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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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Labour's populism for the middle classes

Jeremy Corbyn has consolidated a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair.

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn a mutant strain of populism has become an integral part of British politics. Commentary on the general election and its dramatic upshot has focused on Theresa May’s disastrous campaign and the hubris of her now departed senior advisers. But what finally defeated the Conservatives was that, along with practically everyone else, they underestimated the power of Corbyn’s message. As the advance of the far right has stalled in Europe and with Donald Trump adrift in Washington, the peaking of populism has been announced almost daily, especially by the Financial Times. The rise of a far-left version in Britain went largely unappreciated.

Corbyn’s campaign had more than a little in common with Trump’s experiment in engineering popular emotions and perceptions. The ecstatic mass rallies, the indifference to fact shown in the Labour leader’s repeated denials of his meetings with terrorists and of the reflexive anti-Semitism that pervades much of the movement he has created, the belief of his supporters that the media are conspiring against him and the poisonous Twitter abuse of his critics are clear parallels. But this is not a protest from despairing communities left to moulder in abandoned zones of economic desolation. It is populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled.

Labour’s success in taking Kensington in west London will be remembered as a defining event. That Corbyn could seize a safe Tory seat in one of the richest constitu­encies in the country is testimony to an extraordinary shift. It is also the culmination of a transformation in Labour that has been under way for many years. Corbyn has solidified a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair. Public-school Stalinists and Debrett’s-pedigreed Trotskyites have long been familiar figures in the upper reaches of the left, just as they are today. What is new is Corbyn’s marriage of radical leftist ideology with a systematic appeal to middle-class interests. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees (which would cost the country as much as £12bn) and reintroduce maintenance grants, while declining to unfreeze welfare benefits on the grounds that reversing Tory cuts would be (as Emily Thornberry put it in May) “unaffordable”. Rather than addressing the desperate lack of opportunities for working-class children, who may never make it to university, Labour has successfully courted the middle-class youth vote.

Labour’s embourgeoisement is an important reason for Corbyn’s success. For Blairites, this can only be bitterly ironical. Peter Mandelson’s stupefaction at the election result showed him struggling to grasp how the modernisation of Labour he masterminded could have such paradoxical consequences. Extending Labour’s reach beyond its working-class base was one of the keys to Blair’s electoral successes.

The goal was to return Labour to power by aligning the party with neoliberal economic policies and the large numbers of those who for a time were benefiting from them. The project was continued by Gordon Brown, and until the financial crisis it worked fairly well. At that point a shiver of doubt went through the body politic. Movements such as Occupy became more prominent. Inequality was back on the political agenda. Another Great Depression had been avoided, but the effect of near-zero interest rates was an inflation of asset prices that left the rich even richer. At the same time, many people found their incomes stagnant or falling in real terms, but their discontent failed to find effective political expression. Because of his inability to communicate to a mass audience and failure to target the beneficiaries of his policies, Ed Miliband’s move to the left came to nothing.

Corbyn’s opportunity to mobilise the anti-capitalist mood came by accident, as an unintended consequence of Miliband’s decision (supported by Blairites) to include the party’s mass membership as voters in leadership contests. The upshot was an organised takeover of the party by hard-left forces, the paralysed impotence of its parliamentary wing and Corbyn’s unchallengeable dominance today. Labour has been modernised, but not in the way Mandelson intended. Whether by serendipity or by design, Corbyn has brought together some of the most vital forces on the contemporary scene: the anti-capitalist radicalism of young people who are innocent of history, a bourgeois cult of personal authenticity and naked self-interest expressed as self-admiring virtue. Nothing could be more exotically modern than Corbyn’s hybrid populism.

Media obsession with the performance of the two main party leaders has obscured this larger picture. It is true that Corbyn acquired a charismatic fluency in the course of the campaign, whereas Theresa May appeared inflexible and lacking in empathy. The result was close enough for this dif­ference to matter – especially as so much had been made of May’s leadership qualities. But the strategic positioning of the two parties has more enduring significance. May and her advisers aimed to create a working-class conservatism by harvesting former Ukip voters and exploiting the alienation of Labour’s old base from a metropolitan, liberal consensus. By offering more stringent control of immigration, and shelter from globalisation through an active industrial strategy, she believed that Labour’s old fortresses could be stormed. If there was such a thing as a May project, this was it.

***

Reconciling the anarchic productivity of the market with social cohesion is the political dilemma of the age, and there is no reason to think that it is, even in principle, properly soluble. May’s manifesto had the merit of at least acknowledging the problem. But the electoral arithmetic on which her strategy depended was over-simple. The Labour vote was stickier than expected, and in some constituencies the party may have benefited from Ukip’s collapse. Much criticised for his equivocations on Brexit, Corbyn turned out to have read the public mood astutely. Support for Remain had shrunk substantially, but few voters were chiefly exercised by Brexit. When he refused to put it at the heart of his campaign, Corbyn outsmarted May’s advisers and strategists. In turn, he helped bring about a move back towards something like a two-party system.

That Ukip lost its reason for existing once Brexit got under way was the theme of countless op-eds before the election. But the same logic applied, in lesser degree, to Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats. Even before the election, it was apparent that a large new grouping of “Re-Leavers” had appeared, while support for reversing Brexit had slumped. Zac Goldsmith retaking Richmond Park and Kate Hoey increasing her majority despite a determined effort to oust her in Vauxhall showed Brexiteers prevailing in what had been strongly Remain constituencies. In contrast, the Lib Dems were damaged by Farron’s decision to shape their campaign around the demand for a second referendum. Though the party made a modest gain in seats (even as its vote share fell), Farron held on by a much-reduced majority and Nick Clegg lost the constituency he had held for 12 years. Because of their fixation on Brexit the Lib Dems remain where they have been for so many years, a bit player in national politics.

More than anything else, it is the spectacular setback suffered by the Scottish National Party that has produced the shift back to two-party politics. Nicola Sturgeon fought the election by trying to link Scottish independence with resistance to Brexit. Ignoring cautionary voices in her party, she displayed a hubris starker than any Theresa May showed. Roughly a third of SNP supporters voted Leave in the referendum, and many others have been disillusioned by the SNP’s record on domestic issues. By making a second independence referendum the central issue in the SNP’s campaign, Sturgeon has shortened her political career and posed a question about the need for the continued existence of her party. With her credibility damaged, Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson casualties of the election, and the push to independence indefinitely postponed, a new generation will have to redefine what the SNP means today.

The compelling leadership of Ruth Davidson was a decisive factor in the revival of Scottish Conservatism. Not only has she revived the party north of the border and buried any prospect of Indyref2 for the foreseeable future, she has, by adding 12 Conservative seats in the Commons, saved the Conservatives in Westminster from outright defeat and delivered the UK from any risk of Scottish secession. The new Scottish MPs could be as important in shaping the government’s approach to the EU as the ten Democratic Unionists to whom May has turned in cobbling together a minority government. Davidson favours what she calls an “open Brexit”, which might mean a version of a Norwegian-style model in which Britain joins the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area, ensuring access to the single market. The Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, pointed in a similar direction when she spoke of the need to keep the border with the south open and avoid a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that May could end up negotiating with Brussels to secure some such deal: the opposite of the stance on which she fought the election. But given her weakened position the advantage would lie with EU negotiators, who might be tempted to make punitive demands. At that point negotiations could break down, as May cannot risk losing the support of the Brexiteers who are keeping her in power.

***

Of course, there may be a challenge to her leadership. Inevitably, Boris Johnson is being touted as someone with the human touch that May is seen to lack. But Johnson has dismissed all such talk as “tripe” – at least for the time being. A leadership contest in the current circumstances would be savage and rancorous, leaving the Conservatives dangerously weakened in another general election that would soon follow. Are they ready to risk another gamble in the near future with even higher stakes than before? They lost their majority for the same reason Labour moderates lost control of their party: they failed to take Corbyn seriously. To make the same mistake again would look like carelessness.

There must be many who still cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. After all, Labour failed to win the election. May lost her wager, but in numbers of votes she matched Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide (the electorate is now larger, of course). Corbyn edged closer to power, but many Labour MPs continue to think him unfit to be leader of his party, let alone the country. Yet it would be foolish to conclude that Corbyn will not enter Downing Street.

So far, his march towards power has been greeted with remarkable complacency. Believing it will enable a less disruptive Brexit, the markets have welcomed the humiliation he has inflicted on the May government. The smirking Cameroons have not been able to conceal their vengeful satisfaction. The property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves on having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances. And Remainers will be thrilled as the prospect of an all-out Brexit seems to have faded from view.

These could be brief and costly pleasures. Markets will start to panic if another election is called, and if Corbyn wins they will go into a tailspin. Capital flight will surely leave his government unable to finance its cornucopian schemes, which include expensive commitments to renationalise rail, mail and water companies. Though students will be cheering at the prospect of their burden of debt being lifted from them, the largesse they have been promised is ­unlikely to materialise. Labour would face the same pressure on public services that led the Conservatives to revise their policies on care homes, but in much-worsened fiscal conditions.

It is unclear that Labour, once in government, would opt for a soft Brexit. Corbyn has repeated the mantra about preserving access to the single market and putting jobs first. But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that Labour accepts Britain must honour the EU referendum and may have to leave the single market. There is a hard-left tradition that dreams of a socialist Britain outside the EU, and while Labour may have won by attracting youthful Remainers, the millions of Labour supporters that voted Leave have not gone away.

A Corbyn government would be more divided on Brexit than that of Theresa May. The upshot could be that no deal is reached – a scenario not unlike that favoured by hard Brexiteers, but without any of the preparatory work that could make it viable. As house prices in London crumbled, the nabobs of Chelsea would find their cleverness had backfired. Hopeful Remainers and spiteful Cameroons would have the smile rudely wiped off their face.

At present, Corbyn is walking on water. Like Chauncey Gardiner at the end of Hal Ashby’s magical film Being There, who after leaving his walled garden enchanted the world with his unexpected wisdom and Zen-like calm, the Labour leader seems to defy the laws of gravity. Yet politics is not magic, and the mutant strain of populism he embodies cannot conjure away painful realities. If he finds himself facing the ordeals of power, Corbyn will quickly fall to Earth, along with much else in Britain.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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