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Throwing in neuro-speak to make ideas seem more sciencey


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The use of the word "brain" in particular in pop psychiatry.


The Dangers of ‘Brain’-Speak
NY Times Op-Ed June 5, 2014 1:41 pm
The “brain” is a powerful thing. Not the organ itself — though of course it’s powerful, too — but the word. Including it in explanations of human behavior might make those explanations sound more legitimate — and that might be a problem.

Though neuroscientific examinations of everyday experiences have fallen out of favor [a link to a Sept 9, 2013 New Yorker article, see below] somewhat recently, the word “brain” remains popular in media. Ben Lillie, the director of the science storytelling series The Story Collider, drew attention to the phenomenon last week on Twitter....
The New York Times isn’t immune to “brain”-speak — in her 2013 project “Brainlines,” the artist Julia Buntaine collected all Times headlines using the word “brain” since 1851. She told Op-Talk in an email that “the number of headlines about the brain increased exponentially since around the year 2000, where some years before there were none at all, after that there were at least 30, 40, 80 headlines.”

Adding “brain” to a headline may make it sound more convincing — some research shows that talking about the brain has measurable effects on how people respond to scientific explanations. In a 2008 study, researchers found that adding phrases like “brain scans indicate” to explanations of psychological concepts like attention made those explanations more satisfying to nonexpert audiences. Perhaps disturbingly, the effect was greatest when the explanations were actually wrong.
Cedar Riener, a psychology professor at Randolph-Macon College (and a participant in Mr. Lillie’s original Twitter conversation), told Op-Talk in an email why he thought brain-based explanations were popular: “I think people use the word ‘brain,’ as well as neuroscientific jargon associated with the brain (like hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, dopamine), because these words help convey that the claims they are about to make are credible, concrete, and backed by extensive scientific evidence.” And he explained why readers might find a phrase like “the Internet rewires our brains” appealing: “The ‘rewiring’ trope conveys a more physical, permanent change than ‘the Internet makes us think differently.’ Other metaphors like growth (‘actually grows new neuronal connections’) or activation (‘your brain actually lights up more when …’) are both easier for us to visualize and I think more convincing evidence of the permanent and durable impact of whatever is being discussed.”
But, he cautioned, such language can cause problems. The “rewiring” trope may be an oversimplification of the brain’s constant process of change: “Your brain is changing right now as you read this sentence, such that if you read this exact sentence again tomorrow, you would recognize exactly when and where you read it, if you read it next week, you would probably remember that you had read it somewhere recently, and if you read this exact sentence again next year, you would probably get a sense of déjà vu. But it would seem silly to claim that I just rewired your brain, even though reading that sentence has absolutely changed the biology of your brain in a durable way.”

In a guest post at The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, cautioned educators against being too impressed by the claim that a teaching technique “actually changes the brain.” He wrote: “The phrase is meant to convey that the object under discussion has a powerful impact, but a change in the brain is no evidence of impact at all. The brain is always changing.”
Mr. Willingham told Op-Talk that he sometimes saw in educational writing “a discussion of neuroscience that’s really beside the point. It’s not clear why people are invoking the brain for something that’s basically a behavioral phenomenon.” One example: Myelination, the formation of sheaths around nerves, isn’t complete in the brain’s prefrontal cortex until the early 20s. Some neuroscientists believe this could help explain why teenagers can be impulsive, since the prefrontal cortex may govern inhibition. Research in this area can be useful, he said, but it can also lead people to bring up myelination “as if this is a new insight into teen behavior, whereas any parent or teacher has known since time immemorial that teenagers do dumb things.”

Banning brain-speak may be overkill. Rather, Mr. Riener suggested moderation, “limiting the use of brain terms to when they are important to understanding the causes and effects of the phenomena in question.” He explained, “If a method of teaching supports greater learning, then say exactly that, and avoid reaching for brain terms to say ‘this grows your brain!’ However, if the neuroscience is important to the claim, then by all means include the neuroscience.” In discussion of the brain, then, we just need to be mindful of what we’re saying.




From the Sept 9, 2013 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik:

....The neurological turn has become what the “cultural” turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything.....


....A series of new books all present watch-and-ward arguments designed to show that brain science promises much and delivers little. They include “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind” (St. Martin’s), by Robert A. Burton; “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuro-Science” (Basic), by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld; and “Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind” (Princeton), by a pair of cognitive scientists, Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached.....



This is not medical advice. Discuss any decisions about your medical care with a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity." -- Albert Einstein

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