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The brain in society: public engagement with neuroscience

O'Connor, C; (2014) The brain in society: public engagement with neuroscience. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

The early years of the 21st century were marked by the increasing prominence of neuroscientific ideas in wider society. The proliferation of neuroscience has been accompanied by lively debate, alternately excited and apprehensive, about its societal significance. However, consideration of neuroscience’s cultural implications has largely remained speculative due to a paucity of research that directly examines how publics engage with neuroscientific ideas. Drawing on Social Representations Theory and the principles of embodied phenomenology, this thesis aims to map the contours of the neuroscientific knowledge that surfaces in ordinary, everyday life in contemporary Britain. Its investigation focuses upon two empirical contexts, cataloguing the representations of brain research that materialise in (i) the mainstream print media, and (ii) the common-sense understanding revealed by a series of semi-structured interviews with London residents. A content analysis of 3,630 newspaper articles confirms that the period 2000-2012 saw a steady expansion of neuroscience’s prominence in public dialogue, primarily within appeals to readers to optimise their brain function by moderating their mental activity, nutritional intake and lifestyle choices. Thematic analysis of 48 interviews, however, suggests that laypeople have remained largely unaware of the media attention afforded to neuroscience, with the brain occupying a negligible space in people’s day-to-day thought and conversation. Interview respondents situated brain research within the socially distant ‘other worlds’ of science and medicine, characterising direct experience of brain-related pathology as the only context that would motivate them to engage with neuroscientific knowledge. However, more latent meanings attached to the brain surfaced as the interviews progressed: the brain was also constituted as a tool over which individuals can exert control, and as a source of human variation, invoked to articulate and explain social differences. Through rigorous analysis of original empirical data, this thesis traces the paths by which neuroscientific ideas travel through the public sphere, distinguishes how they are elaborated and re-constituted en route, and explores the implications this may have for social life.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The brain in society: public engagement with neuroscience
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Keywords: neuroscience, public engagement with science, social representations theory, embodiment, interviews, media analysis
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Clinical, Edu and Hlth Psychology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1420495
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