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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

Michael Frith for New Statesman.
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Kezia Dugdale on the decline of Scottish Labour: “Nobody knew what we were for”

The Lothian MSP has just taken on the toughest job in politics – leading Scottish Labour against the SNP.

Coming in to Edinburgh on the airport shuttle bus, you pass the city’s zoo, festooned with ­posters for its star attractions, Tian Tian and Yang Guang. The old joke used to be that there were more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. Since the early hours of 8 May, however, that axiom applies to ­Labour and the Liberal Democrats, too.

How can Labour recover from the loss of 40 of its Scottish seats? The task falls to Kezia Dugdale, the 33-year-old elected on 15 August as the sixth leader of Scottish Labour in eight years. In May, she was at a TV studio when the general election exit poll was announced and neither she, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, nor the Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie could believe it. But by the time she reached Labour’s headquarters on Bath Street in Glasgow, and watched a five-figure majority in Rutherglen and Hamilton West get swept away, she knew the party had suffered a wipeout. “I watched Jim Murphy lose his seat and he joined us not too long after that, and then Brian Roy [Scottish Labour’s general secretary], watched his dad lose his seat,” she tells me. “The atmosphere was just deathly quiet.”

Small wonder the scene was funereal. Labour once dominated Scottish politics effortlessly – in fact, the effortlessness may have been the problem, because the party became complacent and its electoral machine was rusty with underuse. Now, Labour gets kicking after kicking. On 14 August there were swings to the SNP of over 20 per cent in council by-elections in Falkirk and in Wishaw, Lanarkshire. Similar swings were recorded earlier in the month in Glasgow and last month in Aberdeen.

At this point, the drubbing Labour is receiving reminds me of that clip from The Simpsons where a child shouts: “Stop! Stop! He’s already dead!” The party has been routed at Westminster and it seems likely to lose all its constituency MSPs at next year’s Holyrood elections, too. Its survival there would then depend on the vagaries of the D’Hondt system, which will award Labour a few dozen list MSPs, based on its total vote share. (The SNP could do so well in some constituencies that it won’t get topped up with any list MSPs.)

What can Kezia Dugdale do to arrest the party’s decline? It feels as though everyone I speak to is more dejected than the last. “The crucial thing is to regain permission to be heard,” says David Torrance, the biographer of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. “That was lost during the referendum debate and wasn’t regained during the election.” Stephen Daisley, STV’s digital political correspondent, adds: “Labour lacks a coherent narrative. A stray cat could tell you what the SNP stands for: protecting Scotland from wicked Westminster. Put two Labour supporters in a room – more and more of an ask in Scotland – and you’ll get three opinions on what the party’s message is.”

According to Dugdale, Willie Rennie often runs up Arthur’s Seat and back at lunchtime, such is the proximity of the old peak to the Scottish Parliament. Her own uphill struggle is no less daunting. When I ask her how far back Labour’s problems go, she laughs: “We’re only here for an hour!” She says that “2007 was the warning sign, because we shouldn’t have lost that . . . Some people might even say 2003 because we started to look like caretakers.”

She says the blame for the party’s present predicament should not fall on any individual or policy, but does criticise the 2015 manifesto. “There were 160 different policies in our manifesto in Scotland . . . 160 policies and nobody knew what we were for.” The road back to credibility lies in outlining the ethos behind Scottish Labour. As she puts it: “What we did was say, ‘This is what we’re going to do with policies . . .’ Barely if ever did we tell people why.”

Here, Dugdale faces a huge disadvantage against the SNP leadership, which has a simple answer to most questions: more powers for Scotland. “What is galling for Scottish Labour is that attempts to hold ministers to account are branded unpatriotic,” Daisley says. “‘Stop talking down Scotland’ is the nationalists’ favourite response. The challenge for Labour is that Scottish voters might now be voting on their national ambitions rather than policy. Scottish Labour is talking about service delivery. The SNP is waving a flag. Flags always win.”

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader in Westminster may pose an intriguing problem for the SNP, which ran in May on an anti-austerity platform (although the IFS found its manifesto was more fiscally conservative than Labour’s). Many former Scottish Labour supporters say they now back the SNP because of that stance. But if Labour is also anti-austerity, will any of those voters come back? “The idea a Corbyn-led Labour Party can help it recover in Scotland is, I am afraid, for the birds,” the Spectator’s Alex Massie wrote on Twitter recently. Another centre-right commentator told me: “It’ll be like Canada, post-referendum. The SNP are like the Bloc Québécois; people will vote for them to represent Scotland’s interests at Westminster.”

The SNP now also has the advantage of the staff and infrastructure that come with 56 Westminster MPs. “We’ve gone from 41 to one, against a juggernaut of 56 whose raison d’être is to get an independent Scotland,” says Labour’s only remaining MP in Scotland, Ian Murray. He feels the press is hostile, too, and argues that “some of the media in Scotland would rather continue to attack Labour than hold the SNP or Tory government to account”. He must surely be thinking of the National, a bruisingly partisan publication that specialises in grotesque photoshopped cover pictures. Recent highlights include Boris Johnson as the Joker and Tim Farron as Frankenstein.

I ask Dugdale how she plans to cope with abuse on social media. “I’ve never really let it affect me, because I just feel sorry for the people who live on the internet in the middle of the night,” she says. “The most powerful button in the world is the mute button.” It helps that her close friends work in politics. “I can’t just go home at 6pm and drink a bottle of wine. Sometimes I have to do things at the last minute. Sometimes, despite making plans, you have to cancel. Normal people don’t think that’s cool.”

She also gets occasional support from the other two main party leaders, Sturgeon of the SNP and the Tories’ Davidson. Having three women at the top of Scottish politics does not make things “less aggressive, just different. It’s undoubtedly different. There’s a degree of camaraderie between the three of us.” That said, she is unimpressed by the others’ criticisms of my New Statesman piece on childlessness in politics. “They saw the outrage and went with it. In my gut, I don’t think either of them had read the full article before they commented on the front cover . . . Ruth Davidson is not a feminist and Nicola Sturgeon is a late convert, in my view.”

Dugdale has been involved in politics for only a decade. She is not from a political family, though her father Jeff, once a Tory supporter, is now an SNP member who likes to wind his daughter up on Twitter. She joined Labour when, after graduating in law, she found herself unemployed and wondering what to do with her life. “I had no great drive to do law other than watching a lot of Ally McBeal,” she says now. “I thought that everyone who did law just had unisex loos, went to the piano bar at night and spent their entire life in the courtroom.”

Instead, she ended up, aged 23, “on the sofa in our pyjamas watching Trisha” with a flatmate who was a member of the Labour Party and encouraged her to get involved in politics. She found that she was a good election agent, and in 2011 she acted as a key seat organiser with a place on the regional list. “I was expecting to wake up the day after the 2011 election unemployed, with a pretty decent redundancy package and a summer to work out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I woke up as an MSP.”

She knows that many observers believe there is no way back for Scottish Labour. Her hopes rest on a few calculations: the first is that the SNP leadership (with the exception of Salmond) doesn’t want to push for a second referendum too soon, yet its activists might try to get it into the 2016 manifesto. “It’s an incredibly difficult call for Nicola Sturgeon, because it’s what her 100,000 party members want but it’s not what the country wants,” Dugdale says. “We were told this was a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity. I was 33 when they told me that, and I’m still 33 and they’re changing the rules.”

The second is that the SNP has now governed Scotland for eight years, four of those with a majority, and at some point Scottish voters might treat them as incumbents rather than insurgents. As Murray puts it: “What gives me a little bit of hope for the 2016 election is that they’re going to have to start answering for their own pretty abysmal record.” He thinks that grumbles about public services (the police, the NHS, the justice system) might finally boil over; Dugdale’s own focus will be on education. She says this policy area is “integral to battling poverty and inequality in all its forms”, and it can’t hurt that Scotland’s primary schools are full of children who have never known anything other than SNP rule.

Intelligent, funny, hard-working, well-liked and – well, normal (her trashy telly ­anecdotes were clearly real, rather than focus-grouped to make her sound “authentic”), Kezia Dugdale is an impressive politician. But she is under no illusions about how hard her job will be. As she puts it: “There were lots of people saying, ‘Don’t stand, because you’ll have a crap election in 2016, it’s inevitable, and then they’ll have your head and that’ll be you done.’”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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