The slow death of a pseudo-discipline

Cross-posted from MercatorNet

Enthusiasm for neuro-everything seems to be waning in the light of evidence that brain scans don’t tell us very much. Could we be reaching the end of materialist neuroscience?

It’s possible. It’s becoming conventional to assert that the mind is not the brain—even New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote an “evolutionary psychology” novel a few years ago, is now doing it. Literary Darwnism, as represented by Brooks’s widely panned novel, is also taking a hit. And science tabloid New Scientist has started to scoff at the idea too. Of course, medical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis has been scoffing at it for years, as have others.

But perhaps the most significant new development is that top biology review The Scientist recently featured a cautiously favourable review of a new book trashing the idea that current neuroscience is close to “reading minds,”Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience by psychiatrist Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld. The book is a comprehensive discussion of why we can just forget the pop media claims about the power of fMRI imaging, leading many to believe that neuroscience will eventually be able to read minds. Indeed, one well-known defender of that proposition allows us to know that for now psychiatry and psychology can continue. Never mind the government reading your mail; neuroscientists will read your mind.

Claims like, for example, that conservatives are turned on by “their own disgust” and liberals just like being turned on, period are taken seriously, as a portent of things to come.

As if that would generally explain responses to a local issue like a new plaza or discharge home for parolees? Would some such claim really override the difference it would make to the lives of the individuals in the neighbourhood? Maybe, maybe not. People, otherwise liberal, have been known to be alarmed when they discover that a local group home may house serial violent offenders. Conservatives could be for or against a new road.

This changes matters because, as the New Scientist article puts it,

“That, at least, is the popular conception of neuroscience and it’s worth big money. The US and the European Union are throwing billions of dollars at two new projects to map the human brain. Yet there is also a growing anxiety that many of neuroscience’s findings don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s not just sensational headlines reporting a ‘dark patch’ in a psychopath’s brain, there are now serious concerns that some of the methods themselves are flawed.”

For one thing, all that fMRI ((brain imaging) really does is show which brain areas have high oxygen levels when a person is thinking something. It simply cannot tell us what people are thinking, because many brain centres are active and those that are active may be activated for many reasons. Each brain is unique so data from studies must be averaged. But thoughts are not averaged; they belong to the individual.

Flawed methods are only a minor problem with this pseudodiscipline. A bigger one is the basic idea that the mind is simply what the brain happens to be doing. For example, as Satel and Lilienfeld note, you don’t have to be a Cartesian dualist to doubt that hate, generally, can actually be detected in our brains in a useful way, as one study has attempted to demonstrate.

From The Scientist:

“‘Brains are hot,’ Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld acknowledge in Brainwashed, their ‘exposé of mindless neuroscience’ (mostly practiced not by neuroscientists, they stress, but by ‘neuropundits,’ among others). The ‘mediagenic’ technology of fMRI imaging has made the brain, aglow with metabolic hotspots, into a rainbow emblem of the faith that science will soon empower us to explain, control, expose, exploit, or excuse every wayward human behavior from buying to lying, from craving to crime.”

As if. If religion can’t save us, science won’t either. And it is not clear that very many of the claims made are science.

Note: “Neuropundits?” One outcome of the many questionable claims made for brain imaging is the rise of terminology like “neuromania,” “neurohype,” and “neurobollocks.” The authors of such bon mots are, typically, sceptical neuroscientists.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.  

 

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