Neuropolitics, neuroeconomics, neuroethics... neurobabble: thoughts on 'Neuromania'

Neuropolitics, neuroeconomics, neuroethics... neurobabble: thoughts on 'Neuromania'

Some initial thoughts on the recent book, Neuromania: On the limits of brain science by Paolo Legrenzi & Carlo Umiltà (trans. by Frances Anderson), Oxford University Press

Is there a capitalist part of the brain? Is there a conservative part of the brain? Are a new set of disciplines right to suggest there may be? Legrenzi & Umiltà beg to differ.

This short volume provides a welcome respite from the sensational reporting of brain science by skimming over the various sub-disciplines and highlighting the grandious claims of proponents.

The authors summarise the history of psychology and brain science, and describe key developments, focusing on fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), the most popular tool in modern brain science as judged by media reports. Essentially, fMRI measures oxygen use, and thus neuron activity, in the brain. If a part of the brain is using activated during an activity, for example doing a mathematical calculation, then it will be using more oxygen, which the fMRI can show. This is used to show a functional 'map' of the brain, which is then colour-coded to give you a nice wee picture of the brain when you do stuff. It's the reporting of this sort of work they're mainly interested in.

So where does politics, ethics, economics, and even God come in? Welcome to the new neuro...studies. A quick Google search reveals thousands of hits for these new, re-energised 'neuro...' disciplines:

Google web search (Google Scholar)
Neuroeconomics: 480,000 (6,230)
Neuropolitics: 34,000 (680)
Neuroethics: 502,000 (3,520)
Neuroaesthetics: 31,900 (503)
Neurotheology: 159,000 (936)

This gives us an initial idea that somebody, somewhere is taking these ideas seriously.
In the book itself, the examination of each of these is limited to a page on average, and in such a slim volume, I didn't feel equipped sufficiently to critique any of them beyond my initial suspicions that they sound like reductive nonsense. The neuropolitics one is more substantive than the others.

What business has this on a class-struggle blog?
Well the implications become clear when you think of the politicised conclusions of neuroscience proponents. The authors criticise work that suggests that political persuasion may have less to do with experience (culture, upbringing, social and economic factors) and more to do with biology. Legrenzi & Umiltà rightly point out that this is simply an erroneous conclusion, as the neuroscience data cannot separate correlation from causality. What worries them more though, is the impact stuff like this has on the public - “this article appeared in a highly reputable science journal [Science, vol 321, p1667-70]. Just imagine what will happen when results of this type are simplified for the popular press!” (Legrenzi & Umilta, p90)

Recently, philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci has also been criticising this trend. Two recent books, The Moral Landscape and Incognito, by Sam Harris and David Eagleman respectively, advocate the use of such brain imaging in detecting criminals. Pigliucci is critical of such work and takes Eagleman to task for his assertion that 'some people will need to be taken off the streets on the basis of their fMRIs for a longer time, even a lifetime'. While Harris reckons we should impose lying-free zones by scanning people in areas where the powers that be may want to 'enforce the truth'. I've yet to get a copy of either book but after reading Neuromania and listening to Pigliucci discuss neuroscience generally I want to read them soon.

Another voice sceptical of the claims of certain neuroscientists and critical of the social implications is psychologist Cordelia Fine. In Delusions Of Gender, Fine views the modern neurosciences as to a large part reinforcing gender stereotypes by locating them in biology rather than processes of socialisation. Legrenzi & Umiltà avoid outright criticism of individual works, though I wish they would have engaged more critically like Fine and Pigliucci have done.

Probably the most interesting part of the book is their discussion of work showing that the presentation of neuroscientific information makes all but neuroscience experts more likely to endorse poor scientific explanations. They describe experiments where participants are told about a human behavioural phenomena and given a combination of 'good' or 'bad' explanations. The bad explanations were simply a restatement of the phenomena, and so didn't explain it at all. They were also either given, or not given, some irrelevant neuroscience information, effectively told about some brain scans.

Generally people judged the good explanations better than than the bad explanations. The interesting finding was that the bad explanations (which, remember, did not explain anything) became satisfactory when they were accompanied by irrelevant neuroscience information. The implications are that should a neuro-explanation be given for just about any phenomenon, whether or not it's true, people are pretty convinced.

Even neuroscience students fell for it – only researchers and lecturers in neuroscience picked up on the irrelevance if the neuroscience information. So basically, neuroscience is really persuasive to most people, even when it's irrelevant.

A further criticism is that even when we do find neural correlates for specific experiences or action, it doesn't really explain anything, rather it is purely descriptive. Where it is true, it is banal – of course a part of the brain is involved when we do something, it would require much greater explanation if the brain wasn't involved when we do things! The failure to separate a causal mechanism from the mere descriptive observation that we use our brain when we do things leaves a lot of the neuro claims vacant, never mind the fact that they fail to account for the way that experience shapes the brain, that it's not a simple one-way causal street.

The concluding chapter is unsatisfying, despite having a dig at the Catholic Church. The conclusion focuses of end-of-life issues relating to euthanasia and organ donation. The relevance is tangential to the proceeding discussion, and though important, diverts from what could have been relevant conclusions based on the current perception of these 'neuro...' disciplines. It would have been logical for the authors to discuss how the superifically persuasive nature of neuroscientific information can be used to legitimise explanations for all sorts of aspects of the status quo. Everything from gender differences to political leaning can be explained away, and more importantl, made believable, by throwing in a few brain scans pictures!

Overall it's a decent introduction to some of the runaway, loaded uses of neuroscience but it's limited as a tool in critiquing these disciplines as challenging them requires more than a short summary. However, coupled with Cordelia Fine's attack on 'neurosexism', Delusions Of Gender, it's an important addition to the literature on what is contemporary science's version of the 'gene for X', namely the 'brain part for X'.

Further sources:
Rationally Speaking podcast edition on 'neurobabble' -
Cordelia Fine on neurosexism


Joseph Kay
Jan 3 2012 22:46

I've been thinking of reading this as it's quite short... Might put it off for a bit based on this, sounds like it mainly rehashes the standard anti-reductionist arguments about correlation/causation etc?

Have you read Steven Rose's '21st century brain'? I found that excellent as a materialist and evolutionary account of the brain that avoids reductionist pitfalls by stressing the false nature/nurture dichotomy, i.e. that brains are shaped by their environments even as they shape them. 'Dialectical biology' a la Levins/Lewontin I guess. Cordelia Fine's book is excellent, I need to finish reading it (got half way through and some bastard nicked my copy).

Jan 3 2012 23:21

Yeah I have 21st Century Brain and have dipped in and out of it. Rose is always great at exposing that false dichotomy. Apparently Rebecca Jordan Young's Brainstorms is good on this too, and is complimentary to Fine's work, yet to pick it up.

Feb 3 2012 18:09
Joseph Kay
Sep 17 2013 21:06

So I finally got around to reading this. Seemed like a pretty sensible, if fairly standard, caution against reductionism, and an important warning about being blinded by irrelevant scientific detail (the Yale study is a great illustration of how we can be bullshitted).

The swipes at social construction seemed a bit ill-informed. They don't name any theorists, just 'the 60s', and an anecdote about being called a capitalist dupe maybe hints at motive. I mean, most contemporary social construction doesn't reject science or Homo sapiens as products of evolution, e.g. Judith Butler talks about the potential disagreements between a gynecologist, endocrinologist and a psychologist in defining rigid, binary sex - she doesn't say hormones and bodies don't exist. Anne Fausto-Sterling pays very close attention to biology in showing how biological categories incorporate social assumptions (e.g. the decision to label testosterone and oestrogen 'sex hormones').

And yeah, the ethics bit at the end also jarred a bit, didn't seem to follow except in a broad sense that ethics reflects understandings of mind-body. I'll check out the Pigliucci podcast next, someone recommended his book on phenotypic plasticity recently.

Also, this blog has made it onto a political science reading list (politics and the life sciences):

Chilli Sauce
Sep 17 2013 21:19
Also, this blog has made it onto a political science reading list (politics and the life sciences):

That's great. But how the hell did you find that JK?

Joseph Kay
Sep 17 2013 21:31

Googling for this blog!

Joseph Kay
Sep 18 2013 08:15

I always find this cartoon's the easiest way to see how stupid reductionism is:

I mean at least mathematicians, or maybe philosophers of maths, could claim to be the one true level of explanation that all others rest on. Biological (or neural) reductionism is just absurd, and more to the point, unscientific.

Sep 18 2013 21:46

Massimo Pigliucci's stuff is great.

Dec 4 2013 09:27

New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism?

It reports greater connectivity within the hemispheres in males, but greater connnectivity between the hemispheres in females. These findings, the authors conclude in their scientific paper,

suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. Male brains are, on average, larger than females and a large brain is not simply a smaller brain scaled up.

Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimise energy demands, wiring costs, and communication times – there may physical reasons for different arrangements in differently sized brains. The results may reflect the different wiring solutions of larger versus smaller brains, rather than sex differences per se.

But also, popular references to women’s brains being designed for social skills and remembering conversations, or male brains for map reading, are utterly misleading.

In an larger earlier study (from which the participants of the PNAS study were a subset), the same research team compellingly demonstrated that the sex differences in the psychological skills they measured – executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition – are almost all trivially small.


As prominent feminist neuroscientists have noted, the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces.

Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.

This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.

the croydonian ...
Dec 4 2013 19:18

Nice to see you blogging again smile

Dec 4 2013 20:52

This blog is from 2yrs ago croydonian

the croydonian ...
Dec 5 2013 14:21

whooooooooooooooooooooooooops. still, take the credit.