The Problem with Pop Neuroscience

Is it really science of the brain, or just redundant psychology?

“When you cut your finger, there is a local release of prostaglandins and bradykinin. These bind to a nociceptor so it can become depolarized and send an action potential to the spinal cord where the signal can ultimately be transmitted to the brain. The activated nociceptor also releases Substance P to mast cells, which release histamine onto the nociceptor. This serves as positive feedback to keep it depolarized; the increased firing rate amplifies the pain response.”

What that paragraph says is all true. But it gives you no more relevant information than if I simply said, “When you cut your finger, it hurts.”

Similarly, when you unpack the highfalutin neurotransmitter terminology from popular neuroscience, you’ll find that it’s often just familiar psychology. The vocabulary gives an air of scientific credibility, but when we’re talking about behavioral inputs and behavioral outputs, it’s redundant to describe the chemical in-between.

And it does a disservice representing what neuroscience actually says about these chemicals. A pop neuroscience statement like “When you hug someone, you release oxytocin” is trying to convey, “When you hug someone, you feel good!” But oxytocin is not a “feel good” chemical. It’s better known as the “social” chemical; it also enhances envy, social discomfort, and fear of outgroups, which don’t quite feel good.

The “feel good” sensation you get from hugging, or doing anything else that feels good, is more complex than the release of a single substance. There’s no one happiness chemical, or sadness chemical, or anger chemical. What we call feelings are constructs of psychology, not neuroscience.

Pop neuroscience likes to shoehorn isolated findings about the brain into familiar terms from psychology. But describing the neurochemical processes associated with them often tells us nothing new or interesting about these constructs in practical matters of life. So when we’re speaking of these constructs, let’s address them directly, rather than obscuring them in the jargon of a field still in its infancy.

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