Our Brain is Wired

A post from my Medscape blog for psychiatrists:

I just read a story on MSNBC about grammar vigilantes. The story says that those who are sticklers about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, have become even more fastidious because of all the stress in their lives. ( Hope they are not reading this blog.)

The article is trying to be interesting and cool. I get that. After all how many stories of “the worsening economy is causing stress and depression” can one read?

But I was still irritated by the obligatory quote from a psychologist, a Paula Wallin: “Our brains are wired to notice what s different and when you re sure of the right way and the wrong way, you notice mistakes more, says Wallin. The article goes on to say, “(Wallin) admits to dropping out of an exercise class because the instructor kept misusing the word lay.”

Ms (Dr?) Wallin also adds, “Attribution theory comes into this as well.” (comes into this?)

Now, we all know that her statement about “our brains are wired” is just, how does one put it delicately, BS.

“Our brain is wired” misleadingly implies that the psychologist, or at least, her profession, or science as a whole, has a thorough understanding of the exact pathway that is responsible for the phenomenon in question. In addition, the statement, “Our brain is wired to ___” implies a false cause and effect relationship between neuroanatomy and behavior.

Her statement about “attribution theory” may be peripherally relevant, but it strikes me that this psychologist is struggling to come up with something germane and insightful to say.

This genre of story must be familiar to you. It is what I call “says a psychiatrist” ( I am open to new suggestions for the name).

The formula is straightforward.

1. Start with a novel, sensational premise. Accuracy is not as important as the novelty factor. Examples include, “The Economic recession causes increased baldness,” or “Why Some Men Find Older Women Attractive ( A story that I perused while at the local haberdashery earlier this afternoon.).

2. Interview a Psychiatrist or Psychologist.

3. Throw in a few stories of sufferers of that phenomenon.

4. Write a clever headline.

5. Voila! You ‘ave ze story, monseiur/madame.

Ms Wallin, by the way, is particularly skilled – she helps the journalist fulfil both steps 2 and 3 of the genre.

So how does the psychologist end up sounding like a lay subscriber to Psychology Today?

Here’s how it probably plays out. The interviewer calls up the psychologist who is flattered to be asked. Then they ask her something like “So what are the psychological factors that could be causing this to happen?”

She finds that she can’t bring herself to say, “We don’t really know, I mean I could speculate, but that’s all it is, just speculations and theory.”

So she says, “Our brain is wired to …”

Now you may think I am an exemplary fellow who could never make ill considered remarks like Wallin’s. But I have to confess that a year or so ago, I was interviewed on the radio. And the interviewer said, “Is the election making life more difficult for married couples?”

“Sure, I said. “When a couple does not agree on the candidate, they might have issues in their relationship, because they are disagreeing on something that might be as fundamentally important to them as religion.”

The interviewer didn’t look impressed, and, I, thinking that thousands might be listening, attempted to say something more insightful and informative.” People are always passionate about some things. It s the way human beings are” And then I added, “Our brains are wired to do that.”

February 4, 2009 | 10:49 am | By Dr Shyam Bhat