Commentary Magazine

Gray Matter Chatter

Brainwashed:The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
By Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld
Basic Books, 256 pages

If the field of neuroscience were to be represented by a single recognizable image—a logo—it would no doubt be a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of the human brain. These computer-generated pictures with their smudges of fluorescent color have become the preferred artwork for pop neuroscience journalism and peer-reviewed brain research alike, and with good reason. As psychologists David P. McCabe and Alan D. Castel demonstrated in a 2008 study in the journal Cognition, when deliberately shoddy theories are presented alongside fMRI scans, non-experts are far more likely to find the flawed explanations satisfying. It isn’t just brain images that have this effect. Related research by Temple University’s Deena Skolnick Weisberg has found that sprinkling irrelevant neuroscientific language into explanations gives theories measurable punch. Bolstering one’s argument can be as easy as saying “brain scans show…”

It is precisely this disorienting power of neuroscience research that Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld hope to counteract in their lucid new book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. The authors explore what, exactly, neuroscience adds to our understanding of various topics, from marketing and addiction to criminal justice and moral philosophy. They find that, despite gripping headlines claiming that neuroscience has exposed the true nature of love or hate or party politics, the power of neuroscientific analyses is consistently overstated.

Their target, as the authors are quick to admit, is an easy one, and they’re hardly the first to aim at it. Nonetheless, this thoughtful corrective to neuroscience hyperventilation distinguishes itself both for its evenhandedness and its accessibility. Satel and Lilienfeld, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, respectively, aren’t interested in denying the impressive advances that have been made in neuroscience in recent years. As they explain, “The field is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science…[but] it is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants.”

The authors also take issue with what they call “neurocentrism,” or “the increasingly fashionable assumption that the brain is the only important level of analysis for understanding human behavior.” Although most of what we do involves brain processes, it doesn’t follow that studying the brain in isolation can offer meaningful insights into everything we do. It’s a simple point that is too often ignored.

Brainwashed begins, quite logically, with a discussion of fMRI technology. Scans of this sort measure changes in the levels of oxygenized blood, an indicator of which brain regions are most active during particular mental tasks. This data is then used to create those ubiquitous color-coded images. By virtue of such technology, many neuroscientists believe they are hot on the trail of the neural foundations of everything from romantic love to dishonesty to consciousness itself.

There’s plenty of reason we ought to tamp down our excitement about the evidence offered by functional brain imaging. For one, it’s simplistic to think of the brain as being organized into distinct, single-function regions. As Satel and Lilienfeld note, for any given mental task, “there is a babel of crosstalk among numerous regions as they are strung together in specialized neural circuits that work in parallel to process thoughts and feelings.”

The statistical methods often used in interpreting fMRI data, meanwhile, are prone to false positives. In one infamous experiment, psychologists at Dartmouth placed a dead Atlantic salmon in the scanner and exposed it to photographs of various kinds of social situations. Because of the method of data analysis used, the deceased fish showed statistically significant brain activity.

With the inconclusiveness of fMRI data established, the authors move on to examine the supposed contributions neuroscience has made in a wide array of fields. Take marketing, for example. In recent years, more than a few firms have cropped up claiming to use the techniques of neuroscience to help businesses move product and increase market share. Crafty start-ups such as San Diego–based MindSign helped Warner Bros. edit a trailer for one of the Harry Potter movies, while Procter & Gamble has relied on the services of NeuroFocus to help sell shampoo. After reviewing what little supportive documentation is available (neuromarketers are often quite cagey about revealing their methodology), Satel and Lilienfeld conclude that “there is no specific evidence that neuromarketers can manipulate information they glean from our brains.”

Using brain scans to peddle dubious marketing advice is one thing, but the authors find “neurocentrism” especially pernicious in explaining the issue of addiction. In particular, the definition of substance addiction as merely a brain disease, they argue, “diverts attention from promising behavioral therapies that challenge the inevitability of relapse by holding patients accountable for their choice.”

Especially noteworthy is Satel and Lilienfeld’s treatment of what is perhaps the most fraught question that neuroscience brings to the fore: If our decisions are determined by physical brain processes beyond our control, how can we be held responsible for our actions? Instead of offering a succinct, chapter-length solution, the authors are happy to make an important and sober point about the limits of neuroscience. They explain:

The question of whether humans can live in a material world and yet be morally responsible is not empirically testable. It is not a scientific problem. It is a conceptual and ethical impasse that has bedeviled thinkers since antiquity and is still without resolution.

They go on to articulate a view that, while far from controversial, offers a sensible way to approach the problem. “As long as human beings possess conscious mental states that can bring about behavior and self-control,” they write, “then the law and our moral sense in general need not be radically revised.”

It’s also satisfying to see the authors address that related whopper of a metaphysical puzzle, the mind-body problem. It’s become too common for neuroscience tracts to gloss over how mysterious it is that a hunk of organic matter housed within a skull can yield something as rich and strange as subjective experience. Scientists “are not close to bridging the yawning gap between the physical and psychological,” as far as these two authors are concerned. “The brain enables the mind and thus the person. But neuroscience cannot yet, if ever, fully explain how this happens.” Some prominent philosophers of mind might disagree, but at least Satel and Lilienfeld take time to point out that there are in fact serious challenges to giving a satisfying account of how minds are even possible.

Brainwashed benefits considerably from Satel and Lilienfeld’s efforts to situate each of their discussions within a larger historical context. fMRI studies are but the most recent attempt to understand the mind through an exploration of brain anatomy—a tradition of inquiry that goes back at least to ancient Greece and that includes such preposterous disciplines as phrenology. Marketers, meanwhile, have been bringing academic psychology to bear on their work since the beginning of the 20th century, just as philosophers have been working to reconcile physical determinism with notions of free will and moral responsibility for longer than anyone can say. In this way, the authors not only call into question the revolutionary rhetoric surrounding neuroscience, but they also show that many of the issues that the field raises are anything but new.

The most valuable question that Brainwashed invites readers to ask about the discoveries of contemporary neuroscience is a hard-nosed “so what?” Subjected to even moderate scrutiny, studies that purport to show which neural goings-on correlate with compassion or memory or eating disorders, despite their technical value, rarely reveal anything meaningful that most non-neuroscientists didn’t know already. Keeping sight of this point is perhaps the only way to resist the tendency to mistake overblown jargon and colorful brains for bona fide profundity.

About the Author

Robert Herritt is a writer in New York City.

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