Psychology is everywhere. Whether the question is how to express our feelings better, break bad habits faster, find a soulmate sooner, change careers more smoothly, start making money or stop wasting it, there is a psychological theory that has an answer.
Because of how ubiquitous it is, the jargon of psychology has infiltrated our daily language and created a new hybrid: psychobabble. Psychobabble refers to the use of psychology terms to describe a variety of problems and situations, without deep knowledge of what the terms mean. It is the loose use of technical words that were developed to describe specific conditions in specific contexts. Psychobabble demonstrates a shallow level of erudition, but lacks a deep level of understanding. Psychobabble thrives on buzzwords. If you have ever had a “panic attack” or felt you are in a “co-dependent” relationship, or if you think your husband is a little “OCD” and should “meditate” more often, or if you thought your boss should try to create more “synergy” and stop being so “Type A,” then you speak psychobabble really well. If you think you don’t use psychobabble, then you are “in denial!”
With the advent of biological psychiatry and the marketing efforts of pharmaceutical companies psychobabble gave way to biobabble. New words were added to our lexicon to express problems of daily living. Our issues were no longer psychological, stemming from unresolved childhood conflict, stunted personal growth, or poor coping skills. They were attributed, instead, to malfunctioning biology. Just like psychobabble, biobabble has more buzz than it has meaning, and more power than merit. The most popular biobabble buzzword is undoubtedly “chemical imbalance.” This is a word that influences millions of people and generates billions of dollars! Soon thereafter, terms like dopamine, serotonin, burnt synapses, bipolar, SSRIs, Prozac, Xanax, and Ritalin became household names.
Psychobabble and biobabble are well integrated into everyday language. But now there is a new contender: neurobabble. New jargon, this time borrowed from the neuro-sciences and the neuro-practices, has already started to enter our lives.
This trend is consistent with a big shift on the agenda of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In 2008, the NIMH announced the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative, whose aim is to: “Develop, for research purposes, new ways of classifying mental disorders based on behavioral dimensions and neurobiological measures.” The implications of this initiative are huge, and the topic of a longer discussion. But be aware that the way we understand and talk about mental illness may change completely.
What you need to know for now is that our language will become flooded with neuro-terms. Buzzwords will start appearing in the media, in blogs, on YouTube videos, and on tweets. Sometimes these words will be used meaningfully and sometimes just for buzz.
To be better prepared for the neurobabble zeitgeist, I put together a neuro-dictionary for you to define some of the most popular neuro-terms.
- Neuroscience: the scientific study of the brain and the nervous system. Neuroscientists aim to explore how the brain and the nervous system influence behavior. While neuroscientists focus on both normal function and pathology, they are typically researchers working in labs, not clinicians working with patients.
- Neuroimaging: different techniques used to observe brain structures and functions, using the physical, chemical, and electrical properties of the brain. Some of the most popular ones include Computerized Tomography (CT scan), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Electroencephalography (EEG). These three types are the ones used the most often clinically (e.g., to look for tumors in the brain). There are many other techniques that are used experimentally (e.g., research on brain activity of people with depression), but not for diagnostic purposes.
- Neuropsychology: the field of psychology that focuses on the relationship between brain function and behavior. Neuropsychologists conduct assessments to relate functional impairments to underlying problems in brain function, due to trauma or disease, and provide recommendations for treatment.
- Neurotransmitters: the chemicals that brain cells use to transmit information to one another. Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are the most popular, because they have been implicated (in some cases erroneously) as the causes of mental illness.
- Neuroplasticity: the structural and functional changes of the nervous system, that can lead to short-term or long-term changes in behavior, as in development and maturation, learning, adapting to new environments, and adjustments to loss of function due to aging or brain injury.
- Neurogenesis: the creation of new nerve cells throughout the life span, a discovery that challenged the prevailing view that brain cells die without being replaced.
- Neurodevelopmental: disorders that occur in the early stages of life, prevent normal maturation of the brain and its functions, and result in a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems. The most popular neurodevelopment disorders include autism, dyslexia, and fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Neurodegenerative: disorders that are irreversible and lead to progressive loss and death of brain cells. Example include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.
- Neurocognitive: disorders that result in cognitive decline. The term started being used in the latest version of the psychiatric diagnoses manual (DSM-5) to replace the term dementia, which was considered pejorative.
- Neurofeedback: a type of intervention that uses EEG to help a person have more control over their brain activity. Just like biofeedback, where you can see changes in your pulse as you attempt to relax, neurofeedback shows the changes in brain activity as you try to adjust your performance on a video game.
- Neurolinguistics: the discipline that studies the brain mechanisms involved in learning, producing, and understanding language. You may have heard of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). While neurolinguistics is rigorous academic discipline, NLP is not a personal development training program with little science behind it.
Would you like to expand your neurobabble vocabulary further? What other neuroterms would you like to see added to the neuro-dictionary?