Monday, October 06, 2014

The use and abuse of the prefix neuro- in the decades of the BRAIN

Two Croatian academics with an anti-neuro ax to grind have written a cynical history of neuroword usage through the ages (Mazur & Rinčić, 2013). Actually, I believe the authors were being deliberately sarcastic (at times), since the article is rather amusing.1
Placing that phenomenon of "neuroization" of all fields of human thought and practice into a context of mostly unjustified and certainly too high – almost millenarianistic – expectations of the science of the brain and mind at the end of the 20th century, the present paper tries to analyze when the use of the prefix neuro- is adequate and when it is dubious.

Ključne riječi [keywords]:
brain; neuroscience; word coinage

Amir Muzur and Iva Rinčić are both on the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Rijeka, in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in Medicine. Their interests include the history of bioethics, bioethics and sociology, the history of medicine, and neuroscience.

The pre-BRAIN Initiative paper2 begins with a reminder of President George Bush Senior's proclamation of the Decade of the Brain:
Let aside the fact that a new decade did not begin in 1990 but a year later, with such pathos, George Bush Senior started an unprecedented avalanche of expectations, pompousness, and grants which will be lasting up today. The motives of launching the "Decade of the brain" were inspired by increasing awareness and fear of the treath [sic] of Alzheimer’s disease and neural sequels of drugs and AIDs, more than by the declared fascination by brain function.


The authors did intend to seriously critique the excesses of “neuroization” (since the title of the paper includes the word “Neurocriticism” after all), although it can be tricky to determine exactly when they're going over the top:
Scientists researching the brain cherish the idea that their work is extremely important, unique, and indispensable. They often venture into other fields and sciences without feeling any inferiority complex, convinced that their knowledge on human brain be sufficient to understand and interprete [sic] everything.  ...  Modern neuroscientists are like ancient alchemists, believing they are up to discover the most important secrets of the life elixir and the philosophers’ stone. Is not the hyperproduction of new names for (psudo)disciplines [sic] also a result of that arrogance?

A short primer of neuro-disciplines

Mazur and Rinčić (2013) then present their history of neurowords from 1681 to 2006, focusing on those that have become legitimate (or pseudo-legitimate) fields of study, some of which they characterize as “awkward caricatures” (e.g., neuroeconomics and neuromarketing).3
Neuromarketing – the application of neuroimaging methods to product marketing (studying consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli) – was coined by Ale Smidts in 2002.

In the same year, it seems that two more new neuro-terms were coined: neuroethics, meaned [sic] for the neuroscience of ethics and the ethics of neuroscience (four years later, in May 2006, a Neuroethics society came to be at a conference in Asilomar in California), and neuroesthetics, as the study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art.

Neuroeconomics studies the neural underpinnings of making decisions, taking risks, and evaluating rewards. Probably the first to formulate the name was Paul Glimcher in 2003.4

The article confirms that the recent fad for “neuroization” is not justified. And not surprisingly, it ends on a pessimistically snarky (and utterly hyperbolic) note, putting all neuroscientists in their place:
In fact, nothing crucial has been discovered in neuroscience for quite a while, and the premordial entrapment in the mind-body problem still lasts: why, then, that explosion of "interest" in the brain at the end of the 20th and at the beginning of the 21st centuries? Is not it a contemporary variation of a historical periodical millenaristic movement, invoking a panacea for a society in general crisis? Neuro- seems to provide not only a desperate ultimate attempt at being original in science where everything has been said and done, but, morover [sic], a guaranty of attracting attention and simulating importance.

Further Reading

I've written my own idiosyncratic history of neurowords in Journomarketing of Neurobollocks, which told Steven Poole he didn't invent neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash (and reminisced about the 2006 neuroword contest hosted by Neurofuture).

Befitting a blog that started as its own made-up neuroword, here are some selections from the archives:

Neuroetiquette and Neuroculture

Neurokitchen Design?





The Luxury Of Neurobranding


1 though an expert in Croatian humor I am not.

2 A significantly shorter version of this paper was presented at 9th Lošinj Days of Bioethics, Mali Lošinj, Croatia, May 16-19, 2010.

3 Interestingly, they note that neuropolitics was probably coined by Timothy Leary in 1977 and neurotheology even earlier, by Aldous Huxley in his 1962 utopian novel Island.

4 The sources for these neuroword origins are included in the footnotes of the paper:

51 A. Roskies, "Neuroethics for the new millennium," Neuron 35 (2002): 21-23.

52; cf. also "The statement on neuroesthetics" by Semir Zeki (

53 Paul W. Glimcher, Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).
However, in my own coverage of neurowords, I found that neuroeconomics has been around since the late 1990s.


Amir Muzur, Iva Rinčić. Neurocriticism: a contribution to the study of the etiology, phenomenology, and ethics of the use and abuse of the prefix neuro-.  JAHR European Journal of Bioethics, Vol.4 No.7 Svibanj 2013. pp. 545-555.

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At October 06, 2014 5:21 AM, Anonymous Jespersen said...

Google Ngrams disagrees with their dating.

The first mentions of 'neuroanthropology' occur in 1973, and a 1978 book already talks about 'profound importance to the growing field of neuroanthropology.' Same for neuroeconomics - the title "Neuroeconomics: in search of. the neural representation of. brands" appears in 1978. Etc, etc.

At first I thought the authors' commentary was brilliant, but the final quoted paragraph makes me doubt the legitimacy of their criticism.

And to be fair, the exact same sort of criticism can be levelled at "computational" or "evolutionary"...

At October 07, 2014 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Neuropsychoanalysis" is a good one as well.

At October 13, 2014 5:36 PM, Anonymous Roger Bigod said...

It's all neurobabble.

Except neurohappiness. Trying to improve my neuroself makes me feel in control. Fresh, vibrant, now.

At October 14, 2014 11:02 AM, OpenID thealienist said...

This is also my problem with the book, "Proust was a Neuroscientist." It seems that anyone with a brain can be a "neuro"something.


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