Thanks to the rise of neuroscience
, we’re more aware of our brains than we used to be and it’s affecting our everyday language. Where once we used to refer to our minds – “I changed my mind”, “she’s out of her mind”, today more than ever we refer instead to our brains. I just searched Twitter
for the word “brain” and found the following casual remarks among hundreds more:
“Heading for London and an exciting day ... to discuss forthcoming forensic project. Can feel brain whirring already”
“I want to study but my brain says "No way fu*ker"..
“Scumbag brain: crams all the people I hate in one dream”.
Back in 2006 Paul Rodriguez conducted a more systematic analysis of the way that brain talk – what he calls “folk neuropsychology” – is entering our vernacular. Avoiding science magazines or newspaper articles about neuroscience research he looked for ways that people talk about brains across a range of media including adverts, non-science news stories and radio shows. Here are some of his main observations:
Today people refer to the brain routinely as if it’s a computer or made of electrical circuits – as in the brain whirring example above, or “my brain wasn’t switched on”, and skills being “hard wired”. The substance of the brain is frequently used to represent the substance of ideas, as in “brainstorm”, “brainwash” and “brainchild”. The brain is seen as a container, as in “the facts left his brain”, remembering is stuff that “sticks in our brain.” It’s also referred to as a recording device: songs described as being “etched in the synapses”, and as a muscle, as in: “brain sweat”, “flexing your brain”.
Some of the most intriguing ways we refer to our brains suggest we think they are somehow separate from our selves. This is true in two of the tweets above and Rodriguez also found many examples: “my brain said you can do it, but my body said no you can’t” (said a woman swimming out to a buoy), “this menu is confusing my brain”, said a woman overheard in a restaurant.
He couldn’t find any examples, but Rodriguez predicted it wouldn’t be long before people said things like: “my brain wants chocolate.” He was right – a quick Google search suggests this is now a common way to speak. In contrast to seeing their brains as separate, at other times people refer to their brain as if it is them – “I feel brain dead”, “My brain is going to mush”. People also make frequent simplistic references to the link between neurotransmitters and mood, as in: “She has a chemical imbalance”.
Rodriguez also looked at how brain imagery and symbolism have gone mainstream. He found depictions of the brain are frequently used in advertising to convey intelligence. And there seems to be a universal recognition of the concept of localisation of function in the brain such that phrenology jokes are commonplace – where daft or rude functions are attributed to particular brain areas. Of course this has been aided by the ubiquity of “blobs on the brain” images alongside news articles that link mental functions to specific brain regions.
A related trend, says Rodriguez, is for references to the brain to be used to give authority to arguments. He cites the example of a campaigner and activist working for the plight of abused children. With new brain scan evidence showing abnormal brain development, this campaigner said “now with a picture we really have proof [of harm]”. Rodriguez also gives the example of an amateur sports “psychologist” making superficial brain references clearly with the intent of sounding scientific: “[Michael Jordan], he’s strongest in the right posterior part [of his brain]”.
Apart from impressing others, why else do we refer to our brains so often these days? Rodriguez isn’t sure but he speculates it could in some cases reflect people’s implicit (or explicit) materialist beliefs that the mind is reducible to the brain. It could also just be that it’s an effective way to communicate. Usually the way we talk about the brain in everyday language is scientifically inaccurate or vague, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful in a pragmatic sense, to convey how we’re feeling or make a point.
Whether and how this growing folk neuropsychology will alter our beliefs remains part of an ongoing, larger question about the impact of neuroscience on the sense of self. For the moment at least, it seems the everyday folk belief in the separateness of the mind from the body and brain is intact. Even as people speak like amateur reductionists – “my brain made me do it” – they at the same time convey an implicit dualist belief that they are not one and the same thing as their brain, as in “My brain wants chocolate, but I’m not going to give it any”.
Have you encountered any new or amusing ways that people refer to their brains in everyday talk? Please add your observations to comments – I’d love to read your examples.