Blame it on the brain: our modern obsession with all things ‘neuro’

Neuroscience is used to explain everything from sexual attraction to voting habits to why we buy particular products. Flickr/mutsmuts

In May last year, a new attraction called The Ascent opened for a brief season in Brooklyn, New York. Described as “part art installation, part adventure ride and part spiritual journey,” The Ascent consisted of a tall circular scaffold, rigged with banks of coloured spotlights and flanked by speakers and computer consoles.

Participants were invited into the centre of the scaffold, where they were strapped into a harness and had EEG sensors fitted to their heads.

They then were instructed to close their eyes and concentrate: The Ascent would read their brain’s electrical impulses via electroencephalogram (EEG), feeding these into special computer hardware and software that enabled mental control of the rigging. The more focused one’s concentration, the stronger the brain waves, and the higher one would rise into the air.

The Ascent. Andrew Federman

What The Ascent made possible was “neuro-levitation,” the use of new technologies to lift participants, powered by their own brain waves. In the description of the New York Times journalist who “rode” The Ascent, those who reached the top were “rewarded by a giant cymbal crash, a wild rushing of colours, and a burst of silver confetti”.

Even in a context in which recreational novelties are as plentiful as they are in New York, The Ascent caused a sensation. But it didn’t represent a new development in neuro-technologies: EEG headsets have been used to power wheelchairs for some time; personal EEG devices are included in commercial self-improvement programs such as Brainmaster; video games like Mattel’s MindFlex and NeuroSky’s The Adventures of Neuroboy have EEG-powered consoles.

What The Ascent did was extend the existing applications of neuro-technologies to the sphere of public entertainment, and provide a much more spectacular experience of their effects. Although The Ascent was open for only a short period of time and experienced first-hand by a small number of people, the attention it received is a reflection of the widespread fascination with all things neuro.

Neuro-levitation on The Ascent. Andrew Federman

The age of the brain

Since the beginning of the 21st century, our behaviours, desires and moods have primarily been attributed to brain biology. These days, images of brain scans are widely reproduced and used to explain everything from sexual attraction, to voting habits, to why we buy particular products.

Books by neuroscientists frequently top best-seller lists. Take Susan Greenfield’s The Private Life of the Brain, which starts by claiming that neuroscientists “are gaining the confidence to break the monopoly of philosophers on the biggest and most tantalising questions that we can ask about who and what we are”.

Similar claims punctuate Joseph Le Doux’s Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, which repeatedly tells us “the brain makes the self”.

Other popular expressions of “neurocentrism” are more spurious. A British tabloid recently reported that an “American neuroscientist has discovered that if you struggle with your weight, you are most likely to have one of four different brain types”.

Images of brain scans are used to explain our preferences. US National Institute on Aging

Last year, Chris Mooney argued in The Republican Brain that Republicanism was a biological predisposition.

The same month, an Argentine chef and neurologist opened a “neuro-gastronomy” restaurant in New York. While neuro-dieting and neuro-gastronomy have a connection to actual neuroscience research that falls somewhere between tenuous and non-existent, this fad for appending the word “neuro” to other cultural fields is testament to a widespread cultural fascination; an insatiable appetite to which neuro-restauranteurs seem more than happy to cater.

Perhaps inevitably, there has recently been a backlash against such popular applications of neuroscience: we see this in dedicated blogs such as Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic, and Neurobonkers. Steven Poole began his article on “neuro-bollocks” in The New Statesman by claiming:

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies.

The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

It’s easy to criticise popular representations of neuroscience as riddled with misunderstandings about actual research in neuroscience. But this misses the point that our “neurocentrism” stems from the cumulative influence across a broad range of contexts.

And yet, intriguingly, popular entertainments like The Ascent don’t necessarily encourage an uncritical acceptance of all things neuro. On the contrary, its excessive and theatrical design encourages a humour and playfulness that can be sorely lacking in critical and cultural responses to neuro-technologies.

So while the neuroscientist sent by the New York Times to evaluate The Ascent never questions whether the levitation itself — which is, after all, facilitated by a mechanical harness — might not be generated by the EEG at all, this is precisely the focus of general discussions on popular websites like The Huffington Post.

In the age of the brain where a person’s “selfhood” has been replaced by “brainhood,” such scepticism won’t go astray.

** An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the description of The Ascent as “part art installation, part adventure ride and part spiritual journey” to its developer Yehuda Duenyas. This has now been corrected.