David Brooks and the Anti-Neuroscience Backlash

Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are.

So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of The New York Times—leaps right from criticism of ambitions racing ahead of our current knowledge to something that looks a lot like rejection of the potential of science itself. Here's some of what Brooks has to say:

This is happening at two levels. At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime.

At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the "nothing buttists." Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don't really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.

These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind. It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.

Brooks then goes on to briefly discuss some of the things that make the brain extremely complex. But why is it that the brain's complexity makes it "probably impossible" that we can understand things like "emotions, reactions hopes and desires" by understanding the brain? He even repeats "The brain is not the mind" again. Okay, so what is the mind? Is the heart the mind? Is the elbow? The pinky toe? The humors? The chakras? Brooks wants us to believe that "the mind" is something ineffable, ethereal, and immaterial, such that it can never be truly grasped. But that's not a scientific view, it's a religious view. He's saying, without quite saying it, that the mind is a product of the soul, and thus is not a function of material processes and cannot be found by looking at what goes on in the brain. It's fine for him to believe that, but that sure as hell isn't science. It looks to me like Brooks is trying to sneak some metaphysics into this discussion without calling it that.

If you say "We're a long way from fully understanding how the brain works" you're absolutely right. But if you say "We will never fully understand how the brain works" you're making a speculation for which there isn't any evidence. Is the brain incredibly complex? Indeed it is. Will we be able, for instance, to map every neuron in a human brain in your lifetime? Maybe, maybe not. And maybe even that will be but one step toward a complete understanding. But never is a long time. Saying that even with, say, 50,000 years of technological progress we still won't understand it is the same as some Cro-Magnon 50,000 years ago saying to his cave-mates, "We will never grok why sun go up and down."

At the moment, technologies like fMRI are both spectacularly advanced and absurdly primitive. They give us only the barest understanding of what's flittering about between all those neurons. But the technology will improve. It may take a while, but neuroscience probably will largely replace psychology, and that will be a good thing. Psychology is an exceedingly imprecise science, precisely because it attempts to infer what's going on in people's brains from their behavior, their emotions, their thoughts, and so on.

Yes, some people are getting a little too excited about the short-term possibilities of brain scanning to tell us things we've always had to guess at. We understand only a little at the moment. If I tell you to remember the number 42, we don't know where in your brain that memory went, or if it exists in one spot or in a bunch of spots, or if it exists in a fantastically complex pattern of connections. But it isn't in your toe, and it isn't in your soul. It's in your brain. One day—even if that day is far off—we'll figure out where.

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