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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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Donald Trump and the age of rage

What the rise of Trump tells us about our failing politics.

I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).

Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal ­celebrity, far greater achievement and much more ­interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.

Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.

But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.

How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?

Ironically, the ascent of the establishment as a focus of hatred and political anger has coincided with the decline of the establishment as an instrument of power. Think of the weakness of the establishment currently governing the Republicans in America. It has proved notably useless at doing all the things establishments are supposed to do: manipulate power behind the scenes, undermine mavericks and keep the show on the road.

This failure seems especially out of character for the Republicans. Even allowing for the insanity of its Tea Party strands, you would have expected the GOP – if its “establishment” was what we imagined it to be – to have snuffed out this Trump nonsense, probably during a grouse shoot in South Carolina, or over a few holes of golf at Augusta National in Georgia. Isn’t power what these people do? No longer, it seems, except in our imagination. So why are we so sure that the establishment, which can’t even cough up a decent candidate, is the power pulling the strings? I am beginning to wonder if the establishment’s new role, far from the exercise of unchecked power, is to provide a convenient palliative sideshow. So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.

***

Donald Trump is both the em­bodiment of political failure and the result of political failure – or perceived political failure. He represents political failure because he has accelerated the descent of political discourse: “They’re rapists, build walls, ban Muslims.” He is the result of political failure because he taps in to a deep, subliminal anger: the conviction that “the system” has betrayed and abandoned the people.

Why do so many people feel this way, to the extent that even Trump (and other preposterous candidates) become palatable? Despite widespread political correctness, there is one group that it is perfectly legitimate to despise: politicians. When I worked for a newspaper, I was surprised one day to hear a reporter, usually so fair and mild-mannered, describe her hatred and contempt for politicians – “the worst people, just disgusting”. This is the kind of comment you hear from normally civilised and balanced people, who usually don’t know any politicians personally, but feel quite certain of the truth of their conviction.

In Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal, though indefensible, was not the cause of this contempt, but rather its consequence. Given the strength of the underlying hatred, an appropriate story was always going to come along that allowed our contempt to be channelled into ridicule. I’ve seen news stories operate along the same lines in professional sport. When a manager or team has become unpopular with the fans, an event or “error” will act as a lightning rod for general ill-feeling. Usually the tipping point is quite routine; people get away with much worse when their stock is high.

Why are politicians and the “establishment” so despised? The new populism is partly a delayed consequence of the end of deference, in part fuelled by the emergence, especially on social media, of a strong, hard-edged and almost daily picture of “the will of the people”. Maybe this is what real democracy looks like?

Economics is also central to the “age of rage”. In the loosest terms – except among the very poorest – even “late capitalism” has continued to raise absolute living standards, albeit increasingly slowly. But few people judge their wealth according to absolute living standards. Wealth is perceived as relative to something else: relative to the past, relative to others (especially those inside “the establishment”) and, crucially, relative to individuals’ own expectations.

By those criteria, most people feel much poorer. The political class itself is the target of these economic frustrations, exacerbated by the financial crisis, even though politics is far from a complete explanation.

Second, there is a sense that politics has “failed” at ground level. This has two deep causes, which, taken together, create a significant credibility gap. First, as politics has been professionalised, its practitioners have become better at knowing what to say to get elected. Whatever their other failings, none of us can doubt that politicians spend more time than ever working out what the electorate wants, and devote greater energy towards trying to suggest that they know how to deliver it.

Having professionalised electoral messaging, politicians simultaneously professionalised avoiding controversy once in power. The degeneration of the political interview into unlistenable banalities is only one side of the coin. The flipside is the gaffe-hungry media, encouraged by an anti-politics sentiment in the electorate. The “gotcha” culture of debate doesn’t make politicians accountable, it makes them evasive.

The continual threat of being “caught out” saying the wrong thing – or saying ­anything – coexists with the perpetual expectation that politicians will be saying something at all times. We have drifted towards the assumption that politicians will speak in public non-stop, yet without taking any risks: the definition of a boring conversation. Trump’s ghastly voice seems fresh to so many people because he isn’t schooled in this tradition.

Professional political strategy clings to the notion that any vacuum creates space for an opposition advance. I think they’re wrong, and that it is impossible for politicians to have interesting and important things to say on the hour, every day. My view, in contrast, is that politicians devalue their own words by printing too many of them. But would they do it if the electorate didn’t expect it?

***

The ultra-professionalisation of politics has coincided with a huge crunch on the state’s capacity to expand. A simplistic history of politics in the second half of the 20th century would show parties winning power by handing out an ever-expanding range of goodies. Today, however, that ­arrangement is pincered from three sides: an ageing population, burgeoning expectations, and the weight of existing commitments to taxpayers, such as pensions. So, the central challenge facing overstretched liberal democracies is obvious: people want more services and benefits than they want to pay for. (Evidence that voters prefer not to focus on this contradiction lies in the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders, who promises more of everything without explaining how to pay for it. Both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns channel political disenchantment, but they exploit the feeling in opposite ways.)

For governments, however, a credibility deficit accumulates over the long term. And even quite effective administrations, as a result, leave the impression of significant underachievement. In other words, just when politicians have professionalised the art of saying the “right” thing, they have found it harder than ever to get things done in office. As with living standards, it is this deficit – the gap between political promises and governmental performance – that is causing problems, not the performance alone. Are today’s governments really worse than some of those gone? If so, when exactly were these exceptional governments of the past? These questions, intriguing as they are, do not figure in how people think.

How can the political class narrow the credibility gap? The tempting answer is to suggest providing the kind of sparkling, error-free government that has never existed and never will exist. The other problem, revising improbable expectations, at least might be achieved. In the ultra-professional era, political parties have suffered from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: if, despite the long-term problem of credibility, they don’t play the media-friendly game of promises and button-pushing, someone else will.

After all, what does the alternative look like? “You can’t have this, lower your expectations, things are going to be hard”: it’s easy to see why politicians don’t relish saying these things, even when they’re true. The whole process that has led to today’s political disenchantment is all too rational: rational politicians coming up with rational avoidance strategies for problems that may not be soluble. Haven’t we, the electorate, played a part in that process, too?

Domestic frustrations are compounded by threats emanating from abroad. Hyper-terrorism, globalisation and migration on an unprecedented scale are huge problems and challenges with no obvious solutions. Donald Trump has exploited fears on both counts with crass answers. How much harder it is to turn complex approaches to the two problems into easy soundbites.

When I was living in New York in the late 1990s, the Clintons seemed to represent a great deal of what was wrong with politics. Ethically they hovered somewhere between dodgy and outright corrupt. Their personal relationship seemed an extension of political lobbying, more an alliance than a marriage; politically they told us how much they cared, rather than showing it. Bill had the partially redeeming quality of charm. Hillary had a talking-clock voice and predictable opinions – her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, was beyond parody – without Bill’s knowing wink.

And now? If she is up against Trump in November, I will happily stuff envelopes and campaign for her. Whatever it takes. The nature of my U-turn says everything about Trump: nothing about Hillary, whose reputation has become even more tarnished and whose political voice is more jaded. If she must be the future, we can be in no doubt about the impoverishment of the choice.

There is a view that a win for Hillary, and the restoration of competent (but cynical) middle-ground politics, will show the hollowness of anti-politics as a movement – a frenzy that won’t survive the cold rationality of the ballot box. This opinion holds that it is parties that have gone nuts, not the people. “This is not the revolt of the public against the party leadership,” argued Philip Collins in the Times. “It is the revolt of the party activists against the public.”

Yet the view that a Hillary win will see predictable centrism safely restored feels wide of the mark. I doubt a simple reprisal of Clinton-Blairism (which Daniel Finkelstein defined as the idea that it is “possible to do everything without upsetting anybody”) can get us out of this hole. Trump taps in to something frightening. If it’s defeated this time, it will still come back, even if the man will not. Until the deficit of political credibility is reduced, the demotic potential of the populist “outsider” will remain.

And next time I’m pretty sure it will be someone nastier than Donald Trump. The need is to find a better Hillary Clinton. That will only get harder if intelligent people go on paying lip-service to anti-politics. There are always establishments. The important question is how good they are.

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 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster