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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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Extreme Scottish nationalists: hunting lapdogs and traitors

The Scottish government has pledged to keep the next referendum debate "informed" - but not all independence supporters agree. 

This is one of a two-part series. For the article on extreme Scottish unionists, click here.

In 2014, David was fresh out of university and in his first job. A Labour MP, Jim Murphy, had decided to tour Scotland, with the plan of holding 100 public meetings in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. David, a Better Together campaigner, was part of his team.

Initially, the meetings were rowdy, but civil. But that began to change, as the same group of Yes supporters turned up in high street after high street. 

Then one day, David found himself in Kirkcaldy, a coastal town north of Edinburgh once known for its linoleum factories. The Yes supporters were waiting.

“It was genuinely terrifying,” David remembers. “The Nats had formed a tortoise formation the way Romans do with shields, but with Yes placards. They were just advancing towards us.

“You just think ‘this is mental’”.

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

That day in Kirkcaldy would ultimately lead Murphy to suspend his tour, after an onlooker pelted him with eggs. But for David and the other campaign workers, this wasn’t the worst of it. 

Yes supporters would frequently abuse them as “traitors”, “quislings”, and tell them to “go back to England” (the campaigners I interviewed were both Scottish). They filmed them at meetings, and began to identify David in particular as “Murphy’s lapdog”. He received a death threat, and the police advised him to step down from the frontline campaign. 

“The worst thing that happened  was when I had one day off in the campaign,” says David. “I was walking down Sauchiehall Street [one of the main shopping streets in Glasgow] with my mum.

“I had my No badge on, and as I passed a Yes stall this man pointed at me and went “there goes Murphy’s lapdog’.” 

“They crowded around me. One asked my mum: ‘Are you proud of your son? A traitor to your country?’”

Ultimately, the “traitors” were in the majority. Scotland voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK, and David found a new job. But with a second Scottish referendum looming, he worries this behaviour will return. 

But where does this aggression come from? Unlike the traditional left and right, the independence movement does not have an obvious extremist reference point. Were the Yes centurions in Kirkcaldy merely caught up in the heat of the moment, or representative of something else? 

Settlers and swords

Screenshot from the Siol Nan Gaidheal website

The Scottish National Party likes to present itself as the moderate, liberal face of civic nationalism. But in the early 1980s, when it was a protest party, the modernisers rubbed shoulders with ethno-nationalists like the Siol Nan Gaidheal.

Gordon Wilson, the SNP leader at the time, called them “proto-fascists” and kicked them out of the party.

“People throw plenty of abuse about the SNP’s nationalism,” Wilson says when I call him. “But it has never countenanced any solution except the democratic route.

“When people come along with objectional views on that or ethno-nationalism they get hammered.”

But the SNP and the independence movement are not one and the same. Siol Nan Gaidheal survived its expulsion, and still exists today in a rejigged guise. Its latest incarnation, according to its website, seeks "to liberate the Scottish people from the worst excesses of English/British Cultural Imperialism" but will "leave party political action to the Scottish National Party". However, during the Scottish referendum, The Telegraph reported that Siol Nan Gaidheal activists were deliberately disrupting Jim Murphy's tour. 

SNP modernisers have also tried to play down the jingoistic elements of Scottish nationalism. “The one thing you always have to keep an eye open for is militarism,” says Wilson. “Thankfully the Siol Nan Gaidheal were only equipped with swords and dirks.”

Violent Scottish nationalists may have had more in common with a historical re-enactment society than the IRA, but they could still be intimidating to their targets.

Recently, the Daily Record reported on Sonja Cameron, who was a member of the group Settler Watch in the early 1990s (“white settlers” is a slur for English-born Scots; Cameron herself was originally German). The group daubed the homes of English families with graffiti. 

Cameron’s onetime friend, Andrew McIntosh, took more drastic measures. Dubbed “the tartan terrorist”, he was jailed for 12 months in 1993 after carrying out a letter-bomb and bomb hoax campaign. 

"Go back to England"

As Wilson is keen to stress, these cases occurred in the 1990s (although embarrassingly for the SNP, Cameron’s story recently came to light after she passed the party’s vetting process for council candidates). 

Most of the post-2014 independence movement subscribes to a blend of Scottish patriotism, mixed with anti-austerity and anti-Westminster rhetoric. 

Its leaders have tried to distance themselves from anti-English sentiment ("English people for Scottish independence" is a popular Facebook group). Nevertheless, on the ground, the feeling persists. Another Better Together campaigner I spoke to told me about an incident on Murphy's tour: “This English photographer was just taking pictures, he didn’t express a point of view, and these men shoved him and shouted ‘You go back to England’."

A second strand of extremism overlaps with sectarianism. The links between Scottish independence and Catholicism are not exclusive – Murphy, the beleaguered Better Together campaigner, is a practising Roman Catholic – but have been talked up by some political tribes. The press officer for Scottish bishops, Peter Kearney, also appeared to handle press enquiries for SNP top dog Jim Sillars during the referendum campaign. (You can read about sectarianism and the pro-union campaign here).

David Scott, of the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, says some independence campaigners used “dog whistle” language to appeal to a sectarian base. He points to former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond’s claim that Catholics voted Yes, and the links drawn by grassroots groups between Scottish independence and the Irish republican movement. 

This kind of language is likely to increase if the polls are tight, Scott says: “Particularly as you get closer to elections, in my experience, politicians will tell you anything to vote. A nudge and a wink saying ‘I’m one of you’.”

In fact, it seems after the referendum, this kind of rhetoric has not gone away. In March, Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and director of Celtic, accused independence campaigners of a “deliberate attempt to sectarianise Scottish politics”. 

A new religion

Setting out her demand for a second independence referendum in early March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged that any vote would be about “informed choice”.  She has previously condemned abuse by independence supporters as “wrong”. 

According to Scott, Sturgeon “doesn’t do faith” in the way her predecessor did, which may leave the twigs of sectarianism unkindled for now. The discipline the SNP leadership wields over the party is legendary. 

The Better Together campaigners I spoke to, however, are not optimistic about the quality of a second debate. 

David, the campaigner who received death threats, believes the independence movement itself has become “the closest thing to a religion”. 

He says the atmosphere of the Scottish referendum is incomparable to the EU referendum, divisive as it was: “In the depth of feeling and level this went to, it was a world apart from the EU referendum.”

As for his colleague, a veteran Labour campaigner who had “never experienced that sort of hatred” before, she has only one thing to say about a second referendum: “I think it will be worse.”

Read more: The extreme Scottish unionists

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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