Beyond Neuromania

By Celine Cammarata

As someone within the field, it seems to me that neuroscience – in some form or another – appears in the media nearly every day. Indeed the term “neuromania”, originally coined by Raymond Tallis, has come into use to describe both the lofty claims made about the power of neuroscience to answer nearly every question and the general mainstream media frenzy surrounding the field. Scholars have paid increasing attention to this and it is often regarded as a problem, but more recent work suggests that despite the mania, neuroscience is still not widely understood or even considered by the public at large. So does all the hype conceal a true lack of public interest?

It’s undeniable that neuroscience is the target of extensive and potentially problematic media attention. In a 2012 Neuron editorial, O’Connor, Reese and Joffe examined the coverage of neuroscience-related topic in six UK newspapers from 2000-2010 and found that not only did the number of articles related to brain research nearly double from the early to the late 2000s, but the topics also changed and the implications of neuroscience research was often exaggerated. Whereas in the past neuroscience was generally reported on in relation to physical pathology, the authors found that in their sample the most common context for discussing neuroscience was that of brain enhancement and protection – topics that are both more widely applicable to a broad audience and that suggest a newly emerging sense of ownership over ones’ brain.  O’Connor et al describe that “although clinical applications retained an important position in our sample, neuroscience was more commonly represented as a domain of knowledge relevant to ‘‘ordinary’’ thought and behavior and immediate social concerns. Brain science has been incorporated into the ordinary conceptual repertoire of the media, influencing public under- standing of a broad range of events and phenomena.”

Such issues are also highlighted in Satel and Lilienfeld’s 2013 book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in which the authors explore – and lament – the at times unrestrained application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer questions from “Pepsi or Coke?” to “does free will exist?”. The tantalizing ability to see the brain has carried neuroscience into the realms of marketing, politics, law and more, not to mention changing the way we think about more standard brain research topics such as addiction. But, the authors point out, pictures of a brain alone can not address every level of analysis and are not inherently of greater scientific value than are other research methodologies. Tracking the physical footprint of a desire, attitude, or propensity in the brain does not in and of itself tell you why or how these things emerged, nor can it be necessarily used to assign guilt, decide what is a “disease” and what not, or determine how people choose their politicians – and yet this is precisely what neuroscience is often touted to do.

Both of these works, and many others, are based on the premise that neuroscience has become markedly pervasive, nearly omnipresent. Fascinatingly, though, the brain craze seems to stop short of making a final leap from the media to public consciousness. To be sure, public interest in neuroscience does exist – someone must be buying the growing number of brain-centered books popping up at Barnes and Nobel, right? – but a 2014 paper by the same authors as the Neuron piece found that the public in general is not nearly so interested in neuroscience as the media frenzy and emergence of the brain in societal matters might suggest.

To probe how everyday citizens think about neuroscience, the authors conducted open-ended interviews where a sample of Londoners, chosen to span age, gender and socioeconomic divides, were asked to share what came to mind when they considered research on the brain. These interviews were then examined and the themes touched upon quantified, and the results showed clear indication that neuroscientific research has largely failed to penetrate into the mindset of the public at large. Participants consistently indicated that they thought of brain research as a distant enterprise quite removed from them, performed by some unknown “other” (who was consistently described as a man in a white lab coat). Brain research was widely convolved with neurological medicine and brain surgery, and was almost entirely assumed to focus on medical application – the concept of basic science on cognition, emotion, or other mental phenomena appeared nearly unheard of.

Consistent with this, although most participants were quick to tag brain research as “interesting, they also reported that it was not of particular interest to them specifically except in the context of illness. That is, above all the brain was something that might go wrong, and unless it did participants gave it little thought at all. The authors connect this to an earlier concept of “dys-appearance,” the idea that much of the body is inconspicuous and ignored so long as it is healthy, and only attracts attention when there is some kind of dysfunction.

Based on these finding, O’Connor and Joffe concluded that despite rapid advancement and intrusion of neuroscience into more and more areas of inquiry, research on the brain nonetheless continues to have little relevance to the public’s daily lives. As they put it, “heightened public visibility should not be automatically equated with heightened personal engagement.”

So is neuroscience flooding our popular culture, or simply washing up then falling away like a rolling wave, never really lasting in our overall societal consciousness? For the moment, it appears to be both. Perhaps the concern over “neuromania” need not be so heated, but also perhaps we need to do more to understand how our work can take the extra step to become more relevant to those outside the lab.