Posts Tagged ‘pop-ethology’

Carwash companies are watching your brain

Carwash companies want to monitor your brain

Pop music has a distant cousin: pop science. I first encountered the “pop” adjective before “science” when reading about ethology, the continental tradition in the study of animal behavior. The revival of the notion of instinct (Konrad Lorenz), and the flourishing of animal studies in natural conditions (apes in particular) led to the publication of books claiming that humans had deeply-rooted instinctual behaviors, after all. Culture would just be a superficial layer sliding on top of our strong biological nature.  Those books became massive best sellers: The Naked Ape by British zoologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris is a representative example. Published in 1967, it had sold 8 millions copies by 1979. To compare, the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins has sold “just” over a million copies in 30 years.

Pop-ethology often includes among distinct features: a taste for human-animal analogies in any form (“humans are just apes” or “apes are remarkably human”), a penchant for conservative orientation (to choose from: homosexuality is a behavior caused by urban overcrowding, gender inequalities perform an adaptive function, …), a romanticizing of the scientific endeavor, and a glorification of untouched nature.

I had ended by thinking that pop-ethology was distinctively unique, a genre caused and circumscribed by human / higher primate analogies, in the 60s and 70s. But I come to realize that it could be better understood as just an instance of a broader pop-genre that renews itself regularly. And pop-neuroscience is the new trend, it seems.

The same way pop-ethology was primarily a literary genre, but was also expressed in documentaries and cinema movies, one has a variety of pop-neuroscience media. My favorite so far is a the website of a carwash company trying to make sense of how focusing on the reptile brain can boost its sales.

I think there are “areas of development” for the pop genre in neuroscience, and I see at least two: evolutionary claims, and over-optimistic mapping.

Evolutionary claims is when carwashers try to bypass your consciousness and speak directly to your reptilian brain, to make you choose extra options (“calming fear in the customer will make him/her choose the shiny polish at $8.”). This kind of pop-neuroscience is very much like pop-ethology used to be: that’s still the old “Humans are just like apes” brand argument, except that you climb a step further down on the evolutionary ladder, from apes to reptiles.

The second is over-optimistic mapping. Cognitive neuroscientists have even a name for it: grandmother cells. Briefly, this is the belief that high order social phenomena (like the seeing of a grandmother’s face) have a one-to-one relation with the firing of single neurons (the neuron for recognizing grandmothers). How nice would it be for cashwashers if they could find the stimulus that triggers the firing of the “washing my car frantically” neuron! Ah, dreams, fantastic dreams…

The trick is, some single neurons do fire for quite complex phenomena, like with the visualization of faces or hand-shaped stimuli. But from there to the “grandmother cell”, there is still a gap. Pop-neuroscience loves to bridge the gap, by claiming regularly that this or that brain’s area is responsible for this or that complex social function.

Anyway, I have not yet any big conclusion on that, it just strikes me how strong the pop-genre seems to be in social neuroscience. To the point of overshadowing the rest?


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