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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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Ruth Davidson: “Brexit could deliver a hit we can’t recover from”

The Scottish Tory leader has revitalised the party north of the border. Is she now destined to occupy the hottest seat of all?

Ruth Davidson has had a good summer. At the age of 38, she has finally bought her first house. It’s a two-bedroom mid-terrace in an Edinburgh suburb that she will share with her Irish fiancée, Jen, and their cocker spaniel, a failed gun dog called Wilson (“It’s just as well he’s handsome because, by God, he’s stupid,” she tells me). The hyperactive leader of the Scottish Conservatives is eager to put down roots. “I’ve always moved for work,” she says. “I worked out that since I left home to go to uni at 17, I’d had more than 20 flats. This is the first time I’ve had a home. It’s nice.”

On 29 August, her opposite number in the Labour Party, the well-liked Kezia Dugdale, resigned. Her replacement is likely to drag the Scottish party in a more Corbynite direction on issues such as nationalisation, taxation and public spending. This will put pressure on the SNP – now the party of choice for many disaffected Labour lefties – to do the same. That would leave space in the centre ground that Davidson’s Tories will be more than happy to fill.

“If I’m perfectly honest, I am by nature a centrist,” she says. “I’m fairly hard-core on some justice and fiscal policies. I’m a proper Tory there. But in terms of social policy and things like that, I’m absolutely a centrist. But it’s because I think it’s right. It brings people with you and, if you’re looking towards [forming a] government in a way that as a party in Scotland, five to ten years ago, we could never have conceived, it’s about bringing people with you and making the arguments for being bold and radical.”

This sounds familiar. Is the great young hope of British Conservatism a much more youthful, female version of Tony Blair? That won’t go down well in the Shires or the leader columns of the Daily Mail. “No! I didn’t go to Fettes, I don’t own… rental properties around the world, I don’t holiday with pop stars, so I don’t consider myself to be a Tory Tony Blair. There’s some things I think he did very well. I think in terms of foreign policy, his idea of humanitarian interventionism that he used in Sierra Leone and in Kosovo was bang on. It was the right thing to do and it saved lives. However, I’m probably the only Tory leader who has been on one protest march in their life and that was against the Iraq War in 2003, so there are things I don’t agree with him on. Actually, I joined the Territorial Army about a month later because I wanted to serve in some way – though not in Iraq.”

Ruth Elizabeth Davidson grew up in a Presbyterian family in Selkirk, where her father worked in a wool mill and she attended a comprehensive school. After a career in broadcast journalism, she entered politics and became leader of the Scottish Tories in 2011; she has since revitalised the party in one of the great contemporary political feats. With Davidson at the helm, a party that was wiped out in the 1997 election (it won none of Scotland’s 72 Westminster seats) and that had shown only a flicker of life since then has supplanted Labour as the official opposition at Holyrood. In June’s general election, the Tories won 13 seats (out of 59) in Scotland, an increase of 12. Between the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the Scottish Tories put on more than 320,000 votes; in the May local elections, they more than doubled their share of Scottish council seats to 276.

There is a good chance that in 2021, when the next Holyrood elections are held, Davidson will find herself leading Scotland’s largest party and becoming first minister. Already she regularly attends Theresa May’s political cabinet in London and is spoken of at Westminster as a future prime minister – some would parachute her into No 10 tomorrow if they could. Members of her small back-room team say that they are besieged by media interview requests and invitations from around the world. Everyone wants a piece of Ruth Davidson’s magic.

***

When we meet in her small office on the Conservative floor of the Scottish Parliament, I sense the low hum of military-style planning, even though Holyrood is still in recess. After ten days in Ireland, Davidson is rested and recharged. “I think along with almost every other person involved in politics [or] journalism about politics, and the voters, I went into the summer absolutely knackered. But I’m ready to go again. We’ve had a really good 18 months. We’ve had three elections where we’ve come from third to second each time, we’ve more than doubled our number of MSPs, more than doubled our number of councillors. We’ve gone 13 times our number of MPs, though that maybe talks more about the base level than anything else…”

It’s certainly true that the old joke about there being more giant pandas in Scotland (there are two) than Tory MPs (there was one) has run its course. “The pandas are going to have to do a lot of listening to Barry White music to catch up with us now.”

Yet Davidson is far from satisfied. “I don’t want this to have been a peak. This is a platform for us to build on. In the five-and-a-half years I’ve been leader, between referendums and elections, I’ve fought eight national campaigns. Scotland is tired of politicians shouting at each other with no end product, and we need to use this period – which is the first we’ve had in years with no imminent election – to reduce the temperature in Scotland and in the political discourse. We need to use it to do some of the heavy intellectual lifting that’s not been done in this place [Holyrood]. We need to start asking questions about long-term solutions in important policy areas.”

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that licensed Tony Blair’s creation of the Scottish Parliament falls on 11 September and is inevitably inspiring some reflection and soul-searching north of the border. Not many would claim that the institution’s first two decades have been a shining example of policy innovation and political daring. “Are we as a country more dynamic, braver, more advanced, better educated, with better health than 20 years ago? I’m not so sure,” says Davidson. “Honestly, I think it’s been timid. I think devolution was designed to be more ambitious than what previously existed, and I’m not sure that ambition has been realised within this building at Holyrood.”

If given the opportunity, she wants to make good on the parliament’s potential. She accuses her SNP rivals of big talk but little action: “They’ve been very good at saying whatever issue of the week they’re getting hammered on is their top priority and that they’re going to have a commission, or there’s going to be a review. At some point, you actually have to start making tough decisions.”

The day after our interview, Davidson unveiled proposals for a series of new towns in Scotland and for 25,000 homes to be built annually. On education, she wants to encourage innovation by giving head teachers autonomy over budgets. She aspires to boost the status of the teaching profession, allow high- and low-performing schools in the same localities to “buddy up”, and encourage different types of school to open, including technical and state-funded schools that opt out of local authority control.

Davidson wants to introduce Teach First, which fast-tracks high-performing graduates into the teaching profession, to Scotland. “We used to pride ourselves at being the best in the world at education. Well, let’s have a bit of humility and let’s look at what’s happening in the world that’s better than what we’re doing.

“I understand that the SNP were trying to keep a broad collective together because they were working towards the goal of independence, but it’s not good enough that an entire generation’s life chances have been thwarted because you’ve been afraid to take on the teaching unions, or you’ve been afraid to make the changes that perhaps parents wouldn’t understand and you’d have to explain to them.”

Measures to tie the NHS and social care together will receive proper attention in the next few years, she says, as will the economy. “Part of centrism is about understanding the need for private industry, private enterprise, free trade, the idea that you can lift all boats. Inequality in the UK is at its lowest level for 36 years, but it doesn’t feel like that to people out there. They see these millionaire footballers or Russian oligarchs in London with their gold-plated Bentleys while they’re struggling and that disconnect is really tough.”

The ambition is clear, although the dissimulation and cant of the conventional political interview are replaced by a refreshing frankness. “We’re getting ready to change from a strong opposition to looking like an alternative government of Scotland,” she says. “We don’t look like that now. We know that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re up for it. I have to make sure I’ve got the team, the vision, the policies, the ideas, and that we’ve got the tone right – the civility that we can bring back into politics in Scotland, because it’s been at fever pitch for a really long time.”

She continues: “We have people who are serious, thoughtful, who probably ten years ago wouldn’t have changed career to do politics. But this big, cataclysmic referendum [in 2014] happened where people said, ‘The Scotland I want is worth fighting for.’ Whether you were for Yes or No, it dominated so much that a lot of people who would have just sat on the sofa and shouted at Question Time decided to get off their backsides and do something about it.”

In Scotland’s predominantly leftist political culture, there are those for whom a Tory – centrist or otherwise – can never be anything more than a stone-hearted friend of the moneyed elites. Davidson’s electoral success and personal popularity are all the more luminous when contrasted with the miscalculations and missteps that have gored the reputations of several senior London colleagues, including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

Davidson says she isn’t worried about cross-contamination, but an indication of how Westminster decisions can trip her up came earlier this year when the UK government announced plans to restrict child tax credits to the first two children. An exemption was announced for women whose third child was a result of rape, but campaigners were furious that victims would be expected to prove their circumstances to the DWP.

Davidson defended the so-called “rape clause” and found herself in a difficult spot. “It was said I looked uncomfortable talking about it – well, yes. But do I want to make sure people who have had children in the very worst circumstances have the financial support that they need? Yes, I do. Nobody was putting forward a better way of doing this.”

Were her opponents in Scotland using the issue to tarnish her reputation? “Look, I’m not going to say that. But it’s interesting that even Jeremy Corbyn didn’t think it was an issue on the campaign trail.”

***

Davidson was a staunch Remainer. She aggressively debated Tory Leaver colleagues during the referendum campaign – most notably roughing up Boris Johnson, for whom she has little time, at a debate at Wembley Arena in London. She accepts that Brexit “is going to happen. You’ve got no major political party likely to be in government advocating that it doesn’t happen and no electoral event that would give them the mandate to stop it before it happens.”

Yet she is far from uncritical of the government’s performance. Of the fraught beginning to the Brexit negotiations, she says, “I think one of the things the UK government didn’t do that they should have done was pitch-roll this: remind the British public that when it comes to European negotiations – and we’ve had several decades of them – we are told no until five past midnight and then suddenly a deal gets done in the wee small hours of the morning. I don’t think the country was prepared for this period that we’re currently in. People in a room talking and then walking out and up to a bank of microphones and saying entirely different things while standing next to each other is part of what negotiation is. I think the UK government has not just an obligation but a duty to negotiate as hard as they can on behalf of the country.”

What is her biggest concern about the impact of Brexit? She pauses. “Interesting question… My real fear is that if there’s a short-term economic hit, we don’t bounce back from it.”

Would she like a prolonged transition period during which Britain maintains access to the single market? “I’m for free trade and want to make sure that people from Scotland and the UK have access to – and the greatest ability to operate within – the single market, which I believe are the exact words the Prime Minister used in her Lancaster House speech back in January. The mechanism for how we get to that I’m less aerated about, as long as that’s where we get to.”

We have reached, at last, a mention of the invisible Prime Minister, in office but not in power, counting down the days until her colleagues decide to free her from the burden of empty leadership. I say that it’s brave of Theresa May to get on with the job each day. It can’t be fun. “She’s absolutely straight down the line,” Davidson says. “She’s not a game player. And the kind of clichés that you hear about her, about her believing in service and public duty, are absolutely true. Everything that she said about being there for the long haul, as long as the party and the country want her – she will get up and she will put in a shift.”

Could Davidson end up occupying that hottest of seats? David Cameron once told me that he “never put a limit on her abilities and ambitions. She has got what it takes in politics. She’s got oomph, she’s got spirit, she’s got brains.”

One friend who has watched her astonishing progress concedes that even Davidson has been surprised by her success. “She has had to get her head around how good she is and how much potential she has – that she can play on the biggest of stages. Each time we think she’s reached a plateau, she climbs the next one. I genuinely think she could do just about anything she wants to, and maybe she’s starting to believe that.”

For Ruth Davidson, the next plateau is in sight. “When 2021 comes around, people will be looking for a first minister, and the option they’re going to have is Nicola Sturgeon again or me,” she says. It’s a remarkable statement, given recent history, to come from the lips of a Scottish Tory leader – but she means it, and we should take her seriously.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special