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

Show Hide image

The great escape

Almost a thousand people drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy in May. Yet still more migrants come. Can anything be done, or are we experiencing a crisis without end?

On 14 June 1985, representatives of five out of the ten members of the then European Economic Community (EEC) – Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – gathered on the Princess Marie-Astrid, a boat moored on the banks of the Moselle River in Luxembourg. Their pens were poised over a pact that aimed to dissolve the internal borders of Europe. The agreement was named after the nearby ­riverside town: Schengen.

There were only five signatories because the other EEC members – including Britain – were dragging their feet. But the bureaucrats had only to glance at the vineyards outside to remember why they were here. To the east of the river lay Germany; a short distance upstream was France. Belgium was only a bike ride away and the Netherlands a cursory drive. The people who lived in this corner of Europe criss-crossed national borders all the time. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they didn’t have to be scrutinised as if they were spies when they were only nipping over the river to buy a sausage or deliver a letter?

It was also an evocative place in another way. This terrain of hills and forests was haunted by centuries of bloodshed. It was where France, Germany and Britain had fought many of their wars: Waterloo was an hour or so to the west by car; Verdun was even closer; the Battle of the Bulge had raged just north of here in 1944 and early 1945. The Schengen Agreement was an attempt to lay such awful ghosts to rest. From now on, people would not have to show passports but could simply “drive slowly” across the frontiers.

David Cameron has received much flak for reminding voters of this detail but it would be shallow to ignore it. The agreement had a significant effect not just on daily life but on tourism, trade and commerce. In the 1990s, many of the old and new members of the European Union signed up and the expansion continued in the 2000s with the joining of non-members such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Today, the Schengen Area is made up of 26 European countries. All the while, Britain and Ireland, anxious behind their sea walls, shook their heads.

Schengen was an optimistic idea and anyone who has worked or holidayed in ­Europe since 1985 has felt the ease that it has brought to the crossing of borders. But as it celebrates its coming of age, 21 years since its inception, Schengen is in the dock. Those who designed it to liberate movement in Europe did not imagine international migration on today’s scale. Partly as a result of the speed of modern travel and communications, more than 240 million people now live outside the country of their birth. This is one of the most important facts of modern life and, because Europe is among the nicest places in the world to live, it is forcing politicians and electorates to ask awkward questions about the way they conduct themselves.

Migration makes people twitchy, for understandable reasons. It would be a mistake to think of the present commotion as a topical issue that can easily be fixed. Last year, a million people fled Africa and the Middle East for Europe. This month, as footballers gather in France and the Mediterranean warms up, it is happening all over again.

Almost every week there is news of a fresh disaster. The EU deal with Turkey – in which the country will be paid €3bn in aid and granted other concessions in return for policing and processing its three million refugees more rigorously – has calmed traffic in the Aegean. Yet the people smugglers have shifted their attention back to the perilous sea crossing between Libya and Italy. Almost a thousand people drowned there in the last week of May, bringing the total to 2,500 so far this year, and there are aquatic graveyards for 4,000 Syrians who have died in Greek waters in recent years.

We cannot be sanguine about the prospect of the English Channel becoming the stage for similar scenes as the summer advances. It could hardly be on the same scale as what is happening in the Mediterranean, but there are already sporadic attempts to make the crossing and there will almost certainly be more. This is no passing cloud. It may even be a permanent shift in the wind.

***

uman beings have always migrated, moving from place to place in search of kinder skies, better food or nicer neighbours. Mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier for migrants to communicate and gather information. Nonetheless, today’s Mediterranean exodus involves people walking from Syria to Sweden – far from a hi-tech manoeuvre. Some politicians want to depict the migrants as trespassing, heavily armed intruders but most people can see that they are both ordinary and desperate: brothers-in-alms.

This may be one of those historic population shifts that mark the story of Europe. One thinks of the swirl of German and Scandinavian peoples in the first millennium – the Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths and Norsemen who created early Christendom; the flight from Europe between 1850 and 1910, when people emigrated to the New World at a rate of almost a million a year; or those who were displaced after the Second World War. Is it possible that today’s turbulence is the first sign of something along those lines? The EU border force, Frontex, estimates that there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings in 2015, six times as many as in 2014, and the true figure is probably higher. It is no wonder that no one knows what to do.

Until now, this migration has been viewed as a response to urgent pressures such as war, poverty, religious violence and famine. Yet what it most resembles is an ­alteration in the prevailing weather: people are swirling between areas of wealth and poverty, just as air is squeezed between high- and low-pressure zones. The disparities between Europe, Africa and the Middle East are profound. This is not about foreign chancers wanting to try their luck in Swindon. It is demographic climate change.

It may be beyond the ability of governments to resist this. They don’t like to admit it but they find controlling the movement of peoples as hard as nailing down their currencies. David Cameron vowed to reduce the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 but he hasn’t come close. While his enemies enjoy depicting this as a broken promise, it is a sign that politicians have only so much power.

There are other reasons to be fearful. Quarrels over water will shape the next century just as oil shaped the last one. In 1950 there were 500 large dams in the world; now, there are more than 45,000. On any map of future water shortages, the warning signs flash over North Africa and the Middle East – and when the wells dry up, people will move.

The nations involved in today’s ­exodus are relatively small. The populations of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria together amount to 60 million. If war or disaster were ever to engulf larger countries such as Egypt or Pakistan, Europe would have an even bigger headache. These two nations have a combined population of 264 million.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Hard though it is to believe in the current atmosphere, migration is a force for good. The noisy claim that it presents a threat to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural blood pressure may sound like common sense but it is a myth. Migrants do not drive down wages, steal jobs, overwhelm social services and displace “true-born” Brits. The opposite is true: in the long run, at least, they expand the economy and promote innovation.

Study after study confirms this simple point. Periods of high migration correlate with economic growth – which is no surprise, given that migration allocates people to places where they can be most productive. This is why the UN estimates that 1 per cent of migration translates into a boost in GDP of 1.5 per cent. And this is why J K Galbraith wrote:

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?

This is not to say that there are not bottlenecks. There are. But although it seems to be an ingrained human assumption to believe that more for you means less for me, the fear that migrants overwhelm services and create social deprivation has a flimsy basis. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the second most deprived area in Britain, yet one of the least affected by immigration. Governments should do more to relieve deprivation but this could involve building hospitals or schools, rather than electrifying borders or watching people drown.

The second item of good news is that even the most alarming statistics in this area are soft-centred. Anti-immigrant campaigners enjoy gasping at the idea that some 300,000 people, roughly the population of Plymouth or Newcastle, are arriving in the UK each year; they imply that these people are swelling the queues for health care, housing and schools. But more than half this number (167,000 in 2015) is composed of students, who pay high fees to attend British institutions; tertiary education is an important export. And migration today is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision but a fluid and intricate process. Migrants drift this way in search of jobs; some stay, while others drift out again. Many even go home for the weekend, or the summer.

It is almost impossible in the present maelstrom to think of migration as a boon. Loud voices insist that migrants are a nuisance, a burden and a threat. It almost defies logic to see them as an energetic itinerant workforce of ordinary people. But the larger truth is that it hardly matters what we think. The question now is not whether or not we wish migration was happening, but how to make the best of the reality that it is.

***

he migrant crisis has commercial implications. This summer’s holidaymakers are likely to shun Greece and Turkey in favour of Spain, which is looking forward to a record-breaking year.

The most striking consequence, however, is the surge of nationalist politics across Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece and the Freedom Party of Austria to the UK Independence Party. The nationalist wrecking ball is swinging.

In Britain’s case, this has taken the form of an assault on the European project, which, though not racist, encourages the expression of some ancient prejudices. As the day of the referendum approaches, the leaders of the Brexit campaign are playing what we might call the Donald Trump card by attacking immigration. The weightier cultural issues are drowned out in the urge to warn Daddy that there are strangers coming up the drive.

This urge is strong and, in the EU debate, creates odd bedfellows – George Galloway and David Owen on one side; Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne on the other. It also persuades men such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith to abandon their lifelong sympathy for the pro-business argument and pose as soulmates of the working man. But the biggest irony is of a different order. It would be perverse if the reflex hostility to migration leads us to take to our little coracle just when the real storm is beginning.

This brings us back to the fragility of Europe’s supposedly porous borders. In truth, they have never been set in stone. Various time-lapse videos on the internet (such as the one on viralforest.com) race through a millennium in mere minutes. The Holy Roman Empire spreads from Sicily to Germany and Muslims press into Spain. The ­Mongols advance and recede; central Europe explodes into a galaxy of tiny princedoms and France’s eastern border wriggles like an angry snake. The Ottoman, ­Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet empires bulge and fall back. Nations come and go in a flash.

It is a salutary reminder that the nation states of Europe have long been elastic and that if the nation state is not yet dead – declarations of its demise are premature – it can at least be said that nations and states are not the same thing. When people yell that we have “lost control” of our borders, they are imagining a past that never was: in the great rough and tumble of Victorian England not a soul was turned away. Britain has been secure on its island but Europe has never been a fortress. If we instal the apparatus of a police state at our ports and harbours – watchtowers, searchlights, paramilitary officials – we may be able to deter some paperless hotel workers and scare off a few students. But this would come at a heavy price.

If stable borders are a modern idea, so, too, are passports. The first identity papers for “safe conduct” were issued in the England of Henry V but the modern passport is a child of the French Revolution. An uprising that dreamed of liberating the citoyens wasted no time in introducing state surveillance: it feared the enemies of the revolution. Britain followed suit in 1794. It wasn’t until the First World War that photographic identification became mandatory. Before then, as A J P Taylor once wrote, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”.

It is hard to imagine such a time now. There are few more emotive reminders of it than the refugee encampment at Calais known as “the Jungle”. A new exhibition on the quiet resilience of the people stuck in that Anglo-French limbo – “Call Me By My Name”, which recently opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, east London – highlights again the way in which inflammatory abstractions (“Immigration chaos!”; “Take back control!”) can trounce ordinary human responses. After all, when the von Trapp family, the illegal migrants in The Sound of Music, finally make it over the border, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

In medieval times Calais was a major English town, a bustling centre of its wool trade. Dick Whittington was its mayor; there was a royal mint. The inhabitants of the Jungle may not know it, but their footsteps have led them to a resonant spot. l

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink