Background Recent times have seen a dramatic expansion of the public profile of neuroscience, which is increasingly invoked in media and policy discussions. Thus far, debate about the social significance of neuroscience’s growing prominence has remained largely speculative, due to a paucity of research directly examining how the lay public engages with neuroscientific ideas. The current study aimed to redress this empirical gap through a qualitative study exploring how laypeople make sense of contemporary brain research.
Methods Ethical approval was granted by University College London. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with forty-eight London residents. Participants were purposively recruited by a professional research agency to ensure balanced distributions of gender, age and socio-economic status. Interviews began by asking respondents to express their initial, spontaneous responses to the phrase ‘brain research’. These associations were then explored via in-depth interviews that encouraged respondents to elaborate on their understandings of and responses to brain research. Interviews lasted an average of 34 min and were recorded, transcribed and imported into ATLAS.ti for thematic analysis. Analysis involved developing a coding frame that showed acceptable levels of inter-rater agreement, systematically coding all interview text, and using ATLAS.ti’s co-occurrence and networking facilities to develop themes.
Results The first theme extracted from the data captured a general detachment from neuroscience. Most participants strongly asserted that the brain did not surface as an object of thought or conversation in their daily lives, and delegated it to the socially distant ‘other world’ of science. The second theme reflects participants’ sense of how this detachment could be breached: namely, by personal experience of neurological illness. Participants suggested that this was the only context that would make neuroscience personally relevant. Their discussions prioritised neurological over psychiatric forms of pathology, with dementia constituting a particularly salient focus of dread. The foregrounding of pathology constituted the brain as a vulnerable, anxiety-provoking organ, and many respondents indicated that they actively avoided thinking about the brain’s operations for this reason.
Conclusion The research provides a rich and ecologically valid account of how laypeople make sense of contemporary brain research. For this lay sample, ‘brain research’ was predominantly associated with neuropathology, and the anxiety that this elicited prompted widespread disengagement from neuroscience. The analysis therefore suggests that despite the extensive public prominence afforded to neuroscience, brain research remains remote from everyday life.
- public engagement
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