Pop(ular) Media Get’s Brain Research DEAD Wrong, of Course

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The Brain as Capital

Many articles evinced a representation of the brain as a resource: as the repository of the self and the source of all ability and achievement. This was most evident within the brain optimization category. The brain was something to be acted on, with readers advised to take action to optimize brain performance.

Discussion of optimizing brain activity manifested within two principal frames: description of strategies to enhance the brain above normal or baseline function and identification of potential brain threats. For enhancement, the most common feature was recommendation of foods that purportedly improved neural function, and also mental activities (e.g., “brain-training” software), artificial methods (e.g., “smart pills”), and physical activity. Media articles rarely conveyed that evidence for the efficacy of such measures was equivocal (e.g., Kirby et al., 2010 and Owen et al., 2010). Articles within the threat frame highlighted risks posed by drugs and alcohol, mobile phones, environmental toxins, and computers. Both frames exhorted action on the part of the reader, whether in uptake of brain-enhancing activities or avoidance of hazards.

The media advocated a regime of self-discipline in the service of “boosting” brain function, portraying brain health as a resource that demanded constant promotion. There was no end point at which optimal brain function could be deemed achieved: brain function could be improved limitlessly. Articles were permeated with the vocabulary of physical fitness, entreating the reader to “exercise” or “train” their brain to keep it “active” and “flexible.”

“Research has shown that keeping the mind agile is just as important as keeping fit in the battle to stay young. In fact, by stretching the brain with regular crossword and sudoku puzzles, you can make your brain appear up to 14 years younger.” (Daily Mail, September 13, 2005)

Brain optimization was also interlinked with discussion of parenting. Parents were advised to take action to promote their children’s neurocognitive performance. The brain was positioned as an important reference point in child-rearing decisions, recruited to indicate the “correctness” of parenting practices.

Pronouncements on parenting practice acquired scientific authority through claims that these practices had specific effects on children’s brains. This veneer of science, however, sometimes concealed clear value judgments about what constitutes “good” parenting.

In summary, prescribing actions for optimizing brain performance was a salient theme around which media coverage of neuroscience assembled. It communicated a view of brain health as a resource that required constant attention and calculated effort and was drawn into discussion about childrearing practices.

The Brain as an Index of Difference
The second theme captured the use of neuroscientific findings to underline differences between categories of people in ways that were symbolically layered and socially loaded. This theme was most evident in articles within the categories psychopathology, sexuality, morality (particularly antisocial behavior), and bodily conditions (particularly obesity).

Articles devoted considerable space to demonstrating male-female neurobiological differences and also to evidence that substance abusers, criminals, homosexuals, obese people, and people with mental health conditions had distinctive brain types. The content of media coverage of such groups tended to correspond with the content of existing stereotypes: for example, articles regularly linked obesity to low intelligence, adolescence to disagreeableness, and women to irrationality

There was little room for ambiguity in media portrayal of group-related brain differences. It was common to encounter the phrase “the [adjective] brain,” with the brackets filled by categories like “male,” “teenage,” “criminal,” “addicted,” or “gay.” This implied the existence of a single brain type common across all members of the category and distinctly different from the brains of the categorical alternatives. Social groups were essentialized and portrayed as wholly internally homogeneous.

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