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

Benugo
Show Hide image

The New Statesman’s ultimate Christmas lunchbreak guide 2016

What to eat and what not to eat while working during the festive season.

We all know the best thing about the festive season is working all the way up to Christmas Eve, so here’s a list of the best (and worst) high street Christmas lunch food my colleagues and I have painstakingly chewed up and spat out for your delectation:

Lunchbreak failsafes

Pret

Pret’s Christmas Lunch Sandwich, £3.60

Very much a Christmas sandwich by numbers this one – all the key ingredients of a traditional Christmas lunch, plus the inexplicable addition of mayonnaise. It’s a little too full, bits kept falling out, and while it’s not the best Christmas sandwich out there, it’s a solid midtable effort. Stephen Bush

Melvin the Melting Gingerbread Snowman, £1.25

If you take a morbid pleasure in melting a snowman, then Melvin is the gingerbread character for you. His marshmallow head wobbles above his dripping white icing body, but it’s only when you dunk Melvin in your tea that he truly crumbles into nothing but hot water. A festive treat. Julia Rampen

French Brie & Cranberry Toastie, £4.25 

Major disappointment. Tasted like feet, and not in the great cheese kind of way (more like Rachel from Friends’ traditional English trifle/shepherd’s pie way). I didn’t know it was possible to ruin brie. Pinja Saarikoski

Very Merry Christmas Lunch Vegan Baguette, £3.75

Great vegan sandwich, although the Christmas bells weren’t really a-ringing. Tasted more like a Moroccan feast, with the spicy, peppery veggies and pistachios. But I guess Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not always with turkey and stuffing. Pinja

Ham Hock & Sprout Macaroni Cheese, £5.50

We have reached peak comfort. Macaroni cheese: officially the world’s most comforting comfort food according to an extensive survey of all tastebuds and dopamine receptors. And Pret: the high street’s strong arms cradling you when you’re weak and vulnerable on a hungover mid-week lunchbreak, gently extracting a fiver in exchange for your regular dose of deliciously predictable flavours. This is what you get: a thick, creamy sauce with sprouts so cheese-drenched you’d never guess they were sprouts at all, and some unnecessary ham hock just to make it a bit Christmassy. Anoosh Chakelian

EAT

Festive Full Works Bloomer, £3.95

The texture of the bread is excellent and the serving of turkey and rocket is more than generous. But something about the after-taste doesn’t sit well. A potentially related disappointment is the failure of the press team to establish the meat’s exact provenance. While the ham has been procured “from the EU, with pigs raised in barns with natural sunlight”, the turkey “is cooked in the UK but is sourced from overseas”. India Bourke

Christmas Cheeseboard Bloomer, £3.96

This Eat sandwich takes its inspiration from a classic Christmas cheeseboard. As someone who is more excited by the abundance of yuletide cheese than Christmas presents, this was already right up my street. But cheese-filled Christmas sandwiches can often be bland, stodgy and – the greatest sin any festive meal can commit – boring. That’s not the case here. The cheddar is robust and nicely paired with soft, almost ricotta-like wensleydale, the multiseed bloomer pleasingly rustic, and the whole affair is well-seasoned with lemon and black pepper. But the inspired addition of slow-roasted figs and figgy pudding chutney are what turns a good, solid sandwich into a brilliant one. All in all, it leads to an unusual, irresistible taste and texture combo that is decidedly cheeseboard-esque. Anna Leszkiewicz

Brie and Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, £6.50 for large portion

Hello! Is it brie you’re looking for? Well, this mac 'n' cheese has a lot of it. Loads. Tons. But it’s not the best brie in town – mild to the point of flavourlessness, but incredibly thick, this often felt more like an overly stodgy carbonara.  As for the alleged truffle – I couldn’t get so much as a whiff of it. Dull and heavy, for the price and whopping 1,000+ calories, this feels conspicuously lacking in luxury, despite the rumoured posh ingredients. (NB: This comes with an option of cranberry sauce, which I turned down. It’s possible that makes all the difference… but I’d be surprised.) Anna

Paul

Dinde de Noël baguette, £4.50

Paul’s “Dinde de Noel” is another sandwich suffering from the curse of the Christmas Cranberry. Once invisible in the UK at yuletide, the cranberry has gradually invaded the festivities, a culinary equivalent of  the green parakeet. In this case they are embedded in the baguette like war journalists, immovable and advancing on all the other flavours. Which is a shame as the turkey is nice, the spinach admirable in its attempts to get us to eat our greens on the sly and the baguette itself a vast improvement on yet another supermarket sandwich. Pretty good value too. I did find the horseradish isolated in one corner, but having it as well as the cream cheese is another case of excess. One or the other but not both. Stephen Brasher

Greggs

Greggs Festive Bake, £1.50

As my colleague ever so astutely observed last year, the Greggs Festive Bake is not actually a Christmas sandwich. A year on, that is still the case, but it remains a deliciously good value handful of crispy pastry and well-spiced turkey filling. The dusting of oniony-sagey crumbs on top of the pastry really improves what is a complex and satisfying flavour profile. If you’re already a fan of the versatile foodstuff that is the Greggs bake (and you should be: what other treat is always piping hot, can be eaten with one hand on the bus and costs less than £2?) you will love this Christmassy twist on a well-loved format. Caroline Crampton

Greggs Turkey Bacon and Cranberry Roll, £1.50

It’s like a sausage roll but with turkey, bacon and little cranberries instead of sausagemeat. My love of Greggs has spiralled out of control since they introduced their £2 coffee and bacon roll deal, and I love the sausage roll, but this didn’t quite work – the flavours don’t really blend, you just have a lot of turkey, the odd bit of bacon and a cranberry every now and then. It felt unnervingly like eating catfood. Stephen Bush

Benugo

Honey roast pulled ham and smoked cheddar bloomer, £3.75

A great sandwich, this manages to taste weirdly healthy yet also delicious, perhaps down to its deep brown bread. The cheese is plasticky and thin, in that perfect sliced way, contrasting nicely with the texture of the pulled pork. Token rocket adds to the virtue factor; the chutney takes it away again. Hearty. Helen Lewis

As someone who is not an enthusiastic meat-eater, I approached the ham sandwich with trepidation and no little guilt, but found it unexpectedly delicious – the combination of the bread, the cheese, the high-quality ham, and the chutney, if indeed it was chutney, made it a very pleasurable experience – even if I did feel a little bit guilty about eating ham. Jason Cowley

Brie, pistachio, spiced apple and chutney baguette, £3.75​

I feel about this sandwich the way I felt about my first love – though it would do me no wrong, it lacks true passion. The acidic tang of the chutney overpowers the brie, leaving me with the sensation of eating a chutney sandwich. If that’s what you want, go forth. If it isn’t, go elsewhere. Amelia Tait

Turkey, bacon and cranberry baguette, £4.25 

Another where the bread is the star – yeasty and wholesome. A good balance of flavours between the turkey and bacon, and a generous helping of cranberry sauce, plus the inevitable token rocket. Not too salty, not too sweety, and there’s even a cheeky bit of stuffing in there. The mayonnaise is possibly OTT, but really, who cares? Helen

This is slightly sweet, slightly salty and very Christmassy. Its cranberry, sage and horseradish flavourings are well-balanced. And while it’s no River Cottage in the wholesome stakes, it feels satisfyingly nutritious – a sensation backed-up by the later revelation (from their press team) that all their “turkey farms adhere to ISO901:2008 standard.” (That’s a good thing.) Plus, “the turkey is produced in South Yorkshire using exclusively British birds. The bacon is produced in Scotland using pork form the UK and EU. The pork in the stuffing is of UK origin and is also produced in Scotland.” You can taste it. India

Leon

Leon Christmas Wrap, £5.45​

“It would be Rudolph not to,” says the blurb for Leon’s hot wrap, featuring turkey, stuffing and ham hock. While I’m willing to award points for the triple meatiness, there is overall something a little generic about this wrap. Because it’s served hot, all the flavours smudge together, and the fresh spinach barely intrudes on the mix. Still, the cranberry and port sauce lifts the experience, adding sweetness what could otherwise be a weighty proposition. Helen

The Leon x Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry, £6.45

Always a little bit afraid to find out who Gizzi Erskine actually is for fear of becoming an adult, I approached Leon’s Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry with some apprehension. Everything from Leon is so wholesome and grainy and aspirational, it puts my usual eating habits in unflattering, baked bean-flavoured contrast. But this curry was delicious. The creamy, lightly spiced sauce was a lovely accompaniment to the juicy hunks of carrot and parsnip. Unusually, the turkey had some flavour too – lifted valiantly by the generous sprinkling of crispy onions. Apparently the Erskine family has this recipe on Boxing Day – a far cry from the customary stale crisps and backwash-addled Baileys, but almost as tasty. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Pistachio & Pomegranate Sprout Salad, £2.25 out/£2.70 in

Even stalwart vegetarian colleagues were a little appalled at the idea of this pistachio and pomegranate sprout salad. And they were right not to let me palm it off on them. Although each of the flavours work on their own, the jarring mixture gives the impression of a salad that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. The pomegranate dressing is tart and sweet, the pistachio crunchy and earthy, and the mint and dill sort of pointless. Maybe it’s all just to cover up the flavour of the one actually festive ingredient: sprouts. But even uniting against this common enemy doesn’t give the salad’s component parts much cohesion. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Mince Pie, £1.60 out/£1.90 in

Apparently this mince pie is wheat-free and infused with orange zest and earl grey. But what isn’t these days? I think I had a bikini wax of that description the other week. Anyway, regardless of its special features, this simply tasted like a very nice, very compact, very regular mince pie. Anoosh

Supermarket sweep

Tesco

Tesco Wensleydale & Spiced Carrot Chutney, £2.00

As soon as you open this sandwich, it smells like Christmas. The chutney to cheese ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with equal servings of both making for the perfect consistency and taste. The fact it is carrot (carrot!) barely registers, and the overall sensation is extremely pleasant. That said, the perforated edges of the sandwich box were not properly perforated and thus it was difficult to open, something you might want to consider if you like an easy life. Amelia

Hovering somewhere between your standard cheese and pickle and the festive staple brie and cranberry, there isn’t much flourish to this Tesco sandwich. It’s what it says on the tin – cheese, chutney, plus a bit of spinach thrown into the mix. There are no hidden surprises, but what’s there is pretty good – the full-bodied wensleydale actually tastes of something (unlike a lot of the brie offerings) and the carrot chutney suits. If this sandwich was a date, it would probably be the right level of friendly towards your parents. Not a love match, but nice enough. Anna

Tesco Pigs Under Blankets, £2.35

There was gristle in the mini sausages which was exceptionally off-putting and I’m too traumatised to finish this sentence. Other than that, flavours were good. Amelia

Tesco Finest Turkey Feast, £3.00

According to this sandwich, vegetables are something that happens to other people. I thoroughly approve. The flavours here aren’t subtle – meat, meat and more meat – but they are clean and more-ish. The malted brown bread is quite posh, but could be posher. Some might find the egg mayonnaise texture jarring alongside the crisp bacon, moist turkey and doughy chestnut stuffing. Helen

Aldi

Festive Feast sandwich, £1.59

Aldi’s “Festive Feast” is no worse and a bit better than some other turkey/bacon/cranberry/stuffing combinations from rival supermarkets and no-one could complain about the price as it is only £1.59. Strangely, Aldi itself seems a bit shy about it with its logo hidden on the reverse of the carton underneath the recycling information. The brand seems to be “Just Tasty”, though whether this is to make it look more upmarket or downmarket against other sandwiches isn’t clear. Santa Claus is coming to town but he doesn’t want you to know about it. Stephen Brasher

Brie and Cranberry sandwich, £1.29

There are no shortages of brie and cranberry sandwiches at this time of year – only one or two will separate themselves from the pack to impress your tastebuds. This sandwich doesn’t. It’s a perfectly fine offering, not horrible, but forgettable. The word I’d use to describe it is “functional”. For those who think Christmas food should be about so much more than mere survival, this is not the one for you – but at £1.29 we can’t complain. Anna

Waitrose

Waitrose Christmas Roast beef, stilton and quince with crispy onions, £3.95 

Waitrose is so good at being Waitrose isn’t it? It just really owns it. And nowhere does it lean further in to its status as lord of the supermarket manor than its roast beef, stilton and quince sandwich. It comes in a little box the shape of a house, for god’s sake. You basically buy property when you buy this sandwich. And it is a sophisticated affair – succulent beef, fiery stilton, the sweet hit of quince on your saliva-drenched tongue. You will never quite be able to look Tesco in the eye again. Also, thrillingly, it comes with a mini add-your-own bag of crispy onions. The bourgeois equivalent of the salt ‘n’ shake crisps sachet. Crunch ‘n’ class. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Clementine Juice, £1.40

A shameless hasty seasonal rebrand of, uh, some orange juice. But a little weaker and without bits in. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Sandwich, £3.20

I can't work out why this sandwich was terrible, but it was. Despite the fact that it has everything you'd want, the essentials of a good Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, cranberry), it doesn't work. The ingredients were poor – the bacon sharp and flavourless, as if a piece of plastic had been left in, the stuffing dry, the turkey forgettable – the bread dry, the mayonnaise overpowering. Avoid. Stephen Bush

Heston Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmond, £3.60

This is a really posh bagel. First of all, it’s black. Way classier than your standard beige, or flashy Instagram-courting rainbow. And it has a picture of an opulently-robed salmon on the front of the packet, tempting you in with its knowing gaze. The dill and “caraway pickled cucumber” (ie. a bit of gherkin) lift the flavour of the classic cream cheese and salmon combo. The only real Christmassy element is the lump of coal (ok, charcoal). It all tastes delicious, but there are far too many chia seeds on the bagel. They drop off everywhere and get stuck in your teeth. A middle-class nightmare. Anoosh

Sainsbury’s

Brie and Cranberry, £2.60

Tasty, not too sweet, but also could have been a little bit more robustly stuffed with ingredients. Julia

Taste the Difference Crab, King Prawn & Avocado Sandwich, £3

This seafood smorgasbord is the most delicious lunchtime snack I’ve had in some time. Like a kiss from the sea, or, more accurately, a snog with a mermaid. The avocado was a perfect creamy bed for the tangy but sweet meat. But if crab, prawn and avo mean festive flavours to you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to come to yours for Christmas dinner. It’s all about chewy and bland poultry, not poncey sea beasts. Anoosh

M&S

Scorched Squash with Beetroot & Pomegranate Relish wrap, £2.80

This sandwich is trying too hard. Yes, there’s parsnip mayonnaise. Yes, the sage and thyme wrap has a slight stuffing aftertaste. Yes, 5 per cent of the £2.80 cost goes to charity. But, no it is not remotely festive. Finding interesting veggie options at Christmas can be tough, I admit, but the best idea is often to keep it simple. What even is “scorched squash”? Serena Kutchinsky

Festive Feast Trio, £3.30

Trios are very Christmassy. The three wise men. Seeing three ships. The number of days you stick to your New Year’s resolution. So M&S gets points for its “Festive Feast Trio” just for that. But it’s also a passable seasonal platter, spread between three rolls. The “posh” prawn cocktail sandwich is only really posh by Seventies starter standards – the slimy prawns are lent an all-important crunch by the cucumber and lettuce, but it’s nothing special. Then there’s the turkey feast and brie, which doesn’t have much flavour at all – but that’s probably because it’s turkey and brie. The third wise sandwich, cheddar and grape chutney, is more moist and punchy. Basic dry, unflashy bread all round. It’s an ok selection if you can’t decide which sandwich to buy, but honestly, you should be able to decide this far down this article. Anoosh

Venison & Sour Cherry Chutney, £4.50

With the sale of Sir Edward Landseer’s most famous painting in the news, what better to accompany a viewing than a M&S Venison and Sour Cherry Chutney sandwich? It’s a winner but a little less filling would allow you to taste the venison properly and the sandwich would be more Monarch of the Glen and less “The Stag at Bay”. Stephen Brasher

Morrisons

Turkey Dinner Sandwich, £2.30

The full-works supermarket sandwiches tend to all merge into one, but this one is slightly better than the others – the cranberry sauce is a bit tarter and less pointless. Anoosh

The ghost of Christmas future

HUEL

Christmas Pudding Huel, £28 for 1.7kg (14 meals), £45 for two

“Nutritionally complete meals in a couple of minutes.” This is the message from techy flour merchants Huel (“human fuel”, not “gruel”, despite appearances). Yes, once climate change destroys all the Big Macs, the food of the future will come in varying sizes of clinical sealed white pouches, complete with a helvetica font. Its mission? To make whole meals “with minimal impact on animals and the environment”. If you’re an eco-friendly health fadder, this will be just your cup of powder.

As it’s Christmas, I tried the Christmas Pudding flavour. I mixed one scoop (38g, 152 calories – nearly a packet of Walker’s crisps, I wistfully discovered) in my special giant space beaker with the required amount of cold water. Then I drank a little bit of it. Then I shuddered. It tastes of over-diluted, grainy powdered milk, with a sprinkling of grated cardboard. It has the consistency (but none of the sugary flavour) of leftover cereal milk. The aftertaste is a sort of woody processed spice, like really cold tiny fragments of clove coating your tongue. The vanilla flavour is more palatable, but I reckon the best thing to do with this Christmas pudding is to set fire to it and leave it at that… Anoosh

Coffee shop pitstops

Costa

Turkey & All the Trimmings Toastie, £3.95

Quite pleasant but the overwhelming taste is of a wet turkey struggling to get out of a vat of cranberries and ultimately drowning. Stephen Brasher

Pigs in Blankets Panini, £4.25

I will admit I consumed this in sub-optimal conditions – heated in the office microwave, rather than grilled. But that doesn’t really excuse its blandness. I mean, come on. There are two types of pork here, plus “herby stuffing” and cranberry sauce, and the damn thing is 559 calories. How do you make anything 559 calories and not be nice? By this point, the conscientious dieter will already have mentally rejected this in favour of a chicken salad, so why not go the whole hog and put some more cheese in it? And yet nothing in here really tasted of anything more than “vague meat”.

Also, because the ciabatta hadn’t been stamped flat in a grill, it was difficult to keep the sausages – which were unpleasantly flaccid – under control. They slid out and nearly landed in my lap. (I should have taken this as a sign and abandoned them.) On a bitterly cold day, I can see this being a tempting option when it emerges toasty fresh from a grill, but it isn’t to be contemplated under any other circumstances. Helen

Gluten Free Turkey, Bacon and Cranberry Wrap, £3.20

There are two things you need in a successful wrap, whatever the time of year: an even spread of tasty ingredients and enough structural integrity that it won’t leak in your hands. Sadly, this offering from Costa could provide neither of these things in full measure. The turkey was more flavourful than in your average shop sandwich (ie, it had a slight poultry taste) but it, as well as the lettuce and bacon, had bunched at the top, meaning that after a couple of bites I was just eating wrap and sauce. And that sauce – the sweet cranberry jam had leaked out the bottom of both halves of my wrap, leaving me with unpleasantly sticky fingers. The wrap itself is slightly chalky in texture, as is usual with gluten free products (it’s made mostly from tapioca starch, according to the list of ingredients). The flavour combination is reassuringly Christmassy, but unfortunately the starchy wrap rather dampens any festive spirit this contender might have evoked. Caroline

Starbucks

Starbucks Turkey Feast baguette, £3.99

This one really is a feast: bacon AND turkey in a harmonious conversation with each other. Surprisingly the turkey tastes like what your momma makes at home, and there really is some smoky maple in the bacon. Some more cranberry chutney would perk it up to perfection, but all in all I’m left happy. Right until I remember it came from Starbucks, and start thinking about America. Pinja

Festive Veggie Feast baguette, £3.99

A Starbucks food sceptic, I did not expect to be won over by their Veggie Feast Baguette. But it was a triumph. The baguette is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the squash full of autumnal flavour, the sage and onion stuffing ensuring this is decidedly Christmas fare. But it’s the cheese that really makes the sandwich – there is absolutely tons of rich brie, thoroughly melted and paired with a delicious real ale chutney. While other festive veggie options can feel far too healthy to really count as Christmas food, this is indulgent in the best way. Anna

High street treat

Pizza Express

Porchetta Natale Romana Pizza, £13.20

Before going further, I must admit to being an unpicky Pizza Express fan. Give me anything on a Romana base and I’m yours. So it’s unsurprising that I loved the seasonal special “Porcetta Natale Romana”, which is apparently a “delectable twist on the classic Christmas roast dinner” – or “pigging delicious”, according to a more straightforward bit of the press release. It is a juicy and delicious meat feast: pulled pork, herby stuffing, glistening scrunches of pancetta. Its triumph is also its downfall, however. By bypassing the dull flavours of turkey it also ducks being an authentic Christmas dinner on a pizza. Anoosh

Snowball Dough Balls, £3.85

The only thing more delicious than fluffy balls of dough are fluffy balls of dough with wordplay attached. So it was with disappointment that I learned Pizza Express’ seasonal rebrand of its classic dough balls starter aren’t called snow balls. Not even snough balls. No, they’re called Snowball Dough Balls. Which is silly. Still, piping hot, dusted with cinnamon and dipped in rich vanilla cream, their sheer tastiness almost makes you forget the missed opportunity to pun. Almost. Anoosh

Cauliflower Cheese Romana Pizza, £12.50

Have you ever eaten a delicious pizza, dripping with cheese, smothered in garlic, and thought, “Nice, but what would make this really amazing is some cauliflower?” No? Well, Pizza Express assumes you have with its veggie Christmas special, Cauliflower Cheese. It always slightly amazes me what meat-eaters think will get vegetarians salivating – hint: not cauliflower! But this pizza is actually really nice, mostly because of its other winning ingredients: pecorino, “pink” onion, and pine kernals. It loses points for me for having no tomato. There’s nothing that draws me to this pizza over the chain’s other (brilliant, in my humble opinion) offerings, but it’s not bad either. Anna

The artisan choice

Forman & Field

Traditional Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Bagel, the “Boris Bagel”,​ £5.95 for two

It’s the “Boris Bagel”, from the people who brought you the Boris Bike and the Boris Bus... Except this is not double-decker and you can open it, unlike a Boris Bus window. Actually H Forman & Son are the oldest remaining salmon smokery on Fish Island in the East End, an area once home to London’s largest Jewish population and still several legendary bagel shops. This bagel has definitely got that authentic chewy, glossy quality familiar to regulars at Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake, and a world away from crumby supermarket fare. You know when you have top-quality smoked salmon, and this is it: a classy shade of pink, and you can taste that swirling oak smoke. It’s offset by some nice creamy cream cheese, and elevated with chopped chives and lemon juice. Not exactly a Christmassy choice – perhaps one for Hannukah. What makes it Boris-y? It seems it was named after him after he sang the praises of Forman’s, and opened their new factory. But that was back when he was Mayor of London. Does Brexit mean bagels too? Oh and where’s the Sadiq Sarnie? Tom Calvocoressi

Letterbox lunch

Graze

Merry Mince Pie Flapjacks, £1.19

It is arguably against the very spirit of baby Jesus to eat something that tastes like a mince pie but is not a mince pie. This, however, is good news for mail-order desk snack connoisseurs Graze’s Mince Pie Flapjack, as – despite the name – it tastes nothing like the traditional festive offering at all. What it does taste like, however, is gingerbread, which is fine, really. Better for everyone. As a spicy, Christmas flapjack, this will warm your bellies. As a mince pie? It is nought. Amelia

Posh crisps

Fairfield’s Farm

Kelly Bronze Turkey, Sage & Onion crisps, 80p

These high-quality crisps have a satisfying thickness, reminiscent of Kettle Chips and other similarly posh potato-based snacks. The simple, stylish black packaging is eye-catching. And you can assuage waistline guilt safe in the knowledge that this is a product with strong eco-credentials – the crisps are hand-cooked on a family-run farm in Essex using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The only problem is the flavour. The turkey taste is weak, and the sage and punchy onion is overwhelming. The overall effect is that on the first bite they seem flavour-free, only for a salty aftertaste to hit seconds later. Definitely one for sharing, rather than solitary scoffing. Serena

All images are publicity shots from the respective outlets, apart from those used to illustrate Waitrose and HUEL, which are the author's own.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.