Brains need love too

I recently saw the Douglas’ new ad campaign, ‘Brains need love too’ (check out the video here). The video is extremely open-ended, with the actual message of the campaign open to the interpretation of the viewer, at least until they visit the campaign’s web site. Here are the interpretations I took away from it (I initially tried to stay away from Cam’s blog entry and the campaign’s site until I got my preliminary impressions down, so as not to influence how I perceived it).

-          Psychiatric conditions are neurobiologically based, as implied with the opening shots of brains labelled by psychiatric diagnosis. I’m assuming the reasoning behind this is that it has traditionally been believed that stigma against mental illness could be ameliorated in the general public if it was more widely known that mental illness is fundamentally due to the structure and function of the brain itself, as opposed to any personal weakness of afflicted persons themselves. Although it’s noble to attempt to combat stigma by replacing popular misconceptions with fact, however, recent studies showing that stigma against mental illness persists even in the face of improvement of the public’s understanding of the origins of mental illness sadly cast doubt on the effectiveness of this particular strategy.

-          People are more than their labels, another anti-stigma message. Outside of its labelled container, the brain reveals it’s capable of experiencing life just like anyone else.

-          Take care of your brain, not meant as an anti-stigma message but more of a suggestion that all of our brains, well, ‘need love too’. Speaking of which, Brain Awareness Week is coming up in the near future, so get involved if you need some spring brain-awareness-lovin’. I’m assuming the figurative message here is, be aware that your brain needs care, if not by skateboarding and psychedelic brain-tossing, then by nutrition, exercise, mental stimulation, paying attention to your mental and emotional functioning, and not-sniffing-glue-or-opening-doors-with-your-head-or-something. They’re pretty vague on this one.

Overall, it’s charming and cute, and I like the bold approach of using real (albeit calf) brains up-close and bloody to show that something that may seem disquieting to us (in this case, a bloody brain) is capable of experiencing cognition, emotions and the world around us. Similarly, although mental illness can be disquieting to those with a stigma against it, psychiatric patients are fully capable of these same experiences. Also, regarding the brain images, I feel obligated to point out that we’re talking about something we’ve all got, which is processing this sentence right now within your own head, and while you don’t necessarily have to realize how cool that is, you should at least try to get over your squeamishness over the look of your own brain. It is, after all, what ‘you’ really look like.

However, it’s difficult to determine the overarching message of the campaign from the 62-second ad alone. It does seem to be necessary to go to the campaign website for clarification, where there’s a slightly vague description urging people to take care of their brains and, more usefully, a list of diverse resources for information on the brain as well as psychiatric disorders and treatment.

Finally, on its FAQ page, the campaign addresses some problems viewers might have had with the video, for which I thought I’d throw in my opinion as well:

Are these human brains?’

Given the demanding job our Brain Bank does of obtaining and processing human brains, and out of respect to the hypothetical brain donors that would have been involved, I would certainly hope not; thankfully they’re calf brains.

‘The bloody brains are shocking and disgusting. Don’t they make it difficult to understand the message?’

I can’t see why they’d obscure the message at all; if anything the graphic nature (which is tempered by an overall gentle tone) potentiates the message, as I mentioned earlier, that something that may seem disturbing to us intuitively (such as bloody brains or mental illness) facilitates (or does not preclude, in the case of the latter) the experiencing of our mental lives, and this also makes the message more salient.

‘Doesn’t the video reduce mental illness to a mere organ, the brain, ignoring the social and environmental aspects?’

Social and environmental factors do influence the risk for, and development and treatment of, psychiatric conditions, but they do so by influencing the structure and function of the brain. I don’t think that the ad reduces mental illness to a mere organ, but it does (justifiably) show the organ responsible for mental and emotional functioning.

‘Doesn’t the video make light of mental illness?’

I didn’t get this impression at all; if anything, it’s showing that, contrary to stigmatic views, those afflicted with psychiatric conditions are fully capable of living normal and fulfilling lives.

‘The goal of the video is to catch people’s interest so they visit the Douglas Web site, a respected source of accurate information about mental illness, verified by experts. If the message stimulates debate about mental illness, so much the better!

Mental illness is still a taboo subject in our society, and many people hesitate to ask questions or seek help. It’s high time we began talking about mental illness and taking it into the public forum. Mental illness affects one out of every five Canadians, yet it is still an unpopular and underfunded cause.

By placing the brains in boxes, you are placing people with mental illness in boxes.’

As I mentioned above, it does the opposite; by removing the brains from the boxes in the opening seconds, the ad suggests that it’s possible to remove individuals with psychiatric conditions from labelled boxes into contexts in which they can thrive.

‘Isn’t mental illness psychological rather than about the brain?’

Mental illness is characterized by disturbances in cognition, affect and behaviour, phenomena that are rooted in the neurobiological structure and function of the brain. To say that mental illness is “psychological rather than about the brain” is to neglect the fact that psychological features arise as consequences of brain activity.

‘Why did you use such shocking images?’

I really don’t think the sight of a brain should be too shocking to many people out there (though I’d be curious as to whether this ad could be run on television). However, the mild shock that might accompany the images in the video is likely intended to provoke more attention to the video’s important themes.

That’s pretty much it. While I think the overall ad is vague, and the campaign itself rather general (‘Take care of your brain!’ is quite a broad statement), I disagree with the negative points its authors anticipate on its website, and more importantly think that its message is worthwhile. Also it’s a well-produced and genuinely endearing ad. So go love your brain.

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Posted in Depression, Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Public Education.

Posted on 18 Jan 2011

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One comment to Brains need love too

  1. Marie france Coutu
    On Jan 18th 2011 at 14:32

    Good morning,

    It was very interesting to read your impressions and analysis of the ad. Thanks!