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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

New Statesman composite.
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What to read in 2017

From rebellion and religion to swimming and surrealism – these are the books to look out for in the new year.

How does the publishing industry reflect on such a politically momentous year? One urgent task is to tell us about our new leaders. Six months after the United Kingdom’s second female prime minister took office, Biteback supplies, on 24 January, her first serious biography, Theresa May: the Path to Power, by Rosa Prince. Given how little we know about this very private politician, it will be pored over for insights.

Sadiq Khan’s story is better known – I remember him saying something about being a “bus driver’s son” – but George Eaton, the New Statesman’s political editor, has delved deeper for his biography (Sadiq: the Making of a Mayor and London’s Rebirth, also from Biteback), based on exclusive access to Khan and more than 100 interviews with those around him. It is expected in May, to mark the one-year anniversary of Khan taking office as the first Muslim Mayor of London.

Since becoming a Labour MP in 1982 and joining a House of Commons that was 97 per cent male, Harriet Harman has fought for women’s rights and helped to drag parliamentary culture out of the Stone Age. Her account of those struggles, A Woman’s Work, will be published by Allen Lane next month. Jess Phillips, the 35-year-old self-described “gobby MP”, brings the feminist fight into the digital age with Everywoman (Hutchinson, March). At the “old guard” end, another Westminster memoir worth noting is Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane, June). And although it looked for a moment as if Vince Cable might have written a whole book about his time on Strictly, it turns out that Open Arms (Corvus, June) is a work of fiction: a political thriller about Westminster, India and big business.

Last year, Miles Cole assembled a cover for the NS in which Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan figured as the three heads of a Brexit hydra. How blessed we are that the last two have books out: Hannan’s Europe primer What Next (out now) is joined by Carswell’s “radical manifesto” Rebel in April, both published – appropriately – by Head of Zeus.

What next, indeed? For the US, it’s too early to answer that question, but Melville House has put together a gutsy collection, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, with contributions by 27 leading progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Gloria Steinem, suggesting paths of resistance. It’s due to be published on 17 January, just before the presidential inauguration.

Resistance will be in the air, not least because 2017 is the centenary of the two uprisings that became known as the Russian Revolution (in February and October). The avalanche that began last year will continue with Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator: an Intimate Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), Robert Service’s The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (Macmillan, also February) and China Miéville’s narrative take on the events of 1917, October: the Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, May). Other books on Lenin are due from Tariq Ali (The Dilemmas of Lenin, Verso, April) and Slavoj Žižek (Lenin 2017, Verso, July). His ideas were built on those of Marx, so it’s neat that 2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital. New reflections on that work include Marx and Capital by David Harvey (Profile, July).

In 1917 Russia was in the grip of financial crisis, revolution and terror and a world war was raging. A century later, are we going the same way? It is clear, at least, that many of our liberal assumptions about progress are being upturned. Age of Anger: a History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, January) explores the origins of our “great wave of paranoid hatreds”, while populist politics and nationalism are examined in The Road to Somewhere (Hurst, March) by David Goodhart, The Rise of the ­Outsiders: the Anti-Establishment and Its March to Power (Atlantic, June) by Steve Richards and Grave New World: the End of Globalisation and the Return of Economic Conflict (Yale University Press, May) by Stephen D King. The former Economist editor Bill Emmott offers a slightly less gloomy spin in The Fate of the West, which considers the decline but also the possible “revival” of liberal democracy (Profile, March).

Having got his grandly titled history of the eurozone – And the Weak Suffer What They Must? – out of the way last year, the former Greek finance minister Yanis ­Varoufakis unleashes the gossip, telling the “extraordinary tale of brinkmanship and backstabbing” behind the 2015 EU negotiations in Adults in the Room (Bodley Head, May). A fellow economist, Evan Davis of Newsnight, adopts the phrase of 2016 for his book Post-Truth (Little, Brown, August), about how “bullshit” became “the communications strategy of our imes”.

There is plenty of “post-truth” written about Britain’s Muslims, as was illustrated last month when the Mail Online paid out £150,000 to a family that the columnist Katie Hopkins had accused groundlessly of having extremist links. Attempts to bring some honesty and clarity come from Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister, in The Enemy Within (Allen Lane, March), and Omar Saif Ghobash, in his Letters to a Young Muslim (Picador, January). Another counterblast to those who see Islam as incapable of modernising, The Islamic Enlightenment (Bodley Head, February) by Christopher de Bellaigue shows that, from the 19th century onwards, the faith has been transformed by progressive thinking.

These books will sadly be outweighed by writings on Islamic State, of which The Way of the Strangers by the Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, January) is the most anticipated. Catherine Nixey has found a historical parallel with the destruction wreaked by IS: The Darkening Age (Macmillan, September) describes how a militant religion “comprehensively and deliberately extinguished” the teachings of the classical world, “ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to ‘one true faith’”. That religion was, of course, Christianity.

In biography, we will get two grand surrealists and two great engineers. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago, April) coincides with the centenary of the painter and writer, while ­Jenny Uglow takes on the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” in Edward Lear: a Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, October). Bloomsbury pits two engineering geniuses, one Scottish and the other American, against each other, with Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover (January) – which celebrates the “colossus of roads” and designer of the 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge – and Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge (June), in which the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner tells the story of Washington Roebling against a backdrop of civil war, family strife and superhuman achievement in construction. Peter Ackroyd is already London’s biographer laureate but in Queer City (Chatto & Windus, May), he views the capital through its gay population, from the pleasure-filled lupanaria (“wolf dens”) of Roman times to the present day.

Sexuality errs towards the non-binary these days and a raft of books reflects that. Trans Like Me by C N Lester (Virago, May) is joined by The Gender Games by Juno Dawson (Two Roads, July) and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate, May). There’s possibly more fun to be had in One of the Boys by the comic actor Robert Webb (Canongate, July), a coming-of-age memoir that builds on a piece he wrote for the NS in 2014: “How not to be a boy”.

Two other memoirs stand out. When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall died in 2014 he left behind a manuscript – Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands (Allen Lane, April) tells the story of his early life, from growing up in 1930s Jamaica to dealing with the thorny politics of 1950s and 1960s England. Glimpses of a great English institution are given in Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre (Jonathan Cape, May) by Nicholas Hytner, who stepped down as artistic director in 2015.

Beyond our cities, we have become a nation of dippers and 2017 is the year of the swim-moir. There’s Turning: a Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee (Virago, May), Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley (Hutchinson, January) and I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus, July), an Irish writer’s account of her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club”. In June Philip Hoare, the King Neptune of literature, returns with RisingTideFallingStar (Fourth Estate), a wide-ranging examination of our relationship with this watery planet.

On dry land, too, big ideas flourish. In Selfie (Picador, June) Will Storr traces the roots of our “age of perfectionism”, and Adam Alter’s Irresistible (Bodley Head, March) looks at addiction in the ­internet age. Bullshit Jobs: a Theory by David Graeber (Allen Lane, September) explains why we are trapped in a cycle of meaningless work, and in The Knowledge Illusion (Macmillan, April) the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach claim that true intelligence “resides not in the individual but in the collective mind.”

The essay continues to enjoy a renaissance. There are offerings from the author of The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Faber & Faber, April); Rebecca Solnit, whose Mother of All Questions (Granta, October) is a collection of “further feminist essays”; Teju Cole, whose “multimedia diary” Blind Spot, coming from Faber & Faber in July, pairs images with text; and Martin Amis, who has assembled his criticism and reportage from 1986 to 2016 in The Rub of Time (due from Jonathan Cape in the autumn). Amis is also working on a novel about three of his friends – Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin – all of whom have died since he began writing it. “That gives me a theme,” he said recently. “Death.”

In fiction, the year begins with Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber, January), charting a baby boomer’s four divergent life paths. From the US, too (now that an American has won the Man Booker Prize we’d better pay closer attention), there comes Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, March), the debut novel by the short-story supremo George Saunders. Set in 1862 in a cemetery in Washington, it has drawn high praise from first readers. Also arriving with Stateside acclaim is Homegoing (Viking, January), a story of two sisters and the slave trade in the Gold Coast by the first-time novelist Yaa Gyasi.

If we are – pace Stephen D King and others – seeing the end of globalisation, it’s not showing in fiction, which in 2017 feels anything but insular. The Indian author Arun­dhati Roy returns to fiction, 20 years after The God of Small Things, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, June), described as “a love story and a provocation”, while the new novel by the Man Booker-shortlisted author Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, September), is a “fierce and often devastating portrayal of contemporary India”. From Turkey, Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman (Faber & Faber, September) is a short philosophical novel about a murder that took place 30 years ago near Istanbul. Emerging from the Iraq War is Spoils (Jonathan Cape, May), a debut novel by a former US sergeant, Brian Van Reet, centring on three characters: a young female soldier, a jihadi and a male tank crewman. Germany and the UK are the settings for the first novel by the prize-winning biographer (and contributor to these pages) Lucy Hughes-Hallett – Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate, May), which spans the 17th and 20th centuries.

And here’s a rare event: the publication of fiction from North Korea. A cache of stories by the dissident writer “Bandi” has been smuggled out and translated by Deborah Smith, and will be published by Serpent’s Tail in March under the title The Accusation. (Smith also translates Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016; a new novel by the South Korean writer is to come from Portobello in November.)

Elsewhere, strong literary names dot the lists. There are novels by Jon McGregor (Reservoir 13, Fourth Estate, April), Hari Kunz­ru (White Tears, Hamish Hamilton, April), Will Self (Phone, Viking, June), William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Viking, September) and Ali Smith (Winter, Hamish Hamilton, November). We just have to hope that bookshops aren’t too busy ordering extra copies of Into the Water (Doubleday, May), Paula Hawkins’s follow-up to The Girl on the Train, to notice.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain