as a branch of science, which for them was a remote world.

“It conjures up images of, you know, strange men in white coats,” said one woman.

“Brain research I understand, an image of, I don’t know, a monkey or a dog with like the top of their head off and electrodes and stuff on their brain,” said one of the male participants.

Although most participants saw brain science as irrelevant, the exception to this rule was when they had personal experience of neurological or psychiatric illness, or they had fears about such illnesses. In this way, the brain for many was a source of anxiety – an organ that was usually ignored but which becomes suddenly salient when it goes wrong. For these people, brain research was essentially seen as a branch of medicine. Indeed, they used terms like brain science and brain surgery, and brain scientist and brain surgeon, interchangeably. There were particular fears about dementia, brain cancer and stroke.

For those participants with experience of psychiatric illness, they saw brain science as having legitimised their problems, largely through their belief in the idea of mental illness as a chemical imbalance (Myth #41 in my book).

“I became severely depressed. But of course, as I didn’t know that the explanation was purely chemical, I took it as this is my life and these are my real feelings,” said a male broadsheet reader.

Concluding their study, O’Connor and Joffe said “It seems that despite neuroscience’s prominence within public institutions such as the mass media, contemporary brain research has yet to seriously penetrate the conceptual repertoires of lay citizens.” They added that perhaps “neuroscientific knowledge simply does not currently serve any compelling psychosocial functions”.

One theory the researchers have for this disengagement is that people prefer not to think about the workings of their brains. Consistent with this, some of the participants explicitly stated that they found it uncomfortable to dwell on what goes on inside their skulls. “People may actively resist contemplating their own bodily interior,” write O’Connor and Joffe. “As a result neuroscientific knowledge may remain remote from everyday life. A ‘neuro society’ may be more theoretical fantasy than lived reality.”

Of course this new research comes with caveats – it was a small sample conducted in just one particular culture. It will be interesting to see if the findings replicate in other cities. If they do, it makes me wonder why journalists are so keen to package their articles in terms of the brain, and why salespeople are using the brain in their branding, as in neuromarketing and neuroleadership. Are they making a mistake?

Christian Jarrett