Popular Neuroscience: A scientific field shaped by and shaping modern society


  1. Demarcating pseudoscience
  2. Evidence from neuroscience
  3. Neuroscience in popular culture
  4. Own biases and ethical considerations

Still, we are not only our brains and thinking is not optional:-)

Demarcating pseudoscience

“The word ‘pseudoscience’ is derived from the Greek root ‘pseudo’ meaning ‘false’ and the English word science, which is itself derived from the Latin ‘scientia,’ meaning ‘knowledge’” (“Pseudoscience,” n.d.).” However, specific false knowledge can result from unintended mistakes that can happen to any research without render its scientific field pseudoscientific. And nonscientific knowledge as common sense or religion does not claim to be scientific. What is the difference between science and pseudoscience then? Before suggesting a definition for demarcating between science and pseudoscience, let’s have a look at what empirical science is.

Any field of science is interested in establishing theories that it can test theoretically or experimentally and that are not conflicting with other theories. Empirical science, more specifically, refers to the demonstration of evidence throughout the scientific method. The scientific method, or process, is following a sequence of (iterative) research steps. An example is an empirical cycle according to A.D. de Groot comprising the steps of observation, induction, deduction, testing, and evaluation (“Empirical Research,” n.d.). Both psychology and neuroscience are experimental disciplines within the cognitive sciences, and therefore are expected to produce evidence from their experiments throughout the empirical cycle, be it from quantitative or qualitative data collection methods.

Pseudoscience is described in a compelling way as follows by Hansson (2015): “It is part of a doctrine whose major proponents try to create the impression that it represents the most reliable knowledge on its subject matter” (para. 3.4). It is only due to lack of supportive evidence that one can speak of ‘trying to create the impression.’ Therefore I suggest, that the relationships between the status of a field of science’s study subject (e.g., testing a hypothesis, or establishing theory) and the availability of evidence throughout the empirical cycle as described above may give a hint on whether it is false science or not. For example, if a subject matter area is claiming to have established theory, but cannot support its validity with (empirical) evidence from testing and evaluation of related hypothesis, it is possible that the claim is pretentious and therefore pseudoscientific. On the other side, if a field of interest is providing evidence-based reporting for its stage of testing a hypothesis, and therefore hasn’t yet established theory, it may still be regarded as scientific.

Evidence should support the demonstration of research quality criteria such as validity (suitability of a test to fulfill its goal), objectivity (absence of impacts from biases), and reliability (repeatability of a test). The mindset of the researcher regarding critical thinking may influence the quality of evidence. Critical thinking, i.e. asking questions such as ‘why’ and independence in the sense of an unbiased interest towards the outcome of the research should be a characteristic of any researcher.

According to above reasoning, pseudoscience is suggested to be demarcated from science as follows:

Pseudoscience is the claim of a scientific status for a subject matter that is not supported by quality evidence created as a result of critical thinking throughout the application of an accepted scientific method.

Evidence from neuroscience

Neuroscience is, according to Zivkovic (2015), amongst the five largest scientific fields and “has succeeded genomics as the fastest expanding science in the last two decades” (Zivkovic, 2015, p. 409). Cognitive neuroscience is considered to be an integrative discipline that aims to correlate its findings from brain studies with behavior observed by experimental psychology (Bennett, Hatton, Hermens, and Lagopoulos, 2016, p.2). Neuroscience is using brain imaging techniques. According to Tallis (2016) “The most powerful and versatile of these techniques is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). It is fMRI, more than anything else, that has taken the analysis of brain function beyond the laboratory into the wider world of popular science” (p. 37). Shulman (2013) provides the example that “experimental fMRI results do not find a single reproducible response for a term such as ‘working memory’ but rather find different brain responses that depend upon the context in which the term is used” (p. 19). Consequently, there are critics that neuroscience is aiming beyond its possibilities in the case it wants to explain phenomena related to human behavior using physical brain study. Shulman (2013) says that “inheritance of traits, the immune response, and metabolism are activities that can be observed and measured while the psychological processes described as memory or intentions are not observables but are hypotheses created by theories that help us describe the world” (p. 19).

The laboratory experiments using different brain activity measuring methods produces data and visual representations of brain structures and functions as a result from controlled stimuli to the brain. Therefore it can be understood that neuroscience’s role in the empirical cycle on the quest for establishing a theory of the mind can best focus on the step of induction, i.e., can arrive at statistical conclusions based on its technology enabled empirical data as far as technology sensitivity and population size of the studies allow. Therefore, neuroscience may input to the creation of interesting hypothesis together with cognitive psychology to test and evaluate these in real social life situations. Such an interdisciplinary handshake as part of the scientific method using mixed experiment approaches allows neuroscience to lean towards the psychological concepts (gained from qualitative and quantitative research) and allows cognitive psychology to build upon the quantitative findings from neuroscience. A mixed research approach, involving qualitative and quantitative methods as appropriate, may be fruitful for studying complex problems. Neuroscience can well answer the ‘how’ of the brain-mind problem, while psychology and philosophy add to the answering of the ‘why.’ It is on both sides that critical thinking shall support a clear distinction and sound interlinkage of these questions as part of interdisciplinary collaboration. Either discipline operating in isolation is risking drifting towards unsupported claims that can shed a dubious light on its status as a scientific field.

Some results from fMRI brain imaging are not interpretation free, and some ‘a prior’ assumptions regarding what kind of signals are and what others are not considered relevant have been made (Bennett et al., 2016, p. 12). So far ignored signals remain to be explained. “Poincaré (1908/ 1998) wrote: ‘A very small, unnoticeable cause can determine a visible very large effect; in this case we claim that this effect is a product of random’” (cited by Bob, 2011, p. 20). Bob (2011) is further detailing that “At critical times, this sensitivity characterizes the initiation of new trends in the system’s evolution, which may later emerge as very different macroscopic patterns of neural activity and mental processes” (p. 20). Furthermore, being aware of the very fast technological progress only in recent years, one needs to recognize the possibility for a large account of not yet understood brain complexity. The acknowledgment of evidence confirming the unknown is contributing positively to the credibility of neuroscience.

Neuroscience in popular culture

Popular culture is demanding. And the return on investment considerations are likely to urge researchers to come up with not only useful results from a scientific point of view, but whenever possible also with marketable use cases to satisfy societies’ thrive for increased health, well-being, safety, learning, and wealth.

Academic publishing with its peer-reviews provides for quality assurance. However, information, including from private research, is often communicated directly to the public. It is understandable that information for laymen needs to be presented in a comprehensible way. However, some proponents of neuroscience seem to, at least, tolerate media’s over-simplification of current issues and directions in cognitive sciences that miss an accurate presentation of neuroscientific achievements. Dumitrascu and Mihura (2015) are talking about “neurocentrism (i.e., the view that our all our behaviors and experiences can be explained from the perspective of the brain), which became a mythology now enthusiastically embraced by media and the public” (p. 104).

Neuroscience information with its promise to provide technology based objective facts is adopted from diverse areas such as education, economics, law, policy making, and even art and religion. For example, in an article Whitehead (2011) reports his analysis of a boys’ education school, which “uncritically accepted sufficient popular interpretations of primary neuroscience research to fulfill their intention of building a marketable, gendered school culture” (p. 78).

So-called ‘scientism’ exploits people’s potential favorable judgment of neuroscientific information over behaviorally based information (Munro and Munro, 2014, p. 533), and that neuroscience information has an alluring effect on the evaluation of scientific explanations (Rhodes, Rodriguez, and Shah, n.d., p. 1433). Popular culture got already used to the view that we are hardwired in our physical brain. It seems to be appealing as it satisfies the hope to explain, improve (and occasionally also excuse) many everyday struggles related to human behavior.

The seeming win-win situation for promoters and consumers of neuroscientific populism, together with still not optimally communicated research results even by those who do it for purely scientific reasons, may lead to over-promised, over-simplified, or misunderstood messages. Tallis (2016, p. 90) is explaining that brain activities may be necessary, but not sufficient preconditions for human behavior and admits that it is difficult to differentiate between conditions and causes. In that sense, missing information can have severe consequences on misunderstanding causalities respectively missing causalities and misguide human beliefs and behavior.

Science and the public (2006) state that “Many of the biggest controversies in science over the past few years have arisen at least partly from problems in the process of communicating research results to the public” (p. 4). It is a double sided responsibility to accurately and comprehensibly communicate research results by science and for society to question critically presented claims.

Own biases and ethical considerations

As somebody with a rather humanistic perspective, as a former IT auditor having experienced the limitations of professional independence (as a crucial condition for objectivity) to win over profit greed, and being aware of the pitfalls of too uncritical data and technology devoutness, I am critical towards scientism and neuro-determinism. However, I am highly interested in the neuroscience knowledge and how it can be interdisciplinary used to promote the well-being of people.

Ethical concerns towards pseudoscience point to the unjustified claims of scientific status and therefore the attempt to take advantage of this authority to mislead and control people. It is more at stake than smartness of marketing. Creating the impression that even healthy individuals are slaves to their physical brain on the one side, and that we can or have to compete by medical brain performance improvement risks to distract from our human capability to be mindful about the choices we have and the natural trust in our abilities and personal development. Pseudoscience’s manipulative character is not acceptable, including non-transparent prescription of placebos as it can lead to unnecessary self-distance, pressure, unfavorable behavior, and missed opportunities for personal development on all levels of society. Ethical principles and code of conducts from professional organizations may provide for useful frameworks increasing the awareness and commitment. However, as the Code of Ethics and Conduct of The British Psychological Society cites “… no Code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgment’ (2009, p.4, h). Fundamentally, ‘thinking is not optional’ (2009, p.5, k)” (as cited in “The British Psychological Society,” (2010), p. 4).



Bennett, M. R., Hatton, S., Hermens, D. F., & Lagopoulos, J. (2016). Review article: Behavior, neuropsychology and fMRI. Progress In Neurobiology, doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2016.07.001

Bob, P. (2011). Brain, Mind and Consciousness: Advances in Neuroscience Research [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Dumitrascu, N., & Mihura, J. L. (2015). Brainwashed. Rorschachiana, 36(1), 104-106. doi:10.1027/1192-5604/a000061

Empirical Research. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empirical_research

Hansson, Sven Ove, “Science and Pseudo-Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/pseudo-science/>.

Munro, G. D., & Munro, C. A. (2014). ‘Soft’ versus ‘hard’ psychological science: Biased evaluations of scientific evidence that threatens or supports a strongly held political identity. Basic And Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 533-543. doi:10.1080/01973533.2014.960080

Pseudoscience. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience

Rhodes, R., Rodriguez, F., & Shah, P. (n.d). Explaining the Alluring Influence of Neuroscience Information on Scientific Reasoning.Journal Of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory And Cognition, 40(5), 1432-1440.

Science and the public interest. (2006, April). Retrieved from https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2006/8315.pdf

Shulman, R. G. (2013). Brain Imaging: What it Can (and Cannot) Tell Us About Consciousness [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Tallis, R. (2016). Aping Mankind (Routledge Classics) [Kindle Android version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

The British Psychological Society. (2010). Code of human research ethics. London: BPS. Retrieved from http://www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/code_of_human_research_ethics.pdf

Whitehead, D. (2011). Can Neuroscience Construct a Literate Gendered Culture?. English Teaching: Practice And Critique, 10(2), 78-87.

Zivkovic, M. (2015). Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 40(4), 409-417. doi:10.1080/03080188.2016.1165457