Popular Neuroscience: A Glimpse of Obsession
University of Guelph
posted: January 22nd, 2019
A scroll through the internet today will lead to an array of websites, books, and magazine articles offering a clear-cut and definitive neuroscientific explanation for every question afflicting the modern human conscience. Why do we make the decisions we make? Neuroscience knows. Why do we experience the delirious highs of love and the eviscerating lows of grief? Neuroscience knows. How do we improve as students, employees, friends? How do we become more interesting, funnier, emotionally stronger, healthier? Neuroscience will tell us exactly how. As Popova (2011) describes in ‘Brain Culture’: How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation, the field has become “one of humanity’s greatest obsessions”.
Interest and research in neuroscience has skyrocketed within the last few decades (Akil et al., 2016), and the concurrent rise in popularity within the zeitgeist has manifested into the success of bestselling books such as Norman Doidge’s How the Brain Changes Itself and blockbuster films like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Pixar’s Inside Out. This explosion of cultural interest in the field provides a fascinating opportunity to ask why it has triggered this obsession. Neuroscience is now, well, cool. Modern man’s greatest academic obsession is, unsurprisingly, ourselves.
Why are we so entranced with the brain and consumed with unravelling its every secret? Maybe because we want to satisfy the friction between our thoughts, feelings, and ultimate actions? We desire to live in the black and white, to have clear answers to every question, to be resolutely confident in every decision we make; to have no regrets. Alas, the irony of our craving for neuroscience to manifest these desires arises with every new neuroscientific discovery: that there is no clear answer. There is progress and further understanding, but no iron-clad resolution: no comprehensive neural-armour against poor decisions, no easy alleviation of depression and rise in happiness via a simple increase in serotonin.
As the field of neuroscience continues its rise in both academia and popular culture, and as we continue to search for an elusive yet complete explanation of our own minds, perhaps a solemn realization may begin to take shape: we, just like the cell bodies of our neurons, reside in the grey matter of existence.
Akil, H., Balice-Gordon, R., Cardozo, D.L., Koroshetz, W., Norris, S.M.P., Sherer, T., Thiels, E (2016). Neuroscience Training for the 21st Century. Neuron. 90 (5), 917-926. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2016.05.030
Popova, M. (2011, August). ‘Brain Culture’: How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation. The Atlantic. Retrieved from