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'.