Where brains are always on the menu! Serving up a heaping portion of the latest neuroscience news, plus a side of social commentary expertly seasoned with action potentials and cognitive functions. Garnished with general thoughts on science, ethics, and evolution. For dessert, enjoy a sickeningly-sweet understanding of human behavior!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Misconceptions about Neuroscience

This post is in response to a request by Chad at Uncertain Principles: what are your least favorite misconceptions about your field? Turns out there are a couple of them, but first the following conversation:

"What is your degree in?"
"No, neu-ro-science"
"Neuroscience? Is that, like, the brain?"

Click below for more

I admit that it isn't nice to poke fun at ignorance, and it is not so much that I am bothered by ignorance (maybe it is my fault for not enunciating, plus I'm happy to educate when I can), it is the fact that this particular snippet of conversation plays out word-for-word every darn time.

On to the actual misconceptions:

1. Neuroscience = brain. One of my recent commenters displayed an extreme version of this (although in a cautionary capacity, not ignorance) by noting that I seemed to be suggesting that my site redesign would only focus on cortex. Likewise, there is more to the field of neuroscience than the brain. Your brain can't do much if it is deprived of sensory input (and indeed, goes crazy if completely deprived of stimuli for too long); those signals need to be transduced somehow! Likewise, you need an output pathway to your muscles, and feedback mechanisms to gauge the efficacy of the chosen motor plan. And let's not even mention those other pesky functions controlled by your brainstem so you don't have to think about them....

2. All neuroscientists are reductionists. This just isn't the case. It might have been true before the dregs of logical positivism died a long-overdue death back in 1950 or so, but today a number of philosophical outlooks are given a fair shake.

3. A background in neuroscience means that I'm somehow qualified to diagnose every nervous tic.

4. The "Magic Bullet" Pill Theory. The MBPT is a particularly insidious notion that permeates every lay conversation. Often MBPT is proposed immediately following my response to "Is that, like, the brain". The MBPT proponent simply can't deal with the uncertainty of the future and basically want fen-phen for their noggin (I guess Chad could call this the Uncertainty Principle of neuroscience; the memory capacity of any particular aging brain cannot be known with precision).

5. Neophrenology. This one is somewhat ironic given my training as an anatomist. Phrenology is an old notion that personality traits could be determined on the basis of skull shapes. There is a notion among first year neuro students that all functions can be localized to discrete brain regions, simply because the brain can (apparently) be anatomically parsed into areas based upon patterns of cellular architecture. However, this notion is incorrect, but the rationale is left for a future post.


  • Those are good ones.

    My answer to the first question is "Brain surgeon", especially if the questioner is a female and pretty. Later, if neccessary, I can explain that I do not do surgeries on human patients but on avian research subjects, but by then, either I have charmed or I have not charmed...

    By Blogger coturnix, at 1/31/2006 11:55:00 PM  

  • My most common reaction goes something like this...
    "What do you study?"
    "......(silence, puzzled looks)... what?"
    "Neuroscience. Its the study of the brain and the nervous system."
    "Ohhh... So you're going to be a brain surgeon. Ew, isn't that really gross?"
    (exasperated look from me)

    My mother also likes telling her (middle aged, female, competitive, Korean..) friends that her daughter is going to be a doctor, or more specifically a brain surgeon - no matter how much I protest. In her mind it sure beats all the other mothers whose daughters are mere accountants or lawyers.

    By Anonymous Neurula, at 2/01/2006 03:25:00 AM  

  • Bah. Try "epidemiologist."

    Person: What do you do?
    Me: I'm an epidemiologist.
    Person: Either blank stare, or "Oh, skin stuff, huh?"

    By Anonymous Tara, at 2/01/2006 12:16:00 PM  

  • I so agree, Tara! I was planning to make the same comment and there was yours.

    By Blogger epigirl, at 2/01/2006 01:04:00 PM  

  • Good post, Evil Monkey Dude. Very educational for us non-neuro folks. It makes me think I should post my own blog entry on "Misconceptions about Physics/Optics/Lasers".

    By Blogger skeeler, at 2/02/2006 10:32:00 AM  

  • As a non-scientist I like to think that I can muster a basic grasp of what most scientific people sorta/kinda do. If I have no clue, I like to ask what sort of research they do or they did in school. There are, however, sometimes when it is completely hopeless -- like a guy I dated who has a PhD from Oxford who does research entailing "using UV laser spectroscopic techniques..."
    Am I wrong in assuming that there are probably only a few thousand people in the world who really understand what means? At what point do you just simplify and say "brain stuff" or "physics stuff" because anyone who didn't have at least a BS in the field would glaze over after the first sentence?

    By Anonymous kirstin, at 2/02/2006 02:14:00 PM  

  • I generally go with the most basic and let the interested folk ask questions. No need to bore everyone to death!

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 2/02/2006 02:30:00 PM  

  • 1. Hey! This is the GOOD kind of blog!

    2. I am exceedingly fond of cheese.

    3. I get a similar response myself. Actually, I rather get a kick out of it. I usually follow up with, "That's a real conversation-killer, isn't it," or something equally self-effacing.

    4. Look on the bright side. It's better than being in some kinds of science or education. I mean, imagine being an expert in mastication or pedagogy.

    By Blogger Dan Dright, at 2/07/2006 10:58:00 PM  

  • Haha Dan, to number 3- I use that same statement sometimes.

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 2/08/2006 02:36:00 PM  

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