In BrainPop, I’ll be looking at references to the brain and mind in popular culture to see how often entertainment sources get things right. We’ll start with the most academic of HBO productions: Sex and the City. (Don’t judge, man — I turned to the show’s famed mix of cocktails, couture and relationship melodrama to survive the emotional hoopla of finishing college. Go figure.)
One of the show’s main narrative techniques involves its protagonist and icon, columnist Carrie Bradshaw, musing on relationships in angsty voiceover. During the show’s third season, one of these spiels invoked neuroscience, a testament to the field’s rising visibility in mainstream culture. The problem is, Carrie gets her facts wrong. And though this episode aired 13 years ago, the blunders highlight problems with the way we discuss the brain that persist today.
Quoting Carrie in the episode “Easy Come, Easy Go”:
“It’s a pretty common belief that women tend to use the left, more emotional side of their brain, and men, the right, more logical side.”
“I stood and watched emotion overrule both sides of my brain.”
Let’s go down the list of neuroscience topics against which these quotes have sinned. First, on brain lateralization, or the extent to which our left and right hemispheres control different things: generally the right side is associated with emotion and the left with logical reasoning (including language processing), not the other way around. But even beyond that mix-up, left and right side differences shouldn’t be painted in such broad strokes. As early as 1993, researchers were emphasizing that the two hemispheres don’t fit into broad categories like the “analytical” left brain versus the “holistic” right brain. Rather, they seem to differ in fine points like the left hemisphere being relatively better at categorical spatial relations and the right at localized spatial relations.
Second, on gender differences for brain function: Carrie’s male-female split here probably says more about gender stereotypes than they do about science, given the lazy but prevalent idea that women are more emotional and men more logical. As with lateralization, the picture is more complex. For example, one study found that both sexes show significant activation patterns in the left amygdala when presented with emotional stimuli. The difference was that women in this study responded more strongly to negative emotion and men more to positive emotion. That and other nuanced findings don’t exactly scream, “Women are the ones with feelings! And men the ones with reason!”
Finally, Carrie’s comment about emotion overruling the brain speaks to one holdover belief from mind-brain dualism that I can’t abide: completely separating the brain’s mechanized processing from human feelings. We tend to conceptualize feelings in ways that place them out of the brain and into a soul or, in the popular anatomical metaphor, the heart (hence “heartache”). But one of neuroscience’s most fascinating accomplishments has been unpacking the ways our brain produces all manner of emotions, which are tied up with our thinking and reasoning.
Looking at all three errors, these quotes really make one big mistake we’re all guilty of: oversimplification. People love clean categories, the ability to point to one part of the brain and say “That always does this!”, to divide our experiences into emotion vs. clear thinking or men vs. women. And it’s even more tempting to do this in entertainment, because dichotomies are easier to understand than complications (and therefore do less to interrupt the escape TV provides from real life). But if we’re really going to understand the brain, we have to make good with some major ambiguities. Even when those ambiguities don’t fit into, say, a sex columnist’s insanely unambiguous stance on love: