Are popular applied neuroscience-based books turning a corner?

I’m beginning to see a change in non-academic neuroscience-based books – thankfully. When I first became interested in neuroscience the non-academic books seemed to be peppered with ones jumping on the band-wagon rather than for true practical use: The hyped ‘applicable’ ones often fell short of their promises and erred towards what felt like NLP (just my personal opinion). Most neuroscientists hate the hyped out-of-context claims that we routinely see in the press, as they understand all too well how young, fragmented and rapidly-evolving their field is. I have managed to find some very readable books by neuroscientists which are more scientifically based. These helped to explain the brain’s workings and magic but are less practical.

However, in the last year there seems to be a new breed of book appearing and partly this is because those previous books have brought brain terminology into everyday life. This new breed doesn’t have chapters explaining brain areas, etc, they just use the terms and expect you to know or Google them. They are also starting to credibly attempt and, in many ways, succeed in making neuroscience-based aspects more useful for applying to ourselves.

If you want to get beyond the hype and understand how awesome and yet fallible the brain is, read four books: The tell-tale brain (Ramachandran); How the mind works (Pinker); The myth of mirror neurons (Hickok) and the Future of the brain (Marcus and Freeman).  If you’re interested in the next level down which starts to give you a real insight into the workings of the brain and how that affects behaviour in specific aspects, then LaDoux’s ‘Synaptic self’ and ‘Anxious’ are good as is Deheane’s ‘Consciousness’. If you are very serious about understanding this topic then I would definitely recommend reading a neuroscience textbook such as the ’Principles of neurobiology’ (Lou) as you get a real insight into the busy world inside a seemingly static white-grey mass. And YouTube has a lot of good videos as well such as this ‘home-made’ one on a day in the life of a neurotransmitter.

The new breed of books are, for me, ‘Why we sleep’ (Walker); Cozolino’s ‘The neuroscience of psychotherapy’ and ‘The Business brain’ by Prof Shane O’Mara – which looks good although I’ve only just started it. The authors treat their audience as having a general knowledge about the brain as we do with other systems in the body. I think this change is coupled to the significant improvement in what neuroscience has been able to do in the last 5 years due to its new-found popularity and advances in technology. I think this change in style will go a long way to taking neuroscience literature out of hype and into application. Maybe that’s a bit of food for thought on change programmes in organisations – stop ‘selling it’ and start ‘using it’ as your daily work-life.

I was also sent this link to an article about the (still) common myths of the brain which I wish I could have shown at a meeting I went to last week. A number of these myths were espoused and nodded to wisely by others. Although to be fair to the sports coaches in the article, I think a number of these were pretty firmly held neuroscience concepts 20 years ago. Like Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, when new evidence puts doubt into a well held concept then it can be hard to change public opinion, especially when it appears rationally true – even if the scientific evidence undermines that.

Conversely, I also liked this article written by Dr Mark Stokes, putting the case against the ‘attention-grabbing headlines slating neuroscience and throwing proverbial babies out with the bathwater’: Good on him.  Many neuroscientists must wish that the neuroscience-fad band wagon would move on to something else. When I went to a neuroscience and ethics seminar last year, they focussed on how lawyers were coming to neuroscientists to understand what is and isn’t credible when the defence or prosecution starts using neuroscience to aid their case. Many lawyers do workshops with neuroscientists to help them sort hype from more valid facts and to understand how ‘robust’ those facts may be currently.

On the DProf front things are hotting up. From notes, articles and working through people in university labs, I have around 247 potential neuroscientists whittled down to a top 71 and an initial 21 all from different universities predominately in Europe and the US. The invitation email has been sharpened up now I am actually about to use it and we’ve honed the questions for my interviews to help keep the conversation flowing on a topic most people probably haven’t given much consideration to. This has sparked a multitude of other work to do with logging people and tracking and confidentially and recording and piloting. There’s nothing like having to actually do something to make you understand what you really need to do (back to Change Projects again). Or maybe it’s just good old distraction techniques as I am a bit nervous about response rates given how difficult a colleague of mine found it was to get interviews with surgeons. It can also become a moveable feast as my supervisor has suggested I might, as an aside, in my thesis discuss whether neuroscientists whose native language doesn’t include an option for the Self, biases their thinking. I thought I’d distanced myself from that conversation but clearly not. It’s like Alice Through The Looking Glass, where in walking away from it, I move closer to it.

Also due to how I created my list, I have to write that up. Sometimes I wish I’d just randomly chosen the first 20 names I found as that would take less effort. Conversely, I reckon some DProffers give detailed explanations for their participant choices when in reality that’s all they could get – take it or leave it. Although I have to admit that my 247 includes some ‘they’ll do if no one else will talk to me’ options – lol.


3 thoughts on “Are popular applied neuroscience-based books turning a corner?”

  1. Wonderfully perceptive Deni and beautifully written. I am familiar with the books you mention and find them more accessible as audible books when I am on the treadmill at the gym otherwise they are still quite hard going. There was little mention of neuroscience at this year’s ICF conference which made we wonder. Is the hype over and we are moving into a new phase? Working with millennials was a hot topic so understanding how their brains work in comparison to my generation’s would make interesting reading. Jane

    1. Thank you Jane and the audio book version is a great idea. My thought on the millennial brain: Brains are very similar in many ways and start out with a similar template with gene variations of course. The environment then moulds and hones and shapes them from then onward. So in one respect they will vary a lot across the millennials and in another respect the pervading environment now is different than it was for us. I think of it a bit like mountain ranges which rise up in similar ways but depending on when that happened, the climate at the time and the environment since, they end up looking subtly different over time and vary in how resilient, or not, they are to the weather. Also like brains they are constantly changing due to their environment – maybe we should coin the term ‘mountain plasticity’ 😉

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