Review: Can neuroscience change our minds? - Hilary and Steven Rose


A review of the new book by Hilary and Steven Rose which presents both a scientific and political critique of the growth of 'neuro' disciplines.

Submitted by Choccy on October 24, 2016

Hilary and Steven Rose have spent the best part of five decades skewering the co-option of science under capitalism and Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? continues in this vein. Anyone familiar with Steven Rose knows he's no anti-science relativist. As a neurobiologist he acknowledges that 'neuroscience is dramatically increasing our understanding of the brain' (p.2). What the Roses object to isn't neuroscience itself, but its encroachment outside its appropriate domain of application. They note the growth of 'neuro' prefixes like neuroaesthetics, and neuromarketing, alongside the proliferation of 'neuro' book titles and steady rise in newspaper headlines about the brain, as well as the growth of 'brain training' gadgets and games.

The book highlights both similarities and differences between the enthusiasm that greeted the Human Genome Project, and genetics generally, and this new explosion of 'neuro' disciplines. While both are prone to reductionism - genetics on the primacy of the DNA molecule, and neuroscience on the primacy of neural correlates and brain scans - the type of reductionism involved in their misuse is slightly different. With genetics, it could be misinterpreted as deterministic; genes means destiny. However with the 'neuro' disciplines the emphasis is not on destiny, but on plasticity. At its base, this seems progressive; plasticity means we can change, and be changed, thus denying predestination. What the over-reach of the 'neuro' disciplines has done is simply replace the gene with the brain. The explanation for complex individual and social phenomena do not have to lie in the genome of a person but rather in their neural architecture. Thus, as opposed to the 'destiny' of genes, we're left with the neural neoliberal 'self', one that we can recreate and 're-wire', given the right knowledge and gadgets.

Hence, uncritical advocates place an unjustified trust in both the brain as explanation, and the brain as solution, to individual and social problems. Techniques such as fMRI, CT scans, and PET scans have enormous utility, but stripped of context, the highly re-touched images they provide tell us little about the human beings and the complex phenomena we're attempting to understand.

The book briefly describes the history of the brain sciences, starting with early materialist attempts to explain behaviour, such as phrenology, which the Roses note shares at least some resemblance to the current uncritical neurodisciplines, and moving through the growth of psychology to the current state of neuroscience and its various techniques and projects.

The book really comes into its own in the chapters on social policy and educational policy. The Roses discuss a 2008 Labour government report, Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century, and another report from Graham Allen (Labour) & Ian Duncan Smith (Conservative), Early Interventions: good parents, great kids, better citizens. What the reports share is a location of behaviour and learning as 'in the brain', with its little pictures of 'neglected brains', over-emphasis on early years and of course a complete and total failure to link complex social problems to inequality and socio-economic relationships.

Rose and Rose debunk most of the claims of the Early Interventions report. Beginning with the brain images, they find that the origin is a 1997 poster, which the scientist responsible, Bruce Perry, never published, and when contacted by the Roses said had been 'distorted' (p.58) by Iain Duncan Smith. Other core claims of Smith's report, such as that more synapses (connections between brain cells) are better and that impoverished environments result in poor brain wiring are found to be unsupported by empirical evidence as formulated. The book shows how synapses are in fact 'pruned' throughout life, not just in early years, and indeed we 'lose' synapses all the time through inactivity in a particular behaviour. The use of research on impoverished environments is also misleading say the Roses. Studies of laboratory rats did show show that rats raised in 'enriched' environment with toys and such, had thicker cortices (brain region in mammals where 'higher' processes take place), than those raise in 'impoverished' environments. Rose & Rose point out that the reports fail to mention that studies showed that adults rats transferred from impoverished to enriched environment showed remarkable catchup. They also discuss case studies of Romanian orphans who when transferred to homes elsewhere were 'able to recover something close to a normal trajectory in both brain growth and behavioral outcomes' (p86).

Their point is not that 'early years' are unimportant, but rather that improving human environments is important at ALL stages, as a matter of social and economic justice. They positively cite collaborative research between neuroscientists and social scientists which found that in a sample of 1099 'neurotypical' 3-20yr olds, brain surface area was positively correlated with family income, particularly in 'brain areas associated with language and reading skills' (p.87). They go on to conclude that 'the simplest and most effective of early interventions to increase mental capital would be to lift children out of poverty' (p.87). The Roses see no coincidence between this unjustified emphasis on the magic of early years, and the governments redefinition of 'poverty'.

So why the political emphasis on early years despite the, at best, complicated, if not misleading, relationship with learning and social outcomes? Rose & Rose observe that rather than highlight the effect of poverty on the young child, instead the government talks of 'poor parenting', 'worklessness', 'family breakdown' and 'alcohol and drug dependency'. The government cuts benefits, drags its heels on raising the minimum wage, fines parents whose children miss a certain amount of school, and abandons its own 2010 Child Poverty Act which pledged to end child poverty by 2020, as 'unsustainable'. This government redefines poverty in terms of educational achievement, worklessness, drug use, rather than 'an income less than 60% of the average' as does 'every member of the OECD' (p.71).

The use of Attachment Theory in Smith & Allen's report grossly oversimplifies the complex relationship at home between mother and child, and ends up 'guilt-tripping the almost certainly overstretched mother' in the Roses' view (p.98). Combining the misuse of psychological and neuroscientific theory, and redefining 'poverty' away from relative income to education, employment and drug use, leads to a gaze shifting away from tackling structural inequality and more toward 'targeted intervention and moral policing' (p.100).

Rose & Rose assert that targeted intervention is more about economic corner-cutting than principled concern for poorer children or abolishing structural inequalities. 'Where individual children are selected for free school meals they perform less well [...] research reports that these children feel stigmatized and frequently experience bullying. (p.102). They call for universal free school meals, as is already the case in some local authorities, particularly in this time of an expanding precariat, where even those previously thought to be secure in housing and employment are experiencing increasingly flimsy employment and housing. Tackling inequality can only be addressed by 'structural reform, about which neuroscience has nothing to say' (p.103).

As a science teacher, my attention was drawn to the penultimate chapter 'Neuroscience goes to school'. In 2007 an OECD report stated that it may be 'essential' for teachers to learn the 'scientific basis' for learning. At some level, this is absolutely true.... we've come a long way in education from thinking that children are empty vessels we 'pour' knowledge into... they're not simply passive receptors of information. Children, and adults, are active participants in the world, and education must take account of that. But what exactly does a teacher need to know about the brain? Rose & Rose draw attention to various developments in the last two decades that assert that understanding the brain is essential to educators. Bodies such as the Royal Society (The UK's national academy of science) and the Wellcome Trust have produced reports and surveys stating the importance of neuroscience for teachers and teachers' readiness to incorporate neuroscience information into their teaching.

At some level this is uncontroversially true. It's the specifics that the Roses take issue with. They note that while neuroscientific information is useful, particulary in developmental learning issues such as dyscalculia and dyslexia, in that, in some cases, it makes them 'real' (by 'real' is meant, a concrete reason why a child might struggle with a task and isn't just being 'naughty' or 'uncompliant'), but it also, by 'biologizing' the child's issue, lead to less responsible educators 'giving up' if they view a child as 'not wired right'.

So what are the substantive claims about the brain that teachers should know? The Royal Society report Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning lists key 'insights' for education from neuroscience:

2.1 Both nature and nurture affect the learning brain 3
2.2 The brain is plastic 5
2.3 The brain’s response to reward is influenced by expectations and
uncertainty 7
2.4 The brain has mechanisms for self-regulation 8
2.5 Education is a powerful form of cognitive enhancement 9
2.6 There are individual differences in learning ability with a basis
in the brain 10
2.7 Neuroscience informs adaptive learning technology

Rose & Rose, using the critical comments from neuroscientist Vincent Walsh, point out that the emphasis on 'the brain' can be removed from almost every single one of the 'insights' without , in fact, losing any insight! So,
- "Both nature and nurture affect the learning brain" becomes 'Both nature and nurture affect learning'
- "The brain’s response to reward is influenced by expectations and
uncertainty" becomes 'People's response to reward is influenced by expectations and

- "There are individual differences in learning ability with a basis
in the brain" becomes 'There are individual differences in learning ability ' OR 'There are individual differences in learning ability with a basis
in economics, class, and opportunity'

If anything, by embodying these insights in actual human beings in the actual world, teachers and parents have a bit more to work with! So while it becomes apparent that reductively biologizing complex learning behaviours and social phenomena suits an increasingly neoliberal education system locating differences within individuals and families rather than in structural economic inequalities, why do many people find this stuff plausible? Wellcome Trust claims that teachers surveyed are keen to learn neuroscience, and the Roses point to the explosion of brain-based gadgets and talk in schools - Brain Gym is a real thing... DIY Trans-cranial Direct Stimulation is a real thing.... 'Learning Styles' (e.g. VAK) in schools is a real thing!!!

I'd like them to have gone into the research on the 'seductive allure' of neuroscience research, but in such a slim volume (160 odd pages) it's understandable they didn't. But the research on lay people's interpretation of neuroscience information is super interesting. Weisberg et al (2008 & 2015) found that only neuroscience experts were able to successfully spot the logical irrelevance of neuroscience information to psychological explanations. All others in their study, including neuroscience and psychology undergrads, found scientific explanations more compelling if accompanied by logically irrelevant neuroscience information. Another study found that lay people were persuaded of the explanatory value of an explanation if it was accompanied by an irrelevant brain image, due to an 'affinity for reductionist explanations’ (Mc Cabe & Castel, 2008). This affinity for reductionist explanations, as McCabe and Castel put it, is backed up by very recent research by Hopkins et al (2016), who found that, not just at the level of irrelevant neuroscience applied to psychological phenomena, but right across the sciences, from physics to social sciences. Participants were more likely to rate 'bad' explanations (those that don't explain but just restates a phenomenon) as better if they had logically irrelevant reductive information accompanying them. The 'seductive allure' of neuroscience, is in fact merely part of a broader 'reductive allure'. A reductive allure that fits the needs of neoliberal policies perfectly!

Does a teacher really need to know neuroscience? As a biology teacher, I'd say generally 'no'. Sure, knowledge is knowledge, and if it's robust and well-supported it's great. And it's cool for teachers to learn new things. But NEED it? No. Does a professional footballer need to understand biomechanics of a moving human body, or apply differential calculus to the trajectory of a travelling ball? No. Does it hurt them to know it? No. Would it be a sensible use of their time to study it? Probably not. Now, should someone know about this stuff? Yes, of course. The question is one of domain of application. Would a teacher learn more about a kids individual difficulties by reading about the brain, or by just having a conversation with a kids and reflecting on their professional expertise and experience as well as that of their colleagues? It doesn't have to be either/or of course, but where does the emphasis lie?

Telling teachers they need to learn this stuff is a gross distraction from much more pending issues to do with the individual human being that actually populate schools, situated in the real social world. If a teacher wants to learn neuroscience out of interest that's cool. Does a music teacher need to know what the neural correlates of hearing a C# note? By overemphasising the relevance of neuroscience knowledge to education, we run the risk of minimising what is known about learning from social science and humanities. And this is a key point. The 'scientism' implicit in most eductional neuroscience ignores issues of structural inequality almost altogether, and locates both problems and solutions to complex learning problems at the feet of individuals brains, and the families. Philosopher John Bruer, in 1997 stated that educational neuroscience was a 'Bridge too far' to be conceptually supported, and that teachers would be better learning some cognitive psychology, rather than neuroscience, and still holds the same view. (see 'Afterword', in Mareschal et al, 2014)

What is the role of a critical neuroscience? Responsible and nuanced neuroscience can debunk myths about 'male brains' and 'female brains', about DIY 'brain stimulation' improving performance, and about the efficacy of 'brain training' products being sold to schools and parents - turns out 'brain training games' make you really good at brain-training games, but not much else.

I actually think busting 'neuromyths' is a really important application of neuroscience to education. Anyone who has worked in English schools in the last 10 years will have come across clueless managers telling everyone that kids have certain 'learning styles' and 'learn in certain ways'. The concept of visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic 'styles', or VAK, was fairly prominent 5-10yrs ago in schools. Managers, who, by the way, in my experience had no science background, would tell people kids had 'learning styles' actually made it school policy to place this stuff on lesson plans, no joke. Rose & Rose point out that there is no neuroscientific evidence that kids have 'learning styles' and no evidence that kids taught in 'their style' perform better, nor is there even a theoretical account of how children could have 'learning styles' by virtue of 'brain differences'.

I'm actually keen on this sort of use of neuroscience, one that acknowledges its relationship to the social world, rather than viewing brains as disembodied, and children as 'their brains'. Rose & Rose do emphasise that there is responsible, critical neuroscience out there, just not nearly enough yet.

Further Reading:
Bruer, J. (1997) Education and the Brain: a bridge too far. Educational Researcher 26(8) pp.4-16
Hopkins et al (2016) 'The seductive allure is a reductive allure: People prefer scientific explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive information.' Cognition. vol.155 pp.67-76.
Joldersma, C. (Ed) (2015) Neuroscience and Education: A Philosophical Appraisal
Legrenzi, P. & Umilta, C. (2011) Neuromania: on the limits of brain science
Mareschal et al (Eds) (2014) Educational Neuroscience
McCabe & Castel (2008) 'Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning'. Cognition 107(1) pp.343–352
Rees, D, & Rose, S. (Eds) (2004) The New Brain Sciences: Perils and Prospects
Rose, H & Rose, S. (2016) Can neuroscience change our minds?
Royal Society (2011) Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning
Satel, S. & Lilienfeld, (2013) Brainwashed: the seductive allure of mindless neuroscience
Tallis, R. Aping Mankind: neuromania, darwinitis, and the misrepresentation of humanity
Weisberg et al (2008) 'The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations', Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20(3) pp.470-477
Weisberg et al (2015) 'Deconstructing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations', Judgment and Decision Making, 10(5) pp.429-441



7 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by jesuithitsquad on October 24, 2016

Interesting stuff


7 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by Wayne on October 29, 2016

Thanks for that, mate - a really fascinating review and overview of the debate. Did you get a chance to see Rob Newman's The Brain Show? His target is the right-wing excesses of neuroscience - pretty funny and pretty spot on!


7 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by Choccy on October 29, 2016

I wanted to but didn't get round to it :( I liked his evolution stuff ;)