The Temptation of Neuroscience
Undecided voters lay inside a sleek fMRI machine in late 2007. The magnetic coil pulsed, scanning the blood flow in their brains. Images of Hilary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and other primary contestants flashed before their eyes.
The UCLA neuroscientists and Washington political operatives who ran the study presented their findings in a New York Times article, “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” The “voter impressions on which this election may turn” were displayed in a colorful slideshow of (statistical combinations of) brains: here the medial orbital prefrontal cortex is orange, indicating an “emotional connection” with Democrats; here the amygdala flashes, betraying anxiety about Mitt Romney.
At an American Enterprise Institute panel event last Monday, psychiatrist Sally Satel told the audience that this story alerted her to just how vulgarized neuroscience was becoming in popular culture.
“It really was a bit of a fiasco,”she told NYT columnist David Brooks, who was moderating a conversation with Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld.“The fact that something lights up doesn’t mean you hate Hillary Clinton, or you’re going to vote for someone else. It almost read like a parody, the way they had boiled it down to an almost stick figure kind of narrative.”
It’s the “stick figure narrative” that’s being formed out of neuroscientific research and inserted into law, politics, and culture, that Satel and co-author Lilienfeld seek to dismantle in their authoritative, accessible new bookBrainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.
The wild exaggeration of neuroscience—both of specific findings, and of the field’s primacy in understanding human nature more generally—has drawn the ire of savvy bloggers and tome-writing intellectuals for years. The exposure of Jonah Lehrer, neuroscience’s most prominent popularizer, as a plagiarist and a fabricator also occasioned a critical look at the popsci genre he championed. But Satel and Lilienfeld’s book may represent the high water mark of anti-pop neuroscience writing so far: it is widely reviewed, and Brooks plugged Brainwashedin his weekly New York Times column. (Brooks freely admits he himself has succumbed to neuromania: “I wrote a book a couple years ago of mindless neuroscience, and it did really well!” he quipped at the AEI event.)
Anti-pop neuroscience, as opposed anti-neuroscience, is the key distinction. Satel and Lilienfeld want to clean up the riffraff because neuroscience done right is a sophisticated and promising field of inquiry. They are not here to argue, as Brooks did in his recent column, that the mind is not the brain, or even that we have free will outside of the causal chain of our neural firings.
Rather, the uses and abuses of neuroscience are more illustrative as a story of our tendency to get ahead of ourselves. Our perennial thirst for elegant mechanisms and overarching narratives, noble in its own right, can lead us to take lazy shortcuts and place our hope in the Next Big Explanation, whether phrenology, Freud, or Freakonomics. Culture, history, and politics are complicated, confusing, and mostly boring. With the recent successes of neuroscience, it’s easy to wish that the chatter of narratives, prejudices, habits, and emotion could be replaced with the clinical pings of the fMRI machine.
But for now, at least, it would seem that neuroscience has a long way to go before it supersedes our other ways of knowing: “This Is Your Brain on Politics” identified two 2007 candidates who had failed to fire up the neurons of swing voters, indicating impending trouble for their campaigns. They were John McCain and Barack Obama.