1 Section for Science Communication, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Københavns Universitet2 Medical Museion, Department of Public Health, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Københavns Universitet3 Science Communication, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Københavns Universitet4 Medical Museion, Department of Public Health, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Københavns Universitet
Functional neuroimaging is charged with revealing thoughts and intentions, the source of mental dysfunction, and the basis of fundamental human traits. Critics have argued that situating the mind in a brain scan risks essentializing contested social and psychiatric categories, encourages deterministic perspectives, and diverts attention from non-biological ways of understanding the mind. Here, I review these critical discourses and ask whether they are reflected in popular media, through a discourse analysis of print and online reports of functional neuroimaging research deriving primarily from the United Kingdom. In contrast to earlier studies, I found diverse challenges to the expertise of the scanner, ranging from explicit polemic to assertions of lay expertise. Brain images themselves were often manipulated, mislabelled or omitted in favour of photographic representations of mental function, posing new questions about the rhetorical power of the scan. These findings caution against premature conclusions concerning the reductive impact of popularized neuroimages, but I also argue for caution regarding the reach and novelty of the critical engagements I observed. Finally, I argue that qualitative analysis of media texts is essential to understanding the developing discourse surrounding functional neuroimaging, and discuss possible implications for science communication and public engagement practice.