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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

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First they came for Pepe: How “ironic” Nazism is taking over the internet

Over the last year, various internet subcultures have embraced Nazi iconography while simultaneously claiming to hold no Nazi beliefs. Why?

There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s critically-acclaimed World War Two film The Pianist in which the Jewish protagonist, played by Adrien Brody, puts on a German soldier’s coat to keep warm.

“Don’t shoot!” he tells the Polish troops who have come to liberate Warsaw. “I’m Polish!” A soldier, realising his mistake, lowers his gun. With disdain on his face, he asks: “Why the fucking coat?”

The chilly hero might not have been acting unreasonably, but neither was the soldier. It's safe to say that in normal circumstances, "Nazi coat" can be used as shorthand for "Nazi person". I found myself asking a similar question last month when I interviewed a “Nazi furry”. The furry (ie. person who dresses as an animal, often for sexual reasons) likes to wear a red armband reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi party. “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said at the time, insisting he held no far-right views. Then why not choose another piece of cloth? I wondered to myself.

This furry is just one of hundreds of people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. If that doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. “Ironic” Nazism, “satirical” Nazism, and “just joking” Nazism have taken over the internet. Who is behind it, what are they doing, and how did it begin?

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Unfortunately, it is probably Hillary Clinton’s fault. In September 2016, the presidential hopeful’s website declared popular internet meme Pepe the Frog to be a white supremacist symbol. If we ignore that this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy (racists embraced Pepe after the Anti-Defamation League chimed in and officially declared the meme a hate symbol), this was a frankly ridiculous assertion.

“We've won folks... My God ...We've won,” read a post on r/TheDonald – the Reddit hub for Donald Trump supporters – after the news. They didn't hold back with their disdain. “This makes her look absolutely retarded to anyone young enough to be on the internet,” read the top comment. Why? White supremacists were undoubtedly already using the meme – many on the notoriously politically incorrect 4Chan board /pol/ had emblazoned the frog with swastikas. So why wasn’t it, in turn, a white supremacist symbol?

The answer to this is irony. Layers and layers of it slathered with thick, glutinous nonsense that form a Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake that is impossible to digest. You and I are what 4Chan would pejoratively call “normies”, i.e. normal people. We can’t possibly hope to understand the difference between someone on 4Chan who holds sincere Nazi beliefs and someone who is shouting “Death to all Jews” for the keks (see glossary), like a toddler who has just learnt the word “poo”.

This doesn’t normally matter – we can just ignore them – but Clinton’s post gave them the legitimacy and media attention that they craved.

It also, I would argue, set off a new internet trend. Angry at liberals labelling everything (most notably, the alt-right) “Nazis”, fringe internet communities decided to fight back. The logic – if it can be called that – went like this:

“Let’s dress like Nazis and act like Nazis so that liberals call us Nazis when we’re not! That will show just how stupid these liberals are!”

***

“The press, the media, does not deserve to have a consistent picture of reality presented to them.”

These are the words of Qu Qu, a man in his late twenties who considers himself the leader of the “alt furry” movement, who is speaking to me over Twitter. Alt furries are furries who have embraced far-right messages and Nazi iconography on the social network. Some wear armbands, others write erotic Nazi literature, some tweet anti-Semitic jokes. When I spoke to some last month, I was shocked when only one of them actually admitted to holding Nazi views. Many claimed they were being “ironic” or fighting back at what they consider to be left-wing intolerance.

“If the press becomes obsessed with a moral panic, such as the one about the resurgence of National Socialism, it is the duty of every subculture to feed that paranoia until its absurdity becomes plain for all to see.”

***

Earlier this week, the king of this logic died.

PewDiePie – the most subscribed content creator on YouTube – was dropped by Disney after the Wall Street Journal exposed an array of anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In the past, he has spoken out against the media for misrepresenting his “jokes”, but this time he wrote a blog post in which he admitted: “I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” What changed?

What changed is that PewDiePie was confronted with a reality that anti-hate campaigners have long since known to be true. After his anti-Semitic videos, PewDiePie was embraced by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which is now calling itself “The world’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite.” PewDiePie has learnt a truth that many of the “just joking” brigade frequently try to deny – that satire, irony, and jokes can validate and legitimise hate speech in a way that helps it to spread.

“Pushing out anti-Semitic tropes has consequences in the real world,” says a spokesperson for anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate. “PewDiePie may or may not believe this stuff himself, but he does need to understand that he has an effect on the world, and that racists and haters can sometimes act on the words and memes that are shared so readily on social channels, and – with soaring hate crime rates – already have.”

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Then they came for Trash Dove.

The head-banging purple pigeon is a Facebook sticker (a picture users can post in the social network’s comment sections) that went viral this week. In response, 4Chan started “Operation Nazi Bird”, a satirical campaign to turn the meme into a Nazi symbol. The aim was to trick the left.

This started to work when a self-described philosopher known as Quincy Frey wrote a satirical Medium post (which has since been removed after a copyright claim) declaring Trash Dove to be an “alt-right” symbol. When people began to fall for this, 4Chan won. Yet so too – as Hope Not Hate argue – did actual white supremacists.

“What started as irony will now actually spread and this will become a ‘Nazi hate’ symbol whether we like it or not,” Quincy Frey tells me. “The alt-righters from 4Chan work in a funny way; it always starts ironic but they seem to take irony to the next level and then these idiots become brainwashed… eventually their sickness will spread.”

***

Which leaves us with a question that regrettably summarises today’s state of affairs: are ironic Nazis as dangerous as real Nazis?

Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, seems to think so. “It is difficult to understand how people can use Holocaust language, imagery or comments and think that it is a joke,” he says. “The French comedian Dieudonne uses the Quenelle gesture and other supposedly humorous Holocaust imagery, as well as dressing cast members in concentration camp uniforms, as part of his act." The Quenelle gesture was an originally jokey gesture which has grown to be considered anti-Semitic after individuals posed in front of Jewish institutions holding the stance. In December 2013, French President François Hollande reacted to the gesture, saying: "We will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

Johnson agrees it is important to tackle this alleged comedy. "For many this demeans the Holocaust and would be considered anti-Semitism. Allowing these acts to continue perpetuates myths and often leads prejudice against the Jewish community.”

It is also important to note that many who claim to be “satirical” Nazis are simply hiding behind a thin veil of plausible deniability. The word “irony” – however incorrectly it’s being used – allows them to spread Nazi messages and iconography whilst denying culpability. It also leaves many on the left unsure where they stand. What’s more important: combatting hate speech or protecting free speech?

Kassie is a 31-year-old graduate student who reached out to me after being mocked for taking Trash Dove seriously as an alt-right symbol - proving that online trends can have real-world consequences. “My friend is liberal but thinks I'm overreacting and don't understand satire,” she tells me. “But I don't get why I have to call Nazi jokes satire.

“The most frustrating part is that my concern is immediately written off as stupid because I don't belong to the community. If we get past that part, then I'm overreacting or dumb because I don't get that it's ironic or I don't understand that it's a joke. But I get that on some level people are saying that it's a joke, and some are ‘just joking’ and I still think that a joke can be racist and misogynist and alt-right or whatever.

“I'm just left with feeling like I've fallen down a hole of ironic devils advocates who use that as an excuse to say ‘funny’ racist and misogynistic things.”

***

When Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party in 2005, no one thought he was actually a fan of Hitler. If ironic Nazis had emerged twelve years ago, they might have been given the same benefit of the doubt by being considered poor taste but not ultimately racist. Yet context is key. In an era when the President of the United States wants a registry of Muslim citizens, and fascism appears to be on the rise across Europe, no one who is “just joking” – not furries, YouTubers, or 4Channers – can be annoyed if the media labels them Nazis.

I do agree that fundamentally it is important to combat the left’s tendency to label everything right-wing “Nazi” or “racist”. Internet subcultures are not wrong to attempt to challenge this and other examples of left-wing extremes. Yet if this is what they really want, then one - very pressing - question remains. Why the fucking coat? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.