Have you heard the one about the empathetic dead fish?
A study published in 2010 showed the brain and spinal cord of dead Atlantic salmon, placed in a high-resolution FMRI machine, activating in response to questions intended for humans in various social situations. The researchers intended to illustrate how important it is to properly analyze scientific data to correct against false positives–because many of us think more deeply than a dead fish. But just as important is the implication that the magical FMRI, and the primary-colored brain images it produces, have turned into a kind of cultural cargo cult, regardless of the strength of the science.
A new article just published in the scholarly journal Current Sociology argues that neuroscience in general, and brain scan studies in particular, are often employed by non-scientists to make old ideas seem new again, with a weird power to short-circuit political or cultural critiques.
“The most ubiquitous icon of neuroscientific power today appears to be the brain scan,” writes author Martyn Pickersgill. In fact, one study shows that merely including a picture of a brain when summarizing scientific data leads people to rate the research more highly.
Pickersgill (that’s a Scottish name) points to a wide range of phenomena, like the growing “off-label” use of productivity drugs like Provigil and Ritalin, in which we literally alter our brain chemistry in order to conform to the demands of 21st-century corporate capitalism. Or take best sellers like The Female Brain, which uses brain studies to reinforce some very retrograde ideas about gender. For that matter, take any one of the 49,000-odd books on Amazon with the word “brain” in the title, like Deepak Chopra’s Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being or Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders or The Brain In Love: Twelve Lessons To Enhance Your Love Life. Or take the entire output of journalist Jonah Lehrer for proof that neuroscience doesn’t always lead closer to truth.
This concept translates to business as well. No marketing tome today can be complete without a reference to brain science and unconscious mental motivations. Brain scan studies have even been used to evaluate ad campaigns.
To correct for the dominance of neuroeverything, Pickersgill would have us put the emerging science in a richer social context, acknowledging the limitations of its methods, its questions, and its conclusions. In the end, people are more than just brains in jars.
[Image: Flickr user Liz Henry]