This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Fight to the death in Mosul

The street-by-street battle against Islamic State for control of Iraq’s second city.

The men of Iraq’s special forces map their victories over Islamic State (IS) by tracing the scars on their bodies. “These four bullets were from a sniper in Ramadi,” said one soldier, lifting his shirt to show a pockmarked torso. A gap-toothed gunner called Ahmad turned a wrist and revealed his wound, a souvenir from Fallujah. Their commander’s close-cropped hair has deep furrows, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack in the same city.

Both Ramadi and Fallujah were retaken from IS this year, which restored the confidence of the Iraqi military after its humiliating retreat from the terror group. Two years ago, the Iraqi army ran from Mosul and a caliphate was declared. Now, the soldiers’ task is to build on their recent gains and liberate the country’s second-largest city.

At the tip of the spear in Mosul is the Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ 1st Brigade, also known as the Golden Division. It is commanded by Major Salam al-Abeidi, the man who survived the RPG attack in Fallujah and led the offensive against IS in Ramadi. He is a compact figure, a black streak of ­motion in his special forces uniform, never at rest. (“He would exhaust 20 soldiers,” said one of his men.) He prefers to be on the offensive. “It’s when we are in defensive positions that we take the most casualties,” he told me.

Al-Abeidi does not smile much, but he enjoys a joke. In his hands is always one of three things: a walkie-talkie, a can of Red Bull, or a cigarette. His seven-month-old German shepherd, named Caesar, has recently joined him at the special forces headquarters. Most of his men, fearless when fighting IS, are terrified of the puppy.

The major leads from the front. In the morning, he is on patrol; in the afternoon, he is on the roof guiding air strikes. One evening, I found him climbing into a tank, heading out to defend a road. “Do you ever sleep?” I asked.

“Sleep? I drink 20 cans of this a day,” he joked, holding up the energy drink.

The Golden Division is making slow but steady progress through the eastern residential neighbourhoods of Mosul. This city is different from the ones in his previous campaigns, the major told me.

“Most of the areas we fought in while in Ramadi were nearly empty of residents,” he said. “Here, it’s heavily populated, making the security forces very cautious while advancing, so as to avoid civilian casualties. The enemy uses a lot of car bombs.”

The Zahra (formerly known as Saddam) and Qadisiya 1 districts of eastern Mosul are the battlegrounds of the moment. IS has blocked the streets with concrete barriers to impede the Iraqi military advance, and the Iraqi army has constructed earthen berms with the aim of slowing down the IS car bombers. The gunfire is constant; so, too, are the boom and thud of suicide attacks and coalition air strikes.

“Here come the French,” said al-Abeidi, as fighter aircraft roared overhead while another explosion shook the eucalyptus and citrus trees of the neighbourhood’s gardens.

On the front line, a four-lane road separates the Golden Division’s Bravo Company from IS. On the lookout in an abandoned house, a young sniper named Abbas pointed out a dead IS fighter lying a few hundred metres away. “Over the last four days, I killed three Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for IS]. But my buddy, he killed four or five,” he said.

A car bomb detonated nearby, the shock wave blowing out what was left of the room’s windows. A French photographer accompanying us, who had refused to wear a helmet, almost dropped his cigarette.

Abbas fired into IS territory, a precaution in case the car bomb was followed by attackers on foot. He continued: “Here, the difficult thing for us is that IS fighters carry babies in their arms, and all of them look the same – they have beards.”

Outside, it looked and smelled like a war zone. Shops had been destroyed and I saw a burnt-out suicide truck that had crashed into a storefront. The street was littered with the remnants of another car bomb.

Car bombs are the IS equivalent of cruise missiles. The militants have no aircraft, so they rig up and deploy these heavily armoured high explosives on wheels instead. The unit I was with had at least two a day aimed at it. They move fast and are often hidden, lying in wait. Only when the military think that a neighbourhood is clear do they appear, driven at speed and often with deadly precision.

None of the forces fighting IS – the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Shia militias – releases casualty numbers. If any ever does, these will show that many of their men were killed by car bombs.

To avoid the militants’ RPGs and sniper fire, Bravo Company created rat runs through homes and backyards. My guide to the front line was called Sergeant Haider. Rooms and upturned domestic life flashed past us. The sergeant’s Frank Zappa moustache and wraparound shades were complemented by a grey knitted beanie. He looked like he should have been snowboarding, not touring a front line.

“There are many more Da’esh here than in Anbar,” he said, referring to the province where Fallujah and Ramadi are situated. “Because this area has been under its control for two and a half years, Da’esh has really taken control. This looks like just the beginning of [retaking] Mosul.”

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, wants Mosul “liberated” by the end of the year. That is unlikely to happen. It will take a month at least, perhaps more, to make it to the banks of the Tigris, which runs through the city. And IS is concentrated in the west. Across the river, there is worse to come.

***

The scar that Rana Ibrahim Hamad carries is not visible. It is a memory of the baby she lost shortly after giving birth during IS rule. “I lost the baby because doctors were not available. The baby had a brain haemorrhage and died,” she told me, standing on the street. We could hear the sounds of a gun battle nearby but Rana didn’t blink – she had grown used to it.

It was the first time that she, her husband, Amer, and their three-year-old daughter, Azel, had left their home in five days. Until then, the fighting around them had been too fierce.

Rana was pregnant again and ready to give birth any day. After detailed questioning by the military, the family would be allowed to leave for a hospital in Erbil. An armoured Humvee would be their ambulance.

She told me that she hoped that having the new child would help her forget her loss. “Life is difficult,” she said. “We all live in fear. Pain is coming from fear. I pray it gets better.”

In October, I flew over Mosul with the Iraqi air force. It was not on a combat run, but on a propaganda mission. Under a bomber’s moon – full and bright – the planes dropped leaflets by the million, sometimes still in their cardboard boxes, from the side doors of a C-130 cargo plane. Below, the land was lit up, roads and buildings illuminated and stretching for miles in the dark. From 17,000 feet, Mosul didn’t look like a city under occupation. It looked alive.

Later, in its industrial suburbs, I found a few of the leaflets in the dirt. Some, at least, had found their target.

“Nineveh, we are coming,” they proclaimed, a promise to Mosul and the surrounding province. They encouraged people to stay away from IS buildings. And the Iraqi government told people not to flee. It feared that there would be a humanitarian crisis if the city, which has more than a million residents, were to empty.

As Mosul’s fight enters its second month, however, services are still largely absent. “The army brought us food and lentils but there’s no government,” said Bushra, a woman from the city of Tikrit who is now trapped in Mosul. “We are living, but [we have] no water or electricity. We sleep at eight. We don’t have any services. I didn’t get my husband’s salary this month. We live off his pension.”

As the men of the Golden Division move through houses and parts of the city, they find more than just IS dead, weapons and supplies. They also discover records of rule. Although the group is cruel and murderous, it keeps tidy books and distributes welfare. We found dozens of the militants’ ledgers, recording payments made to widows, the poor and the sick.

***

Across Iraq, senior military and police commanders complain that Baghdad is not moving fast enough to fill the gaps left by the fighting, and that although they distribute water, food and medicine to local people, their men must come first.

In the war against IS, no city has been bombed more than Mosul. The coalition air strikes come day and night. The only let-up is during bad weather, which also results in ground operations being paused.

According to some monitoring groups, as many as 1,300 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes so far. Yet it is Islamic State that is doing most of the killing, through executions and sniper and mortar attacks. The militants have murdered and continue to murder hundreds of people inside the city each week.

During one patrol, an IS sniper pinned down the unit I was with inside a house. One by one, the soldiers ran to their armoured vehicles – me among them – and to safety. The bangs sounded especially loud. We soon discovered why. The marksman was firing armour-piercing bullets. One managed to penetrate the turret of a Humvee and the gunner inside it was wounded.

Mosul, the beautiful, once-cosmopolitan centre of northern Iraq, became a mystery under IS. The fighters cut off its contact with the outside world. At the edge of the city, I walked through a former IS workshop. There, between 20 and 30 men had cast and milled mortar shells every day. Thousands of the steel casts remained in piles, waiting to be finished. The roof of the foundry had been peppered with shrapnel. IS had tried to conceal the factory from passing aircraft by burning oil fires through the roof.

It struck me then that the militants had spent their two years in Mosul with one priority in mind: preparing for this battle. Who knew how many mortar shells, filled with explosives, were now inside the city, ready to be fired? This was weapons production on an industrial scale.

“Isis was scared shitless of the Iraqi soldiers. Believe me, we saw. They pissed their pants,” said Alaa, an English teacher who lives near the front line. White flags were hanging from homes along the street. He described to me the past few days of fighting and how the Iraqi special forces had ­arrived in his neighbourhood.

“Now I feel safe, because they are here,” he said. “And if they need any support, all these people will be with them. Even the people who were influenced by the Isis talk, now they are not, because they endured two years of suffering, two years of depravation, two years of killing, mass killing.”

At the mosque across the street from Alaa’s house, males over the age of 13 were being lined up for security screening, to see if they were IS supporters. The soldiers kept their distance, fearful of suicide bombers. The local people carried their identification papers. Some had shaved off their beards but others had not. They did not share Alaa’s optimism, and said they were afraid that IS could return.

***

Safar Khalil’s wound had no time to heal and become a scar. The bright red hole in his chest came from an IS sniper round, his brothers said. A medic tried to plug it with his finger and stabilise him but the damage inside was too great. Safar’s lungs were gone.

He spewed out dark, thick blood. His face was covered in it. And there, in front of me, he died.

Two of his brothers – one a small boy, the other a young man – stood screaming nearby. They had left their home only a few moments earlier to sell eggs. An army sleeping bag was brought to cover Safar’s face. At first, I thought he was a teenager, because the blood and gore made it difficult to tell how old he was. On his right hand, he wore a heavy ring with an amber stone. Afterwards, I learned that he was 26.

They took his body on a cart back to his home. From inside the house, grief exploded. The women, his relatives, tried to run out, fear and rage written on their faces. But it seemed that the sniper was still nearby, so they were pushed back inside and a family member pulled hard on the metal door to keep them contained.

The women’s voices filled the neigh­bourhood. In the middle of the street, looking horribly alone, Safar’s body lay on the cart. It was not yet safe enough to take him to the cemetery.

There are other fronts in the war to retake Mosul: the federal police and army are moving in from the south and may soon retake what is left of the city’s airport. To the west, the Shia militias of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces have cut off escape routes to Raqqa in Syria and are on top of the IS stronghold of Tal Afar. In the north, several towns and villages have been taken by the Iraqi army’s 16th Division and the Kurdish peshmerga.

But it is in the east that Mosul proper is being cleared of IS militants. Major al-Abeidi’s convoy was hit again the other day. He sent me pictures of his badly damaged Humvee and complained that he had lost the car and spilled his energy drink.

“We’ll be at the river in weeks,” he said confidently. Until then, eastern Mosul and its people will remain in the maelstrom – surviving not in a city, but on a battlefield.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile