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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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Can Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs learn to get along?

The leadership candidate has the declared support of just 15 MPs. Both sides are preparing to enter what feels like an alternate universe.  

On the morning of 12 September at the QEII Centre in Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn will be declared the new leader of the Labour Party. This is the outcome that almost all MPs now expect. A result that scriptwriters would have rejected as too outlandish before the contest began is regarded as near inevitable. Given the number of ballots returned in the first week of voting, the game may already be over. “It’s like a bad dream” and “It’s like a bad film”, shadow cabinet ministers told me.

All sides are struggling to adapt to the strange new world in which Corbyn – lifelong backbencher, serial rebel – becomes leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. When his candidacy was announced in four short paragraphs in his local paper, the Islington Tribune, on 3 June, most believed that he would struggle to avoid finishing last. No one believed that he would reduce two former cabinet ministers, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, to an unseemly squabble over which of them is in second place.

Several weeks before the result is announced, blame is already being cast around the party. Labour staff are furious with MPs for allowing Corbyn on to the ballot. Some are preparing their CVs, either having decided they will not serve under Corbyn out of principle or out of fear of being “liquidated by the new regime”.

When MPs lost their “golden share”, which gave them a third of the votes in Labour’s abolished electoral college, the nominations threshold was raised from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent of MPs as a firewall against maverick candidates. Several of those who helped Corbyn over the barriers are now repentant. But others are not. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I nominated Jeremy,” Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, told me. “The longer it goes on, the thinner the post-Blair gruel that the other candidates offer us appears. It is going to change the debate and, at the end of the day, we’ll owe Jeremy a huge thanks.”

When Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn by 0.8 percentage points in the 1981 deputy leadership contest, it was the moderate trade unions (with their 40 per cent share) and MPs (with their 30 per cent share) that saw off the hard-left constituency parties. This time, there is no such cavalry available. The two largest unions, Unite and Unison, have endorsed Corbyn, and an MP’s vote is worth no more than that of a registered supporter. Ben Bradshaw, a deputy leadership candidate, whose Exeter constituency party has the second-highest contact rate of any in the country, told me that 10 per cent of “supporters” in his area had consistently voted for other parties. Labour, however, has ruled that individuals cannot be excluded on this basis alone.

“The party’s processes were never set up to cope with this situation and nor was it foreseen that you would have a potential infiltration issue of this scale,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “We don’t have copies of the TUSC [Trade Union and Socialist Coalition] membership list, or the Green Party list, or the Left Unity list, or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty list. You can’t know how in-depth this has become.”

Yet Corbyn’s success owes less to entryism than thought. There are Labour voters who departed under Blair and now feel liberated to return; left-wing members who joined under Ed Miliband (and regard Corbyn as his successor); and young voters who are losing their political virginity. On the party’s right, there is self-reproach at their failure to sign up moderate supporters to counter the radicals. “We were hideously complacent,” one MP said.

Others attribute Corbyn’s rise to the ­unattractiveness of his opponents. “Andy, Yvette and Liz have a lot to answer for,” a senior MP told me. “If you can’t beat Jeremy Corbyn, how you can beat George Osborne, Boris Johnson or Theresa May?” Some of the other three’s own backers are stunned by how few new ideas they have offered. The decision of all three to position themselves to the right of Miliband following Labour’s defeat is regarded by Corbyn’s supporters as central to his success.

“They trusted Ed’s instincts,” an ally of the former leader said of Labour left-wingers. “They knew how he’d react in a crisis. They don’t feel like that about any of the others.” Burnham, who many expected would occupy this space, alienated the left by beginning his campaign with a pro-business speech at EY (Ernst & Young) and warned of the perception that Labour is “soft on people who want something for nothing”.

However, the Corbyn and Kendall campaigns say that Burnham remains ahead of Cooper in their internal data. Kendall’s chief lieutenants, such as John Woodcock and Toby Perkins, have endorsed Burnham out of fear that his supporters’ second preferences would transfer to Corbyn. But it is the title of leader-in-waiting, rather than leader, that most believe Burnham and Cooper are now fighting for.

The tens of thousands who have signed up explicitly to vote for Corbyn will not be dissuaded by apocalyptic warnings from Labour grandees. The shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett, one of the left-winger’s most senior allies and a former adviser to Miliband, told me: “It’s become an article of almost blind faith for the anti-Corbyn camps that he can’t win an election. But nobody’s actually bothered to set out the case in detail to show he can’t win.”

If Gordon Brown’s intervention on 16 August was regarded as insufficient, those of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson (who suggested that the three other leadership candidates try to halt the race by withdrawing) were regarded as actively helpful to Corbyn. “Mandelson and Blair are making it look as though the three other candidates are interchangeable, as if there are personality differences but no real political differences,” Trickett said. “There are clearly some differences – but essentially the effect of the these grandees’ interventions is to make the three look as though they are all a part of the same political establishment while Jeremy’s in a different camp. The consequence is that all those members who want to use their vote to achieve real change will clearly go to the only candidate who apparently represents something different.”

Conversation in Labour circles is increasingly turning to what the party would look like under Corbyn. Would he be ousted by MPs? Would he be able to form a shadow cabinet? To form a front-bench team? And how would he perform in a general election?

“The idea there’ll be some kind of coup – that’s total nonsense, it won’t happen,” John Mann, the Labour MP and Treasury select committee member, told me. Under Labour’s rulebook, rival candidates are required to attain the support of 20 per cent of MPs (46) in advance of the party’s annual conference. But in these circumstances, there would be nothing to stop Corbyn, or a left-wing successor, standing in the subsequent contest. Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, a former BBC journalist and army reservist, is already being identified by some Corbyn supporters as a possible heir. “Personally, I think it’s the political kiss of death,” Lewis told me. “I know Owen [Jones] and others mean well but I’ve seen what this accolade has done to other MPs in the party who’ve had similar prophecies made about them.”

If Corbyn wins he will do so with the declared support of just 15 MPs – 6.5 per cent of Labour’s Commons membership. “I’ll show him as much loyalty as he showed other leaders,” Mike Gapes MP told me. Those senior figures who have publicly pledged not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, such as Cooper, Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie, intend to keep their word. The view is that he deserves “maximum room for manoeuvre to implement his prospectus”. Shadow cabinet members are alive to the danger of a backlash if they appear to obstruct him. In time, they hope, not merely Corbyn, but his policies, will be discredited.

There will be no SDP-style split but the energetic Umunna is already preparing for life on the back benches. He has formed a new group, Labour for the Common Good, led by himself and Tristram Hunt and open to MPs from “the right to the soft left of the party”.

In spite of “the resistance” (as it has come to be known), most believe Corbyn would be able to form a shadow ministerial team. “The party always comes first,” a senior MP said. Contrary to reports, Corbyn does not intend to bring back shadow cabinet elections, and so could unite MPs from Labour’s old left and from the new intake (13 of whom nominated him). In addition, Clive Lewis told me: “A number of MPs I’ve spoken to who supported both Yvette and Andy are quietly very excited at this turn of events.” He also predicted that “many others, sensing an opportunity to move from virtual political obscurity to front-line politics, an option that wasn’t there three months ago, will do so with guarded enthusiasm”.

Corbyn’s supporters cite his genial manner and modesty as crucial advantages. “He’s one of life’s co-operators and will work with people,” Cat Smith, the newly elected Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, who worked for Corbyn for six years, told me. “He’s not seeking to exclude anybody, that’s not his way of doing things. When I was a member of his [constituency party], Islington North CLP, we had people who were very active and prominent in Progress, people who were in the LRC [Labour Representation Committee] and all the spectrum in the middle. Those CLP meetings were some of the nicest meetings I ever went to because it felt like people left a lot of that baggage at the door. Jeremy’s not going to hold any grudges.”

But MPs question whether Corbyn’s co-ideologues would be similarly ecumenical. “He has said all the way through this that he doesn’t want to do personal politics, he wants it all to be about policies, he’s not going to attack anyone and so on,” Pat McFadden, the shadow minister for Europe, said when we spoke. “And yet some of his supporters are saying some pretty nasty things on social media about other candidates.

“Will his supporters refrain from doing personal things? Jeremy rebelled 500 times against the whip. If other people were to do that would they be afforded the same tolerance that he has been afforded for the past 30 years, or would it be different?”

MPs who plan to oppose Corbyn’s stances fear deselection by their local parties. His team told me that he did not favour the reinstatement of mandatory reselection (abolished under Neil Kinnock in 1990) and would not endorse moves to “depose sitting MPs”. But grass-roots members would still have the power to initiate “trigger ballots” against recalcitrant Blairites.

Corbyn has announced that, if elected, he will review Labour’s membership fee (currently £46.56 a year) with the aim of attracting registered supporters (who paid £3) into the fold. Should he succeed, the party’s centre of gravity will move sharply leftwards. Labour faces a split not just between moderates and radicals but between MPs and members.

There are three early tests that senior figures believe Corbyn would face: Prime Minister’s Questions (his first appearance would be 16 September), relations with the media and next May’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England. John Mann told me that the left-winger had “talked a big game” and that most MPs would judge him by results. “The Tories are rubbing their hands with glee but they also know Labour’s not going to tolerate any leader who performs disastrously in elections.” Others fear, however, that the members will merely blame MPs for being insufficiently supportive of Corbyn if he flounders with the electorate. “It’ll be all our fault. They’re already preparing a great narrative of betrayal,” Gapes said.

Should Corbyn make it to a general election, shadow cabinet members believe that Labour would face a generation or more in opposition. One predicted that the party would lose between 30 and 50 seats and fall below 200 MPs for the first time since 1935. Some fear that the Conservatives, like the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Social Democrats in Sweden in past decades, would attain hegemonic status. The Tories, meanwhile, are divided between those intoxicated by this prospect and those who fear that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would force the Conservatives to move leftwards to occupy a redefined centre ground.

Others note, however, that Margaret Thatcher proved immune from this affliction in the 1980s as she dragged the political consensus rightwards.

In Labour, all sides are preparing to enter what feels like a looking-glass world, or an alternate universe. “There is going to be a new establishment: Corbyn, [Michael] Meacher, [John] McDonnell, [Ken] Livingstone, [Diane] Abbott,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “They are now, for the first time in their political careers, going to be the political establishment. They are going to have responsibility and they will be running things. They won’t be able to pose as being outsiders or insurgents any more: they will be the establishment.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars