Folk neuroscience, and some other neurobollocks

Woody Guthrie. Because 'folk'. And frankly, just 'because'.

Woody Guthrie. Because ‘folk’. And frankly, just ‘because’.

In a frankly spooky bit of synchronicity, just as the blog was being set up for the first time last weekend, the marvellous and really quite annoyingly youthful and prolific Vaughn Bell had a great piece in the Observer on ‘folk’ neuroscience. His thesis is that the language and general approach of neuroscience has now permeated the public’s way of thinking to such a degree that it’s becoming relatively commonplace to explain things in terms of ‘chemical imbalances in the brain’ or ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroscientists realise that these kinds of phrases really don’t mean anything much at all, but this kind of neurobollocks seems to have a fairly significant effect on the general public.

The previous posts on this blog have noted that some modern neurobollocks is actually just plain old bollocks, re-packaged. For instance Brain Balance Centers seem to be chiropractic, with a modern ‘brain training’ spin, and QDreams ‘Quantum Brain Training’ is just old neurolinguistic-programming tosh from the 70s given a shiny new (‘Quantum!’) makeover. The reason this kind of cynical re-packaging works, is because of the genuine widely-reported neuroscience research that the public has been exposed to in recent years; because of this media-saturation, some of the key concepts and terminology have become familiar. This familiarity falls short of genuine understanding of course, but we can’t blame the general public for that; these issues are complex, and highly-educated people who have been conducting brain research for years struggle to understand some of them.

The problem is that this familiarity with neuro-terminology is then exploited by the unscrupulous neurobollocks-merchants, who use the same language in order to make us buy useless products, do pointless exercises, and believe our kids are dysfunctional. Fortunately, help is at hand though; Christian Jarrett (also quite infuriatingly youthful and prolific; I mean seriously, don’t these people sleep?) has written an article in Psychology Today titled “Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense”. Read. Digest. Tell your friends.

In other news, a fMRI-researcher at the Washington University has apparently been playing fast and loose with his data in a major way. Psychology is going through a bit of a difficult time at the moment with fraud cases, and it’s all very unfortunate and sordid. There’s a very interesting interview with his PhD supervisor here, and also some thoughtful commentary from another ex-colleague here.

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3 responses to “Folk neuroscience, and some other neurobollocks

  1. I think you mean Washington University (in St. Louis), not the University of Washington.

  2. Pingback: Folk neuroscience, and some other neurobollocks...

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