Brain Pickings

Brain Culture: How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation

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Debunking the phrenology of our day, or why self-help books offer the cognitive science equivalent of snake oil.

Far from a mere motherboard, the brain has swollen into one of humanity’s greatest obsessions. We have been trying to visualize it since antiquity, we have written countless books about it, we’ve even enlisted it in our pop culture satire. The brain, in fact, has become a pop culture fixture in and of itself. That’s exactly what Davi Johnson Thornton explores in Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media — a fascinating account of the rhetoric and sociology of cognitive science, exploring our culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study. The brain, it seems, has become a modern muse. (As Jonah Lehrer brilliantly notes in his Wired interview with Thornton, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”)

From the media’s propensity for pretty pictures like PET and fMRI scans, often misinterpreted or presented out of context, to the misappropriation of the language of neuroscience in simplistic self-help narratives to the “anxious parenting” triggered by the facile findings of developmental cognitive science, Thornton offers a refreshing lens on the many contradictions in how we think about the brain as we continue to hope that making the brain calculable and mappable would also make it manipulable in precisely the ways we need it to be.

What makes Thornton’s take most compelling is the lucidity with which she approaches exactly what we know and don’t know about the brain. In an age of exponentially replicating headlines about quasi-sciences like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world’s shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, it’s refreshing to see a sober take on the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions.

According to this popular neuroscience, because the brain is the source of literally all human thought, emotion, and behavior, willful efforts to improve the brain will naturally lead to superior intelligence, greater emotional stability, and improved performance in the home, at the gym, and in the workplace. [If] one wants to become better in some aspect of life — smarter, fitter, more sociable, or more competitive — the key to improvement is always the brain, regardless of the specific kind of improvement desired. Want a better body? Work on your brain. Want better children? Work on your brain (and theirs). Want a better job? Work on your brain. In this context, having a healthy brain is not simple a matter of avoiding injuries and illness, but rather is tied to endless projects of self-optimization in which individuals are responsible for continuously working on their own brains to produce themselves as better parents, workers, and citizens.” ~ Davi Thronton

On characterizing the brain as a “vast frontier waiting to be discovered,” Thronton says:

I think this is a unique metaphor — it goes back to the idea that the brain is everything. I see this message all the time in these discourses I am looking at: ‘You are your brain.’ It’s the ultimate dream — through science we can fully know all that there is to know about human nature, and then control it perfectly. That is part of what makes these discourses so interesting to me, how it’s not just about science or medicine, but ultimately about this fascination with revealing the ultimate secrets of human existence.”

Captivatingly written, intelligently argued, and refreshingly grounded, Brain Culture offers an essential blueprint to becoming better-informed consumers of cognitive science and, perhaps more importantly, having a healthier relationship with our own brains and our expectations of them.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Scientists on God, Part 2

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What uniform motion has to do with religion, or what Galileo can teach us about consciousness.

Last month, we watched 50 famous academics discuss God in a mashup video by British neurosurgeon Jonathan T. Pararajasingham, a fine addition to the ongoing conversation on science vs. religion and the psychology of faith. Now, Pararajasingham is back with a sequel mashup, featuring another 50 renowned academics, including Brain Pickings frequents Michio Kaku, Sean Carroll, V.S. Ramachandran, and Jonathan Haidt.

If you believe that the truth lies in strange scrolls, dug up by somewhere or other, written by someone, then there’s no logical counter to that.” ~ Sir Richard Friend

The sausage party in order of appearance:

51. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
52. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
53. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
54. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
55. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
56. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
57. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
58. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
59. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
60. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
61. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
62. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
63. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
64. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
65. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
66. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
67. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
68. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
69. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
70. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
71. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
72. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
73. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
74. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
75. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
76. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
77. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
78. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
79. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
80. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
81. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
82. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
83. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
84. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
85. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
86. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
87. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
88. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
89. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
90. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
91. Saul Perlmutter, World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
92. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
93. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
94. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
95. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
96. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
97. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
98. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
99. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
100. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist

For more on the subject, see BBC’s excellent documentary, The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion.

HT Open Culture

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Portraits of Cultural Icons by 80 of the World’s Top Illustrators

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What Stephen Hawking’s eyebrows have to do with Amy Winehouse and the artist as a storyteller.

Hardly does the responsibility of art get more intricate than in portraiture, with its expectation of capturing a person’s entire character and history with a few strokes of the proverbial brush. We’ve recently looked at Platon’s powerful portraits of political leaders and Noma Bar’s brilliant negative-space illustrated portraits of cultural icons. Today, we turn to Illustration Now! Portraits — a stunning new showcase of illustrated portraits by over 80 of the world’s most exciting artists, culled from Taschen‘s previously published Illustration Now! volumes, in addition to exclusive and unpublished work. The lavish 400-page tome spans a remarkable range of media, from ink and watercolor to collage to digital illustration, and covers a wide spectrum of styles, from the minimalist to the hyperrealistic to the grotesque and beyond.

What makes the project particularly interesting is that it’s essentially a visual meditation on the changing role of portraiture in an age where the barrier of entry for photography is at an all-time low and photographic portraits are technically accessible to just about anyone, making yesteryear’s gold standard of photographic accuracy no longer the merit metric for what makes a good portrait. Instead, a new creative meritocracy has emerged, pushing artists to differentiate themselves through unique styles, techniques and points of view in how they capture their subjects.

Miles Davis by Jorge Arevalo

Elijah Wood by Jorge Arevalo

Amy Winehouse by Jorje Arevalo

Rihanna by Pablo Lobato

Albert Einstein by Pablo Lobato

Stephen Hawking by Havoch Piven

Keith Richards by Havoch Piven

Borat by Havoch Piven

Precious by Tavis Coburn

Avatar by Tavis Coburn

Frida Kahlo by Montse Bernal

The anthology is also a study in the evolution of our culture’s narrative on faces and ideals. As editor Julius Wiedemann points out,

Editors and advertisers once demanded that illustrators idealize the face and figure, thus codifying an aesthetic of universal beauty. In Western society, that meant white, ethnically cleansed portraits of pretty or handsome models. Today portraits come in the proverbial all shapes and sizes, styles and mannerisms, colors and hues. They seem to be more honest and arguably today’s illustration is more in our face.”

Visually stunning and creatively stimulating, Illustration Now! Portraits is a coffeetable museum of our era’s expectations regarding faces, both of the artist’s role as a storyteller and of our collective response to the icons and personalities portrayed.

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