Fascinated by those news stories with the flashy red, yellow and blue pictures of brains as they process everything from fear-producing stimuli to sex? Then you might be a brain porn addict. You don’t even have to care whether the story is specifically about sex. Brain porn is any news story that takes a legitimate scientific finding and popularizes it beyond its original scope. For example, a study shows that little brain regions of undergraduate men in scanning machines flash red when they hear a high-pitched sound. The next thing you know, the media are flooded with stories showing how “all men” are “hard-wired” to react the same way to the sound of a woman’s voice.
The popular press is deeply entrenched in a love affair with the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan, particularly the kind that produces those psychadelic-colored images. There's nothing wrong with being interested in the brain, in fact it's a good thing. After all, no one can deny that the brain underlies all of our behavior. Without a nervous system, all living creatures would be mere lumps of protoplasm. Although the Wizard of Oz’s scarecrow was convinced that he didn’t have a brain, without a brain, he could certainly not have had that wish.
Almost two years ago, I wrote an article on MRI’s as “the new phrenology,” criticizing the simplistic ways in which some neuroscience writers link clumps of neurons in the brain to specific thoughts, feelings, and traits. Recently, an excellent article by Alissa Quart called “Neuroscience: Under Attack” went even farther to criticize the hyperbole with which neuroscience studies are reported in the media. Citing a paper by a team of British scientists published in the journal Neuron (O’Connor et al., 2012), documenting the misuse of neuroscience data by the media, Quart insightfully points out the “larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience.” She claims that “neuroscience has joined company with other totalizing worldviews—Marxism, Freudianism, critical theory—that have been victim to overuse and misapplication.”
The Neuron article that Quart reported on was written by University College London psychologist Cliodhna O’Connor and her colleagues, who summarized the predominant themes of nearly 3000 popular articles and stories appearing in the British popular press between 2000 and 2010, the so-called “Decade of the Brain.” The authors critically point to the increasing emphasis being given to neuroscience due to the public’s fascination with the brain as “an acutely significant organ, represented as the seat of mind and self” (p. 220). Being able to attribute behavior to neuroscience “imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility” (p. 220).
The scientific enterprise that pushes much of this popular hype itself is biased toward brain-based explanations. A large analysis of studies that are published, vs. those that aren't (a.k.a. the "file drawer problem") showed definitively that research failing to support brain mapping conclusions is swept under the rug by journal editors.
Let's be clear that the science of neuroscience isn’t the problem. The problem is the way that reporters hype the study findings as explanations of common human behaviors which the public then swallows uncritically. Of course, these over-zealous science writers wouldn’t be able to make a living at what they do if the public weren’t ready, eager, and willing to buy their stories.
As it turns out, many of us would prefer to use "bad brains" as explanations for bad behavior rather than fault the choices we deliberately make. When in doubt, blame your amygdala. You didn’t become enraged, flirt with the wrong person, or cheat at cards. Your lack of cortical inhibition, not the devil, made you do it.
The danger of brain porn addiction is that you become a fatalist, believing that there’s nothing you can do to stop a brain gone wild. In its extreme form, brain porn addiction also leads people to reinforce their prejudices, particularly when they read stories that reinforce their existing stereotypes.
The first step toward overcoming brain porn addiction is to diagnose it. O’Connor and her team sorted those 3000 stories into three predominant themes which I’ve converted to items you can rate in simple true-false fashion (many of these items are based on actual news reports that O'Connor cites):
See how your answers fall into the 3 predominant categories that O’Connor and colleagues identified:
The Brain as Capital (Items 1, 3, 4, 7, 13)
You believe that your brain is a resource that should be conserved and maximized. It seems to you that your brain has unlimited potential if you only know how to use it. On the other hand, you also fear harming your brain by exposing it to adverse environmental conditions (e.g. drugs, toxins). News stories that speak to this function of your brain interest you the most, and you will readily take the advice of the authors even if their products seem expensive. You become discouraged and despondent when you feel that your brain fails you, such as when you forget someone's name.
The Brain as an Index of Difference (Items 2, 6, 8, 12, 15)
You readily agree with stories that use neuroscience data to highlight differences between groups, even if those differences could also be explained by social factors. In analyzing media accounts of neuroscience, O’Connor and her group found the most number of articles fitting in the category of psychopathology (psychological conditions), sexuality, morality and crime, and physical conditions such as obesity. Unfortunately, because you are so ready to believe these studies based on “brain science” you may be vulnerable to the prejudice and stereotyping that often accompany these stories as in the examples shown on my test (i.e. obese people are less intelligent, women are less logical).
The Brain as Biological Proof (Items 5, 9, 10, 11, 14)
If you scored high on this third scale, you will be unlikely to question reports that improbably tie certain phenomena with conditions in the brain. As a result, you may fall prey to the idea of biological causality, and therefore pay less attention in your own life to the role of free will. Instead of thinking of ways to change, you’ll resign yourself to a lifetime of being stuck with behaviors that interfere with your happiness. You will also find it difficult to look critically at research studies that use flashy brain scans as evidence, and will be likely to ignore the role of culture and society as affecting human behavior.
To sum it up:
Everyone is a little bit of a brain porn addict, especially people with a natural interest in psychology. As I said earlier, we can’t deny the role of the brain in behavior. However, it’s important to remember that the brain is an adaptive, flexible, and ever-changing entity. You may be “programmed” to respond with fear to certain types of stimuli, but you can change your maladaptive responses which, in turn, can change your brain. What’s more, each of us has equipment that is ever so slightly different, a fact that is disguised in studies that average across groups of participants.
Enjoy the brain porn for what it is; just learn to read the reports in the media with a critical eye. If a topic is of particular importance to you say, for example, because it relates to your own psychological symptoms, then take your brain one step further by doing additional research. You can write the author of the article, track down the actual paper on which the article was based, or ask an expert to decipher it for you.
We’re fortunate to be living at a time when new technologies to study the brain have the potential to help everyone. As long as you can keep your brain porn addiction in check, you too will benefit from these fascinating new discoveries.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
O’Connor, C., Rees, G., & Joffe, H. (2012). Neuroscience in the public sphere. Neuron, 74, 220-226. DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.004