Communication Currents

You ARE Your Brain: Communicating Psychiatric Culture

December 1, 2008
Health Communication, Organizational Communication

It is no secret that psychiatric drug sales in the U.S. have been accelerating at an astounding pace over the past decade or so. Pretty much everyone is familiar with the idea that we live in a prozac nation where we can get prescription drugs for anything that ails—sleeplessness, hyperactivity, and even bad moods. Pharmaceutical corporations are commonly blamed for our escalating consumption of psychiatric medications because they communicate highly persuasive—albeit sometimes misleading—messages in advertisements that are directly targeted to public audiences.

Direct-to-consumer advertisements are not the only source instructing us about the centrality of biology (and especially brain biology) in our day-to-day lives. In 2001, a museum exhibit called Brain: The World Inside Your Head opened at the Smithsonian. Today, this exhibit continues to travel to science centers and museums around the country. The exhibit is sponsored by Pfizer (one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, and the manufacturer of Zoloft) and the National Institutes of Health, and it is produced by Evergreen Exhibits, a professional company that specializes in “exhibit marketing,” the use of educational exhibits to promote corporate brands and products.

I visited the Brain exhibit when it was at the Houston Health Museum in March 2007. The exhibit consists of a variety of interactive modules scattered throughout a large, open space in the museum. I entered the exhibit through the spectacular neuron canopy entrance, an arrangement of giant purple “neurons” that arched over me. As I entered the exhibit, strobe lights flashed around me, mimicking the electrical activity of the brain as a faceless voice droned, “Your brain processes your thoughts, moods, and emotions. Everything you do and everything you are comes from your brain. Everything your brain does comes from electrical signals and chemical connections.” As I wandered the scattered spaces of the exhibit, I would encounter this message again and again: "You ARE your brain."

Once inside the exhibit space, I wandered through a series of interactive modules that asked me to actively participate in constructing my own museum experience. The Brain exhibit features 22 interactive modules, which according to the exhibit's producers invite visitors to "touch, grab, manipulate, stand on, sniff, listen, hold, pull—even walk all over—the exhibit. These modules represent the latest research on the body's center of thought and information processing."

One interactive module called “Boost Your Brain” asked me to spin a game wheel and keep track of the point values for each option. Players gain points for activities that are healthy for the brain, but lose points for “bad brain” activities. I accumulated points when the game wheel landed on exercise, doing a crossword puzzle, and taking a shower with my eyes closed (apparently to promote balance and stimulate new connections between neurons). Nearby modules informed me of the importance of avoiding “bad brain” activities, including poor nutrition, and drug and alcohol abuse. Basically, “Boost Your Brain” explained a number of regular, everyday activities (eating, sleeping, hobbies) in terms of their specific effects on brain biology. I was learning that beneath the surface of my awareness, my moment-to-moment, daily decisions (Take a nap? Drink a soda?) were having important, permanent, and immediate effects on my synapses, neurons and brain chemicals.  

Another interactive module consisted of a simple puzzle where I matched specific parts of the brain to a diagram labeled with different functions such as “Vision,” “Touch,” and “Personality/Emotions.” I came away from this module thinking about what it taught me about every category of my life—my feelings, my thoughts, my sensory perceptions—could be matched up to a specific chunk of my brain. Everything I did, felt, experienced, or thought was caused by its own little section of neural territory. As the introductory voice had instructed me back at the neuron canopy, “Everything I am and everything I do comes from my brain. Everything my brain does comes from electrical signals and chemical connections.” At the end of the 22 interactive experiences, I had unconsciously started to think about myself in terms of my brain—I wasn't sad, I had low serotonin. I wasn't tired—my brain chemicals were producing less of the neural activity required for wakeful focus and sustained attention.

My own museum experience explains why pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer are willing to fund projects that do not explicitly publicize their brands or products. In order for more direct advertisements to resonate with us, as consumers we have to understand ourselves as creatures whose biology plays a central role in constituting our identity and determining our everyday thoughts and behaviors. In other words, before these advertisements really resonate with us, we have to become familiar with and accept the notion that we are “neurochemical selves” who can readily define our lives in terms of our bodies and brains. Before we can be persuaded by advertising messages (“buy this drug that will affect your brain chemicals”), we need to be persuaded that biology is the source of day-to-day moods, behaviors, and relationships.

While this brain-based paradigm is so common today that we often take it for granted, it is something that we have learned through our cultural experiences. Exhibits like Pfizer's Brain: World Inside Your Head are a great example of how we are educated to understand that we are our brains. Through exhibits like these we are taught to think and speak of our own experiences in brain-based terms like chemical imbalance and serotonin deficiency. In short, messages we receive in educational exhibits like Pfizer's museum displays prime us to be more accepting of psychiatric diagnoses and psychiatric medications.

Although the Brain exhibit does not directly market any of its products, Pfizer still has a strong incentive for people to speak and think in brain terms, such as neurochemical selves. This exhibit is just one example of how pharmaceutical marketers are using unique communication strategies to attract consumers to their products. These indirect messages might be even more influential than direct messages for two reasons. First, direct-to-consumer advertisements are coming under increased scrutiny as doctors and advocacy groups lobby the Food and Drug Administration to more closely monitor pharmaceutical ads for misleading content. Indirect messages like an educational exhibit are less likely to attract negative attention from doctors, consumer groups, and the government. Second, as Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield state in their recent book, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder, if we believe that our negative emotions and attitudes are signs of a biological disease, we are more likely to seek medical treatments and medications. By defining moods and behaviors as diseases, the exhibit reduces the persuasive burden of advertising messages. Perhaps the real message of the Brain exhibit is that corporations have a greater presence in our world than we might realize, and we can be exposed to and influenced by their messages in surprising ways.

About the author (s)

Davi Johnson Thornton

Southwestern University

Assistant Professor