• Cliodhna O'Connor on brain research


    The rhetorical power of neuroscientific research is huge, according to Cliodhna O’Connor, and that might be dangerous. She will be giving a talk on this topic on Thursday at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

    It was just a hunch, a distinct feeling that newspapers were publishing more and more articles on neuroscience. If this was true – she thought – wouldn’t that have an impact on the way people feel about themselves, because those articles on neuroscience may tell you that free will doesn’t exist? Your brain is making decisions seconds before you are consciously aware of the moment of choice, or the newspapers conclude that a lack of motherly love as an infant makes people unable to bond when they’re older. So it’s not you that matters, it’s your brain.

    PhD student Cliodhna O’Connor, from University College London, was supposed to be investigating how people in an earthquake area deal with constant danger. However, her research wasn’t working out, so she was looking for another line of inquiry. ‘Then I realized that there is quite a lot of discussion about the influence of neuroscience in the media, and among philosophers and sociologists, but very little research is actually being done.’

    So O’Connor started some herself and next Thursday she’s in Groningen to lecture at the opening of the Academic Year at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

    Dramatic increase

    ‘If something may help your memory, media will jump on it.’

    She went through the six of the best-selling newspapers in Great Britain – broadsheets Guardian, Times, and Daily Telegraph, and tabloids Sun, Mirror and Daily Mail. She read 3,630 articles that had been published on neuroscientific research, analyzed the content and catalogued it, until what started out as a hunch became empirical fact. ‘Public attention to neuroscience has increased dramatically since the turn of the century’, she says firmly. ‘Between 2000 and 2006 the number of newspaper articles has doubled.’

    Furthermore, O’Connor found that almost half the publications revolved around ‘brain training’, that is improving your brain by consuming fish oils or performing mental exercises such as crossword puzzles. ‘As soon as something is found that may help your memory even a little, the media will jump on it, writing lengthy articles instructing people to do this or eat that. I had no idea that this brain optimisation idea had monopolized popular culture in such way’, she says.

    Sign of the times

    So why are people so obsessed with brain training? It’s a sign of the times, O’Connor believes. The cultural valorization of self-control and self-discipline is the very thing that sociologists claim characterizes modern Western society. ‘Go into any bookshop and you’ll find a self-help section. That’s all about the individual working on the self to improve themselves. It gives scientific backing to another way that you can work on your intellectual ability so that you can become a citizen who is more valuable to and valued by society.’

    ‘There’s an enormous amount of pressure on parents’

    The pressure increases when children are involved. Give your child fish oil, the papers write. He or she will then become smarter and less hyperactive. Don’t drink when you’re pregnant, because if you do, your child might suffer behavioural problems, and do breastfeed, because it boosts your kid’s health and emotional stability.

    ‘If parents want their children to have the best chance in life, they should be monitoring their nutritional intake and their amount of physical activity, all with the express aim of manipulating their neural performance,’ says O’Connor. ‘It puts an enormous amount of pressure on parents’ shoulders.’

    That wouldn’t be so bad, though, if what the papers write was completely accurate and free of moral values – but it isn’t.


    All newspapers report on neuroscience in a way that enforces values that are already set in society and strengthens prejudice. ‘For example, in the articles about parenting there was quite an obvious social class dimension. The media often divided children into what they called the “loved” and “unloved”. It was the “loved” children of middle-class homes whose parents would nourish them and make sure they had all the proper stimuli, while the parents of the “unloved” children from lower working-class homes wouldn’t really care.’

    Far too often the information isn’t accurate either and is used as a rhetorical means to end any discussion, says O’Connor. ‘ They’ll tell you “science has discovered that…” when, in reality, science hasn’t discovered that at all.’

    Ultimate answer

    Examples are abundant, like the research on multi-tasking, which showed that when people perform two different tasks on a computer, their performance slows. ‘Some papers concluded that it meant that women couldn’t work inside the house and outside simultaneously.’

    Something should be done, O’Connor thinks, because it’s bad for society and bad for democracy. However, she doesn’t have the ultimate answer. ‘What can be done, though, is make the general public more aware of the rhetorical power that science can have’, she argues, so if they hear the quote ‘science says’ or see a picture of a brain scan next to an article, they realize that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

    Want to hear Cliodhna O’Connor speak? She lectures next Thursday at the Munting Building, Grote Kruisstraat 2/1 at 16.20 hours.