The most egregious example in recent months may have been Newsweek’s cover story in early January, which promised “31 ways to get smarter-faster” and “all you need to raise your IQ.” The article, by Sharon Begley, is more cautious than the newsstand-optimized cover lets on, but its potpourri of tips for “buffing” the brain is unconvincing. A cover story in The New York Times Magazine’s special issue on mental health, published April 22, was more honest about how difficult it is to know whether or not humans can actually “build a better brain.”

“To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light,” the reporter, Dan Hurley, wrote.

Stories about “brain optimization” seem to be the most popular category of neuroscience coverage in the US, as they are in the UK, but “the brain as index of difference” and “the brain as biological proof” are also in evidence. Articles purporting to explain “what the gay brain looks like” and voters’ true political beliefs are unfortunately common.

It’s not hard to surmise why neuroscience is so popular in both British and American media. As the paper in Neuron explained:

Contemporary neuroscience carries particular social weight. In today’s secular societies, the brain is an acutely significant organ, represented as the seat of mind and self. Consequently, the production of brain-related knowledge is culturally important, carrying implications for how people see themselves as individuals and human beings.

Because media portrayals of neuroscience can have a strong influence on public understandings of such a wide range of phenomena, however, journalists must resist the temptation to reduce complex research to simple conclusions and project cultural or ideological values onto tentative and uncertain results.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.