The Mistake of Communication as Chemistry

mind wikipedia

In some ways the reduction of the fabulously complex mind to the connectivity of neurons is akin to describing a piece of music in terms of the physics of air pressure.

Twenty five years ago interest in the subject of communication was largely confined to a limited circle of teachers and researchers in the fields of rhetoric, marketing and psychology.  In addition, there has always been a uniquely American fascination with provocative topics like political “brainwashing,” advertising and the contagious cultural fads of the young. But over the period of the last quarter decade the circumference of the borders of communication, persuasion and related topics has grown to such an extent that it is even pushed into formerly distant fields such as ethnography and neurobiology.  Especially in the latter field it now common for researchers to track “neural pathways” activated when subjects are exposed to everything from “shooter” video games to deodorant ads. Adherents to this approach are sometimes so confident of the possibilities in linking all human action to physical first causes that a few have even issued warnings to psychologists and psychotherapists that the days of talk therapies are numbered.  So much for the idea of the individual as a truly free agent. The underlying assumption is that brain chemistry will eventually make personality transparent.

Factor in the alleged existence of brain “plasticity” which makes it possible to adapt to digital media and the dominant daily activity of Americans of attending to screens, and it becomes clear why nearly everyone is now in the thrall of the neurobiology of social influence.

To be sure, expanding explorations of how we try to affect each other is always going to be a good thing. But the growing fashion for seeking answers using brain imaging devices seems badly misguided. Mapping the “brain activity” of individuals while they view movies, play video games or scan web pages involves all kinds of dubious simplifications. There is no question that we have much to learn about specific brain locations and routes that are awakened by certain kinds of media and presentational forms. And while there is ample evidence that some messages and activities influence hormone releases that effect mood and feelings, the mistake of such mapping offers the false impression that a relatively new “science” will give the analysis of persuasion a level of certainly that it has never had.

It badly misses the mark to assume that persuasion can be understood as a function of chemical and electrical processes in the brain. After all, human communication is about the engagement of the mind, with all of the personal uniqueness that comes with it. The brain is indeed the physical site where thinking—cognition—takes place.  But unlike nearly all other body organs, the brain has no single function.  Instead, it encompasses a world of possibilities that are ultimately realized when an individual’s biography and memory are brought into play. It facilitates thought and perception, but in ways that are always intimately tied to the experiences of the individual.  A person’s cognitive presence involves a rich mixture of early influences, their own social history and attendant memories.  All may be possible because of brain synapses, but their significant effects have to be measured on their own terms: what meanings we assign to messages, how we feel about a subject, what we “know,” and what we believe about our intentions and those of others.  In short, an individual’s interpretation of another’s words and actions is an outcome flowing from an infinite set of social, circumstantial and physical origins.  It’s this interpretative function that makes communication so much more interesting to approach in biographical rather than bio-chemical terms.

In some ways the reduction of the fabulously complex mind to the connectivity of neurons is akin to describing a piece of music in terms of the physics of air pressure. To be sure, it is easy to measure sound this way, converting pressure into frequencies that can be displayed on an audio analyzer. But to study music or persuasion by focusing on their physical processes has the effect of mistaking the conditions necessary for their production with the deeper complexities of their essence.

Neuroscience researchers will often concede as much.  But journalists trying to catch the next intellectual wave need to be reminded that a competent analyst of  communication must first be an interpreter keyed into the unique worlds of audiences, who construct significance and meaning from the mysterious depths of their own rich experience.


Adapted from the Introduction in Gary C. Woodward and Robert E. Denton Jr., Persuasion and Influence in American Life, Seventh Edition (Longrove Ill.: Waveland, 2014.