Brainism: Understanding Our Recent Obsession With Stress and the Mind

What kind of worldview is lurking in all the chatter about neuroscience?
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One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea

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By Dana Becker (Oxford University Press)

Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind

By Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached (Princeton University Press)

“I never used to discuss neuroscienceon the bus,” wrote the psychologist Vaughan Bell recently in The Guardian, “but it’s happened twice in the last month.” People these days love to talk about brains. In everyday conversation and mainstream media reports, the organ and its processes are casually invoked (“my synapses are firing”) where once more ordinary language might have sufficed (“I’m thinking”). For good or for bad, there seems to be an increasingly pervasive belief that pretty much everything important about being human can be best explained—and, if need be, fixed—by referring to the mysterious squishy matter inside our skulls.

Similarly, since the dawn of the self-help era, the concept of stress has served as a ubiquitous shorthand for a vast range of experiences. The war-scarred veteran prone to bouts of rage: He’s stressed. The teenager up late sweating over tomorrow’s geometry final: also stressed. Like media accounts that claim to decipher our experiences simply by locating them in this or that structure of the brain, this talk of stress often seems to explain more than it actually does. At the same time, it also quietly implies a whole way of looking at the world: a set of assumptions about the self and even, maybe, an ideology.

In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble With Stress as an Idea, Dana Becker, a psychologist and professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, turns a critical eye on stress, asking where the concept came from and what its assumptions have done to us. Becker believes modern Americans are in thrall to “stressism,” which she defines as “the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems.” This stops us from seeing them as societal ills that “need to be resolved primarily through social and political means.” Instead of wondering about how the world might be different, we are expected to adjust ourselves to it as best we can.

The symptoms we associate with stress have been around forever. What’s new is the way we frame them—as part of the bargain of modern life.

Stress, Becker writes, was originally a term used by engineers; its adoption by the worlds of psychology and medicine was surprisingly recent. American physicians were diagnosing “nervous disorders” as early as 1871, when one neurologist attributed anxiousness to the fast pace and daily struggles of urban life. And by 1914, the Harvard University physiologist Walter Cannon was using the term stress and describing the now-famous fight-or-flight syndrome. But the concept didn’t enter the popular culture until the 1950s, thanks largely to the endocrinologist Hans Selye’s best seller The Stress of Life. The New York Times didn’t publish its first article about emotional stress until 1976.

The symptoms we associate with stress have been around forever, Becker writes. What’s new is the way we frame them—as part of the bargain of modern life. “Two themes have dominated the American progress-and-pathology story,” she says. “The first of these is that excessive anxiety is damaging, and that the damaging effects of worry increase as the pace of life increases. ... The second theme is that all of us are individually responsible for managing ourselves so that we make a reasonable adjustment to the conditions of modern life, however stressful.”

As Becker sees it, this leads us to overlook the obvious. If living in an impoverished, crime-infested neighborhood is stressful, is meditation really the answer? If working mothers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, what do they need more: yoga or a real work-family policy? “We will need to throw out the bath oil with the bathwater,” she says in a chapter about self-help for stressed-out women.

Unfortunately, for most of the people she would probably identify as the greatest victims of stressism, her prescriptions are at best vague, and at worst unrealistic. Becker views the fairly common notion that if you can’t change the world, you should change the way you react to the world, as an invitation to inaction and political apathy. But is it, really? Depressed or anxious people are not likely to be effective political leaders, or even citizens. There’s no contradiction between trying to change the world in the long term and learning how to cope with the realities of today in the short run.

Becker’s case against stressism is a variation on a long-standing critique—mainly from the left—that says the therapeutic, self-help worldview is divorced from history, politics, and culture, and that it cruelly treats the individual as the only real unit of accountability and action. A similar critique can be leveled at much of the thinking that passes for neuroscience. Indeed, Becker levels it herself, in passing.

But Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached, the authors of another new book, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, suggest that the ultimate effect of neuroscientific thinking could be to dissolve the cult of the individual. Rose and Abi-Rached point to recent research that strongly suggests the brain is wired for sociality—that is, to facilitate living in groups. Indeed, the idea that we are independent, fully autonomous beings is belied by the realization that our brains are fine-tuned to understand how others are thinking and feeling, the better to fit in and forge a functioning society. To the Neuro authors, this discovery “disproves the idea that the nature of humans is to seek to maximize self-interest.”

We now know—in the granular, quantitative sense of the word—that our brains benefit from good parenting, nutritious food, and a quality education (particularly at key developmental stages). With solid evidence to back up old policy prescriptions, the authors predict that neuroscience may become “an unlikely ally of progressive social thought.” In other words, if Becker is right that the concept of stress steers us away from social action, neuroscience over the long run could have the opposite effect.

Like Becker, Rose (head of the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine at King’s College London) and Abi-Rached (a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science at Harvard) spend fun-to-read pages tracing the history of their central idea. They note that although today it slips “easily off the tongue,” the term neuroscience was only coined in 1962. So it’s all the more remarkable that, in intellectual circles, neuro- has become a prefix for all seasons, modifying everything from economics to aesthetics. The authors give an able tour through all the neuroscientific insights that are most tantalizing to the popular imagination: the colorful images from fMRI scans that seem to unlock the ways we process information and form our preferences and beliefs; and the exciting recent revelations about the plasticity of our brains—the fact that they keep changing throughout our lives, rather than taking their final form at the end of adolescence, as was previously thought.

Neuroscience is rapidly proving we are basically our synapses, and our sense of self is a convenient illusion. (Proust wasn’t a neuroscientist; the Buddha was.) But in a welcome bit of reassurance, Rose and Abi-Rached argue that this revelation isn’t likely to undermine the concept of personal responsibility, in the court system or anywhere else. Rather, they assert, we now have an additional weight on our shoulders: the obligation to care for our brains. A crossword puzzle is no longer just a pleasant distraction; it’s now part of one’s brain-fitness regimen.

Even the current fixation on brains will eventually run its course; already, new research is ever more closely tying together the function of the brain and the rest of the body. Rose and Abi-Rached take note of this, pointing out that “brains are infused with blood containing all manner of active chemicals that carry nutrition, hormonal signals, and much else.” There’s evidence that many of our organs, including those of our digestive systems, have “minds” of their own. Whether they have a worldview as well—well, it’s probably too soon to say.

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