Persuasion and the Brain

Persuasion and the Brain

Science May 23, 2012 / By David R. Gruber
Persuasion and the Brain

There’s just something about the brain that captures our fascination and willingness to believe...

From neuro diets to neuro energy drinks to brain science clinics offering seminars on how to make your brain bigger, younger, even sexier, brain research is a hot commodity these days. Marketers and self-help gurus are ramping up neuroscience findings to sell change-your-brain books, iPhone memory-improvement apps, “brain-food” vitamin supplements, even brain t-shirts and travel mugs. But inflated marketing budgets may not be required. To a large extent, the brain is the new news and appearing daily in the media. Flashy headlines like “Brain Scans Reveal Why (fill in the blank)” or “This Is Your Brain On (fill in the blank)” have been used so often that they now feel like clichés. In fact, if you type the phrase “Brain scan reveals why” into Google, then you’ll probably get any one of the following search results:

“…why criminal minds are different,”

“…why food looks tastier when you’re hungry," 

“…why some people feel your pain,”

“…why your relationship will last,” and

“…why astronauts have deformations after traveling.”

Ok, so that last headline is a bit weird. But it’s out there, and popular science articles like these are recycled so often with new fill-in-the-blank brain topics, there’s no telling what you’ll uncover by the time you read this article. Maybe this one: “Brain Scan Reveals Why We Love Brain Scans” ?

Brain hype and brain publicity is curious and fascinating for researchers (yep, you guessed it, like me) who study science communication and rhetoric—a field concerned with how we are persuaded to act, think, and speak in specific ways in specific situations. In an article published in the rhetoric journal POROI last year, I worked with a group of scholars interested in studying the communication and persuasion of the neurosciences. We tried to organize a research agenda and set some goals. I’ll share those with you and then ponder recent research on the persuasive power of the brain.

Our POROI article suggested that the contemporary “neuro revolution”—as Zach Lynch has called it—is the outcome of several decades of amazing advances in brain imaging technology and experiments across the brain sciences. Of course, there are other reasons for brain-fame running a bit below the surface—like the way Western philosophy has traditionally identified human-ness with our ability to exercise complex reasoning, the way we fixate on technologies that can peer through the body, and the way we tend to divide the brain from the body and privilege the head. Nevertheless, for our purposes, we wanted to suggest that neuroscience research is sometimes hyped and often inherently persuasive, while also recognizing that neuroscientists are producing fascinating work deserving of attention. As Humanities and Social Science scholars, we wanted to make clear the position that neuroscience research “holds the potential to add a new dimension of understanding to traditional rhetorical concepts.”

In other words, we wanted to say that there’s little reason to exclude the brain sciences from our conversations about rhetoric, even if we are oriented toward the social and symbolic, preferring Cicero to Cushing, and sometimes suspicious of numbers. From my point of view, our aim was to encourage the pursuit of neuroscientific means to explore the workings of tropes like Aposiopesis and Chiasmus as well as concepts like Pathos, Kenneth Burke’s notion of “identification,” or George Lakoff’s metaphors as cognitive vehicles. But we also wanted to recognize the way brain findings charm us and get easily incorporated into our everyday lives.

Several studies from the Humanities and Social Sciences have shown that there’s just something about the brain that captures our fascination and willingness to believe. Deena Skolnik Weisberg and colleagues have argued that there is a strange “seductive allure” around brain science explanations, which tempt us to uncritically accept what we see published about the brain. Weisberg found that completely irrelevant neuroscience information inserted into an article about human psychological behavior went unrecognized even though it provided an illogical explanation. The researchers also discovered that randomly inserted neuroscience information caused people to have a greater interest in a science article than if it did not include any neuroscience information.

Similar results have been found elsewhere. Psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel did an experiment where they demonstrated that popular news articles framed with an image of the brain influenced people’s perceptions of the article. Basically, McCabe and Castel argued that people are prone to rate a news article with a brain scan image as more credible and reasonable than an article with a graph or with no brain images at all because of the inherent persuasiveness of the image. (The reader will now note the brightly colored, highly persuasive image of the brain sitting casually next to the title of this article!) Finally, other researchers, like Davi Johnson, have argued that the vocabulary of neuroscience is used in some arenas to encourage us to craft a new sense of Self, to prompt self-transformation, and to return us to a so-called “natural, healthy state” that fits within proscribed cultural and medical frameworks.

Overall, we need to find a way to read and engage neuroscience research from within an understanding of the popular circulation of that work and from within a recognition of the persuasiveness of the brain. As for me, I’m interested in finding out more, and I think we all have something to contribute. We can all think together about when, why, and how brain findings might convince us (or not) to believe more heartily in the significance of our personal habits, our neuronal interactions, our genetics, our culture, or our relationships. We might also consider how neuroscience information is propagated in a capitalist society, how it is sold to us, and why we might accept or reject brain products and how we should react to the rise of unyielding stock phrases like “The brain is…” and “The brain reveals…” But if we do all of that, then we must also look to neuroscience research as a valid way to know more about ourselves and in many ways complimentary to the Humanities and Social Sciences.

All told, if language, perception, and consciousness are entwined, then here’s hoping for many more partnerships and explorations that reach across the silos of the university and across the often tenuous gap between professional and public. 

Article Featured Image:  "Marylin's Brain"  by Charlotte Rae

Charlotte Rae is a neuroscience PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), she is investigating how the human brain controls our movements, in healthy individuals, and in patients with Parkinson’s disease. She also enjoys creating “Brain Art”, combining neuroscience images with famous artworks to highlight the beauty of the brain.

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