Nick Haslam reviews 'A Day in the Life of the Brain: The neuroscience of consciousness from dawn till dusk' by Susan Greenfield

The youthful genre of popular neuroscience enjoys a few advantages that popular psychology, its older sibling, does not. The general public holds neuroscience in higher esteem, more confident in its scientific legitimacy. The concreteness of brain science – its colourful scans, its focus on a kilogram or so of custardy matter rather than a weightless cloud of mind – gives it a solidity that psychology tends to lack. Crucially, aspiring popularisers of neuroscience do not need to worry about common sense, because the public has few intuitions about how the brain works. Popular psychologists have a tougher assignment. If they violate common sense about mind and behaviour they are disbelieved, but if they uphold it what do they have to offer that a sage grandmother does not?

As science writing goes, then, popular neuroscience has something of a head start. It can tackle the most intriguing questions of experience and behaviour, strike a confident pose of scientific rigour, and expect a level of credulity from non-specialist readers. Its technical language seduces us into belief. How much more impressive it sounds to ascribe a change in behaviour to ‘neural plasticity’ rather than to ‘learning’, although the two concepts are effectively synonymous.

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Published in April 2017, no. 390