Debunking the phrenology of our day, or why self-help books offer the cognitive science equivalent of snake oil.
Far from a mere motherboard, the brain has swollen into one of humanity’s greatest obsessions. We have been trying to visualize it since antiquity, we have written countlessbooks about it, we’ve even enlisted it in ourpop culture satire. The brain, in fact, has become a pop culture fixture in and of itself. That’s exactly what Davi Johnson Thorntonexplores in Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media — a fascinating account of the rhetoric and sociology of cognitive science, exploring our culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study. The brain, it seems, has become a modern muse. (As Jonah Lehrer brilliantly notes in his Wired interview with Thornton, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”)
From the media’s propensity for pretty pictures like PET and fMRI scans, often misinterpreted or presented out of context, to the misappropriation of the language of neuroscience in simplistic self-help narratives to the “anxious parenting” triggered by the facile findings of developmental cognitive science, Thornton offers a refreshing lens on the many contradictions in how we think about the brain as we continue to hope that making the brain calculable and mappable would also make it manipulable in precisely the ways we need it to be.
What makes Thornton’s take most compelling is the lucidity with which she approaches exactly what we know and don’t know about the brain. Every day, we’re bombarded with exponentially replicating headlines about new “sciences” like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world’s shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, a tragic manifestation of the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions.
According to this popular neuroscience, because the brain is the source of literally all human thought, emotion, and behavior, willful efforts to improve the brain will naturally lead to superior intelligence, greater emotional stability, and improved performance in the home, at the gym, and in the workplace. [If] one wants to become better in some aspect of life — smarter, fitter, more sociable, or more competitive — the key to improvement is always the brain, regardless of the specific kind of improvement desired. Want a better body? Work on your brain. Want better children? Work on your brain (and theirs). Want a better job? Work on your brain. In this context, having a healthy brain is not simple a matter of avoiding injuries and illness, but rather is tied to endless projects of self-optimization in which individuals are responsible for continuously working on their own brains to produce themselves as better parents, workers, and citizens.” ~ Davi Thronton
On characterizing the brain as a “vast frontier waiting to be discovered,” Thronton says:
I think this is a unique metaphor — it goes back to the idea that the brain is everything. I see this message all the time in these discourses I am looking at: ‘You are your brain.’ It’s the ultimate dream — through science we can fully know all that there is to know about human nature, and then control it perfectly. That is part of what makes these discourses so interesting to me, how it’s not just about science or medicine, but ultimately about this fascination with revealing the ultimate secrets of human existence.”