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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

RALPH STEADMAN FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The Tory wars

How the EU referendum exposed a crisis in the Conservative Party that will endure long after the vote.

The Conservative Party is approaching not only a historic referendum, but a historic moment of crisis. It is deeply divided over whether or not to stay in the European Union, and the divisions are unequal. At the top, most want to stay in: not out of conviction, but because most ministers have found it politic to agree with David Cameron, even if they cannot support his view that he got a great deal from other EU countries after his supposed “renegotiations” with them. Among MPs generally the mood is far more hostile; and at the party’s grass roots it is predominantly in favour of leaving. Where this ranks in the history of Tory party crises is not easy to say.

It smells a little like the division over the Corn Laws in 1846, when Robert Peel needed to rely on the Liberals and Whigs to secure repeal, because most of his party was against him. It looks greater than 1903, when a minority of the party sympathised with Joseph Chamberlain over tariff reform. Where it differs from both of those is that for 28 and 19 years, respectively, the Tories had a long wait before coming back into power for a full parliamentary term after their split. Now, Labour itself is so divided, and its leader viewed as so marginal by people outside the party, that the prospect of the Tories losing power for a couple of decades is highly unlikely.

So perhaps we should look at 1922, when a rebellion in the party caused the end of the Lloyd George coalition and put Stanley Baldwin into Downing Street, first briefly, in 1923, and then, after the short-lived first Labour government, for five years; or the more drawn-out legacy of Neville Chamberlain, who left the stain of Munich on the party. In that case, the wound did not heal for 25 years: one of the reasons Harold Macmillan disapproved of R A Butler was that he had been an avid appeaser, and it helped lose Butler the Tory leadership – ironically, to a man, Lord Home, who had been Neville Chamberlain’s private secretary. Divisions over appeasement had already had the effect of putting Churchill into Downing Street in 1940 ahead of Viscount Halifax. Factionalism in the party was one of the causes of the 1945 landslide defeat by Labour, and of the narrow one in 1964.

The current division is open and is breeding hostility, luxuries afforded by one of the Tories’ few unifying beliefs: that Labour poses no threat at the moment, and they can have a quarrel that may even verge on civil war without fearing electoral consequences. Whatever the outcome, the present quarrel allows the opportunity for a major realignment of the party without it having to go out of office. A minister who is (just, and after much soul-searching) committed to our staying in the European Union told me frankly last week that the Tory party was “a mess” and that, whatever happened on 23 June, the referendum would be the beginning and not the end of a painful process for the Conservatives.

Whereas so much of what goes wrong for David Cameron has been down to his arrogance, and his failure therefore to grasp the likely consequences of his actions (think of the policy on Libya), the “mess” of a divided and recriminatory Tory party is, paradoxically, down to a fear of failure. He had, in the first instance, promised a referendum on our membership of the EU in order to see off Ukip. However, like the rest of us, Cameron had never believed he would be in a position where he would have to abide by his promise, because he had, like the rest of us, expected either to lose last year’s election or to be able to govern only with the help of the Liberal Democrats: who would, to his delight and relief, never allow him to call a plebiscite. But he and his party did not fail. The referendum is now just two and a half months away, and it is shredding the Tory party.

***

There is dismay among most of the pro-EU Tories, because they sense they are losing. In his now famous savaging of Boris Johnson in the Times last month, Matthew Parris, who has a record as a level-headed and, if anything, understated columnist, threw in the aside that he thought defeat for the Remain camp was increasingly likely. “I am aware,” another minister told me, “that I, like all of my colleagues, have so far failed to make a convincing case for staying in.” He expressed foreboding about how things could get worse for the Remainers: “One more terrorist outrage that can be attributed to open borders in Europe, or film of the Mediterranean full of boats of refugees, and we’re done for.”

A couple of ministers have told me that their personal loyalty to Cameron was what persuaded them to support him, but that such support is contingent on an understanding that they will not be asked to go out and make far-fetched claims about what will happen if the UK leaves. There is embarrassment even among pro-Europeans about some of the hyperbole retailed so far, not least because of the damage wild and easily disprovable claims do to the credibility of the Remain case. Such is the paranoia about the party post-23 June that no one sensible is keen to speak attributably about how things are, or how they might turn out.

Leading Tories note the disparity between the motivations of the two camps. Whereas groups such as Grassroots Out and Leave.EU have held rallies all over the country, some drawing in 2,000 people, there have been no comparable manifestations of popular enthusiasm to keep Britain in. There seems an inevitable inertia among those happy with the status quo that contrasts with the energy and dynamism of those who want change. And, for the avoidance of doubt, rallies by Leave campaigners have not been packed solely with Ukip stalwarts and disaffected Tories, but have included groups of Labour supporters and trades unionists who have cheered on speakers such as Kate Hoey. After all, many who put Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership are, like him, long-term Bennites, with a Bennite view of the EU: and, unlike their leader, they are saying so.

Tory MPs on the Remain side talk resignedly of the dislocation between them and their activists. Most Conservative associations are minuscule compared to what they were in the Thatcher era, and some MPs say they struggle to find a single activist willing to vote In. In the Commons, an estimated 150 Tory MPs out of 330 have indicated that they are Leavers, and many among the payroll vote who have declared their support for Cameron have done so purely for reasons of job security. Few believe that those who have exercised their right to differ and support Leave can be sure of keeping their jobs, with one or two important exceptions. The whips have been unpleasant and forceful about job prospects, as one MP put it to me, “almost to the point of caricature”.

The unpleasantness starts with David Cameron. The conversation the Prime Minister had with Iain Duncan Smith when the former work and pensions secretary decided to resign is characterised by Duncan Smith’s friends as one in which “expletives were used”. Insiders believe that some of those around Cameron are absolutely ruthless. They sense the argument is going against them and they will do what they must to turn it round. The Queensberry rules do not apply. Hence the threats by whips, the sendings-to-Coventry, the cutting people dead in corridors, the meetings of a “White Commonwealth” of ministers that excludes anyone known or feared to be opposed to Cameron’s view.

Of the six ministers with a seat in cabinet who came out in favour of Brexit, both Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling are said to have long believed they would be sacked after the referendum, and so felt they had nothing to lose. Some think Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is in that category, too. John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, is treading carefully, and colleagues think Priti Patel ticks too many boxes to be sacked – being a woman from an ethnic minority who is good on television.

Michael Gove’s position is interesting, to say the least. He, unlike any of the other five ministers who came out in February as Leavers, was part of Cameron’s social circle, and clung on there even after his demotion from education secretary to chief whip in favour of the considerably less able Nicky Morgan. He alone of all the six has made a coherent and rigorous case for leaving the EU, and his combination of intellect and conviction makes him by far Cameron’s most dangerous opponent within the party.

He has studiously avoided any personal element in his criticism of the Prime Minister or his colleagues; he rushed to George Osborne’s defence after Duncan Smith’s resignation and when other Leavers were using the Chancellor’s failings to undermine him; and he is maintaining a general decorum at all times. “But the main reason they daren’t touch Gove,” an insider tells me, “is that he knows too much.”

What worries the Cameron camp, and invigorates Leavers, is the perception, shared by anyone over the age of 55, that what is going on now is totally unlike 1975, when the only other referendum on our participation in Europe was held and the United Kingdom decided by a margin of 2 to 1 to stay in the European Economic Community. Veterans remember people saying at the time that Britain had been in only two years, and it had to be given a chance to work. That argument no longer applies. Also, the cast list of serious politicians advocating exit, which in 1975 was Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Enoch Powell, is now a widening array of people, in and out of politics.

Because a defeat for Cameron is so possible – a poll in last Sunday’s Observer showed Leave 4 points ahead of Remain, 43 to 39, with 18 per cent still to decide – many Tories are spending much time thinking and talking privately about potential outcomes. One that is ruled out by all is that either side will win by a substantial margin: whether we vote to leave or stay, it will be close.

“If we vote to leave, then we leave,” a ­Remain minister tells me. “That’s the end of it, and it’s the end of Cameron, too. It would be like a vote of confidence for him. We need a government to negotiate the terms of our exit and a shedload of trade deals, and it can’t be him in those circumstances. But the nightmare scenario is that we vote narrowly to stay in. That’s when things turn really ugly.”

The “nightmare” is what occupies the thoughts of an increasing number of Tories. The mood among the Remainers is already so bitter – especially, it seems, among those around Osborne, rather than those around the Prime Minister, for they see their man’s promotion prospects as hanging entirely on the outcome of the vote – that calls for magnanimity in victory may not be heeded. Given the profoundly anti-EU temper of the Tory party, such an attitude would be dangerous for its unity and health even if the victory were on the scale of that in 1975. If, as is more likely, the difference is of a few percentage points, the consequences of such an atmosphere of recrimination could be devastating.

“If David wins by a decent margin we can then settle down and face the important challenges the rest of the world offers us, and stop obsessing about Europe,” a close confidant of the Prime Minister told me. “Russia is a growing threat, China is a problem and America could end up being far from reliable. If we win well, then I and many like me will try to persuade David to change his mind about leaving before the next election [in 2020] come what may, as he is manifestly the best man to see us through these problems.” Such sentiments are widespread among Cameron’s friends, and reflect other factors of which they are keenly aware: the recognition that Osborne is deeply damaged, that Boris Johnson would be a disastrous leader and prime minister, and that Gove is rather better at politics than they might like.

***

There is an idea on both sides that scores will have to be settled after 23 June, and, the way things are going with party discipline and out-of-control aides in Downing Street, such an outcome is inevitable. Should Remain prevail, a wise prime minister would understand that this was a time to heal wounds and not deepen them. It remains a matter of conjecture how wise Cameron, whose vindictive streak is more often than not on the surface rather than beneath it, is prepared to be.

Those who work for his party at the grass roots, and on whom MPs depend to get the vote out at elections, will be unimpressed by a purge of those who have not backed him over Europe. There isn’t much of a voluntary party left, and there will be even less of one if he acts rashly in victory. If it is a narrow victory – and it is, at this stage, hard to envisage any other sort – his party could become unmanageable unless he acts with restraint and decency.

It won’t help Cameron, who is already considered out of touch because of his personal wealth and the life he leads as a consequence, that (as a result of the Panama Papers) we now know that part of his family’s wealth was based on precisely the sort of systematic tax avoidance that Osborne has branded “immoral”.

Yet things could be worse for the Prime Minister. Tory Leavers believe that if only Corbyn would say what he really thinks about the EU their side would be assured of victory. It does not seem to worry them that that, if true, would be the end of Cameron, for whom they have the sort of disdain the Heseltine faction had for Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, or the “Bastards” had for John Major after Britain ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

Conservatives worried about the stability of their party believe that only Labour under a new, more effective and less factional leader could present the serious electoral challenge to them that would shake them out of these unprecedentedly acrimonious and self-indulgent divisions. We can only imagine how differently the In campaign would be conducted if Labour had a nationally popular and an obviously electable leader.

As it is, many more dogs are likely to be unleashed. Things promise to become far nastier, dirtier and ever more internecine for the Tories, not just before 23 June but for a long time afterwards: and with the party in power for at least four more years, one can only guess what that means for the governance of Britain.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war