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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

MILES COLE
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The Brexit plague

With the sacking of Michael Gove, the leaders of the Leave campaign are being destroyed.

Brexit: the career killer. Boris Johnson: humiliated and felled, even if he ended up with foreign secretary as a consolation prize. Michael Gove: tainted by his ruthlessness against Johnson and also by his late acceptance of conventional wisdom (that Johnson is talented but unreliable) and finally sacked. Nigel Farage: resigned. Andrea Leadsom: brutally and almost instantly exposed as out of her depth and sent to the ministerial wasteland that is Defra.

With Theresa May in No 10, ­experience and competence have been restored. For that reason, there is room in May’s ­cabinet for some of Brexit’s fallen leaders. For the time being, however, the Remain ­campaign’s repeated warnings that Brexit would be bad for jobs have already proved prescient in one respect. The referendum has destroyed the prospects of Leave’s top brass. The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days.

We once imagined, ironically, that the Brexit movement would be vulnerable to cynical exploitation by careerist politicians who were keen to make a name for themselves. They would climb aboard the Brexit bus, take an easy ride, and get off higher up the mountain. Quite the reverse. Politicians have not ridden to power on the back of Brexit; Brexit has ridden to power on the back of them, breaking them in the process.

Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic. Then, at the peak of Brexit bounce, when the victim’s mood seems most adulatory, despair and withdrawal set in.

To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches?

At the outset, I must make an important distinction between the perfectly legitimate and finely balanced argument about whether Britain should be outside the European Union – the Brexit debate that might have been – and the one that actually happened, with its £350m a week for new hospitals and the exploitation (or wilful blindness) of the emotive power of anti-immigration. The first debate, the proper one, might well have allowed the finest Brexit minds to shine. The second (that is: real events) has left them vulnerable, floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate.

What about Andrea Leadsom, the darling of Brexit’s hard core? Here the career-killing superbug showed the speed with which it operates. Have no truck with the fantasy that Leadsom was brought down by an establishment plot, the “black ops” imagined by Iain Duncan Smith. Leadsom, despite being a very inexperienced politician, applied for immediate promotion to the office of prime minister. She initially made great use of two cards – her “business experience” and her maternal instincts – but it turned out that both were liabilities once the serious campaign for high office began.

There is no need to revisit how several aspects of Leadsom’s CV unravelled. Her supporters put out the word that she was a high-flying banker who had “managed billions”. In effect, Leadsom’s team suggested she was Cristiano Ronaldo, while the evidence suggests she worked for Real Madrid’s PR team. Important work and all that, but not quite the same thing.

Her interview with Rachel Sylvester in the Times on 9 July exposed some of the problems not just with the candidate, but also with Brexit catchphrases. The interview showed the difference between believing that “the old way of doing politics” is too cynical and polished, and assuming that being incompetent in handling the ­media is a virtue.

Without saying anything interesting as a trade-off, Leadsom made several huge blunders. She offended people without children, perhaps entirely unintentionally, by implying that being a mother made her the superior candidate, with “a tangible stake” in the future. Then she offended feminists – and many non-feminists as well – by stating that she isn’t a feminist because she isn’t “anti-men”. Third, she blithely assumed that the EU would not impose any tariffs on a post-Brexit Britain. Finally, in furiously demanding that the Times retract the article and release the tape of the interview, she unwittingly exposed one last blunder: that she herself (or an aide) had not recorded the interview, though speaking on the record to a journalist from a leading newspaper.

The fiasco contributed to Leadsom withdrawing from the two-woman leadership contest, before her current career suffered a calamitous fate – never mind the reading of jobs she held previously. Brexit, having first apparently been the making of Leadsom, quickly struck her down, too.

She deserves some sympathy. Her leadership campaign can be seen as the logical culmination of the political pressures on Brexiteers as they seek to turn serious. The political challenges are doubly difficult. First, there is the negotiation with Brussels, with rather a lot promised to the British public and nothing less than the survival of the EU at stake. Second, in office, any Brexiteer would have to level with the movement’s supporters.

***

The Leave campaign, evidently, rested on a delicate set of alliances, including as it did sovereignty-focused intellectuals, rural Conservative voters and the disenfranchised “left-behinds”. To say these groups voted for different things does not do justice to the problem.

It is worth recalling that Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column in the aftermath of Leave’s referendum victory, which caused him so many difficulties with hardcore Brexiteers, had also been read, adapted and signed off by Michael Gove. In other words, two experienced columnist-politicians, both of them media-savvy and intellectually gifted, found the challenge of converting Brexit the movement into Brexit the reality beyond their combined and considerable rhetorical gifts. During the campaign, Johnson’s popularity and Gove’s intellectual confidence powered the Brexit movement. Then Gove abruptly ended Johnson’s leadership hopes, thereby ending his own.

At a stroke, the argument – popular among Brexiteers – that the new prime minister had to be a Leaver pointed no longer to a leading politician, but instead to the inexperienced Leadsom. Within days of its electoral triumph, the Brexit movement found itself in a leadership vacuum of remarkable proportions.

Having finished off the politicians possessed of a track record, Brexit anointed someone without a recognisable political past. The flight to neophilia says a great deal: which experienced politician would fancy squaring that circle? In retrospect, Leadsom’s Mary Poppins approach – it’s fine, absolutely fine, let’s be positive – was the logical conclusion of an unplayable hand. Sometimes rational logic has nowhere to go. Airy aspirations are all that remain.

As the author of a book called Luck, I am the first to admit that events take on a momentum of their own. Things could have been different. It was not inevitable that Gove would consult his conscience and conclude that he could not, in good faith, be Johnson’s kingmaker. Alternatively, if Gove’s conscience had hurried along a little quicker on its journey of discovery – whether this led to backing Johnson, or aban­doning him – then there could have been a recognised heavyweight Brexit candidate for prime minister.

But laughing off Brexit’s leadership deficit with a shrug in the direction of rogue circumstance leaves out too much. Its post-referendum leadership tumults are the rational consequence of fault lines running through the Leave campaign.

It is one thing for a Tory gentleman Brexiteer, taking a psychological canter over to the wrong side of the tracks, to conclude that Britain is two countries and that the poor are having a tough time, thanks to globalisation and the “establishment”. But what is his prescription for the social problems of Boston? Extra evensong? An added dollop of deference, spread evenly across the parish? Free community copies of Edmund Burke?

That the Brexit movement benefited from anti-immigrant sentiment and then conceded that immigration is unlikely to be reduced any time soon – if at all – was only one example of a recurrent theme of Brexit: capitalising from something that lots of people don’t like without having a solution on hand. An anti-establishment movement can gloss over policy; a government cannot.

Leadsom’s campaign raised the question of whether the Brexit movement is in fact governable. Or, as any potential Leave leader gets close to the real corridors of power, does the movement’s anti-establishment rhetoric undermine its own latest figurehead? After all, it is a lot easier to rail against the Westminster elite when you’re not imminently approaching the top of it.

The case needs to be addressed that the Brexit career carnage has been caused by an intransigent Remain establishment. Having won, some of my Leave friends say, we are ready to compromise; it’s you lot who are the problem.

That sentiment has not been shared by the Brexit movement’s most recognised faces. Indeed, Leadsom’s candidacy presented a new test of character to Brexiteers. Would they rally around the steely experience of Theresa May – a credible prime minister – or cling to whichever Leaver was left standing? It is one thing to divide a party and destroy your prime minister, on the grounds that leaving the EU is more important than loyalty or party politics. But would Brexiteers endorse Leadsom over May, hence cementing the perception – often present, though previously unverifiable – that the question of Europe, among some sections of the Tory party, takes precedence over every aspect of political logic? Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith had no hesitation in giving an early answer: Leadsom.

***

As I write this, I can hear in my head the counterarguments to my case, so indulge me a brief autobiographical aside as I address them one by one. Am I writing through the prism of bitterness? Are these the laments of a Remainer who can’t accept we lost? Far from it. There was always a legitimate case that the EU is a failing institution and that Britain would be better served by making arrangements outside the EU earlier rather than later. I wouldn’t make the case myself, but I can see the logic.

The idea that Brexit would inexorably lead to long-term economic catastrophe ­always felt far-fetched; I recoiled at the ­convenient precision of George Osborne’s prediction that households would be £4,300 worse off after Brexit. I am fortunate, though I, for  one, voted Remain, that some of the most intelligent people I know argued for Leave – and none of them is remotely interested in immigration.

A tribal liberal? Again, not so. My temperament is sceptical, pragmatic and anti-utopian: conservative, you might say.

Stuck inside a metropolitan bubble? The Leave movement made much of Remain’s elitism, its failure to understand – or even acknowledge – the rest of Britain, especially the rest of England. By chance, I spent 13 years working in an antique travelling circus. We toured the nation, plying our trade in unflashy cities and county towns, rustling up whatever small crowds we could, chatting to punters after the final curtain, trying to keep a faltering show on the road. That is to say, I was a county cricketer.

Aigburth, Southend, Maidstone, Colwyn Bay, Chesterfield, Colchester, Haslingden, Malvern, Swansea, Portsmouth, Scarborough, Cheltenham, Blackpool – these places were my life for more than a decade. I am no stranger to England’s northern cities, still less to the Tory shires. They made me.

So it is with some perspective that I have watched the Brexit career plague sweep through its leadership ranks. After initial shock and disbelief, I began to discern a kind of inevitability. Single-issue movements, which circumnavigate the compromise and consensus-building that is hard-wired into conventional politics, are structurally ill-equipped to adapt to serious government. It is housebuilding without the foundations.

The Brexit career carnage should prove a salutary warning. “We need a whole new political class,” Brexiteers have often said lightly. The crucial words are missed out – a new “and better” political class. Indeed, last week the possibility loomed of a Leadsom-Farron-Corbyn triple whammy.

I’ve always believed that politics should be porous to the “civilian” world rather than a closed guild of insiders. I’m all for opening political conversation to fresh voices; not everyone has to study PPE at Oxford. Yet we can now see that change does not automatically bring renewal; outsiders do not always know best, and a base level of competence is a prerequisite. As proof, look again at Leadsom’s outraged reaction to the Times printing what she had said. There is, you might say, a place for expertise. Promising a new politics is easy; high office is difficult.

Hence the last word belongs to an unlikely hero of political analysis. Andy Murray, having won Wimbledon, demonstrated an emotional intelligence equal to his deft touch on the court. Moments after sobbing into his towel, the release point after two weeks’ pressure and control, the Scot thanked David Cameron for watching the match. Some applauded, others jeered. Murray, in an instant, sensed he had to diffuse the awkwardness. “I think playing a Wimbledon final’s tough – I certainly wouldn’t like being prime minister: it’s an impossible job.”

People who think Britain has much to be proud about – that we live in one of the most civilised and well-governed countries in the world – might consider that logic: it might be an impossible job but it’s a successful country. The people doing those ­impossible jobs have contributed to that success. Unless moderates celebrate the track record achieved by compromise, expertise and sound judgement, unless competence finds a more confident voice, then movements such as Brexit will be just the beginning.

Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM