Neurobabble and All That


After reading a couple of articles recommended by friends, I am going to have to rethink how I describe my reading habits. I have been saying I devour pop-science books on neuroscience. (Of course, I do read a lot of other things, too, on evolutionary biology, philosophy, ethics, autism, and more.)

But it seems that a few authors (not the ones I read, of course!) are giving “neuroscience” a bad name.

Meet the “neuro doubters.” The neuro doubter may like neuroscience but does not like what he or she considers its bastardization by glib, sometimes ill-informed, popularizers.

A short while ago my friend Art recommended a NYT review written by William Saletan of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I think what interested him was the idea that in today’s highly-charged partisan political atmosphere, Haidt’s appeal that we all learn from each other instead of shouting past each other speaks to an inner need for peace and friendship. I haven’t read the book (and the review doesn’t make me want to), so I can’t say if I agree with the reviewer’s interpretation, but there are aspects of the story that are attractive.

Haidt … seeks a world in which “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” To achieve this goal, he asks us to understand and overcome our instincts. He appeals to a power capable of circumspection, reflection and reform. If we can harness that power — wisdom — our substantive project will be to reconcile our … differences.

Another friend, upon hearing of the first recommendation, directed me to an article by Steven Poole in the NewStatesman that slammed that book, as well as many other books.

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. … 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.

[The] pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error … is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret [brain activity], and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view.

I have problems with both articles (I’ll get to that), but they are both thought-provoking, if nothing else. I will continue to read “pop-neuroscience” books (by which I mean books written for a general audience, as opposed to peer-reviewed articles, although I read my share of those, too!), with the emphasis on “science” as opposed to “how-to” or “self-help” books. Of course, the line between these categories is nebulous in places, because even the most serious scientists seem to succumb to the idea that their brilliant insights will somehow change the course of future research and lead the way to enlightenment and a better life for all of us. Still, I’d rather read upbeat and hopeful than “woe is us” writing.

The Importance Of Language

Some of my autistic friends are not fussed by certain words and phrases that I find offensive or misleading. I have active conversations on Facebook and Twitter (@mfwilcox), and I’ve had many exchanges on the use of language. I should probably write a post containing a glossary of all those controversial bits of usage, but the one that is relevant here is the word “neurology” which to me implies pathology, and I see “neuroscience” and “neurobiology” as being more neutral labels for the study of the brain. Several people have objected, saying that “neurology” simply describes the study of the brain, and not necessarily just “disorders.” (These friends pretty much agree with me, I think, that autism is not a brain disorder, but a difference.) Some point out that the words I prefer have been tainted, too. Reading the three articles linked above has made me aware of the pervasiveness of that truth. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has suggested that rather than continually seeking out new words, we should reclaim the old ones. She says, “I think it’s up to us to reinvest the words with meaning.”

She makes a good point, but I’m also aware that

“If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. ” ― Lev GrossmanThe Magicians

And, of course, there is the delightful exchange in Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Unfortunately, words do not always mean to others what we wish them to mean. I’m rather a big fan of making up new words. I’m sure I’m not the first one to use “neuroexceptional” but I don’t see it being commonly used, so I’ll take credit for promoting it. I think it divides the world neatly into two categories, “neurotypical” and “neuroexceptional,” and is more accurate than the autism-centric use of “neurotypical” to denote “non-autistic” people. There are other neurological [see, Rachel, I’m trying!] conditions that are closely related to autism, such as dyslexia, bipolar, and schizophrenia. People with such neural makeups would not be considered “neurotypical” but are not quite autistic, either, at least as that label is understood today. Says Poole:

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscience-explains-everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. … 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.

Before I finish up with more on “neurobollocks,” allow me to critique the Saletan review.

More Humpty Dumpty Words and Thinking

Saletan starts out confused, and it doesn’t get better as the essay labors on, although sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s the reviewer or the author who is being inconsistent.

Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational.

Two problems with this, one perhaps a bit picky; the other of more substance. George Lakoff is not a psychologist; he is a cognitive linguist. It’s true that he and Drew Westen have come to similar conclusions, but they do start out in different disciplines. More importantly, Saletan gets sucked in to (what is evidently Haidt’s description of) [the fallacy] of Cartesian dualism. Intuition and cognition are not contradictory or things apart; they are complimentary processes arising in the same brain.

This duality of experience would perhaps be better expressed as that of the conscious versus the unconscious (or subconscious) mind. We are aware of our conscious thoughts, but a lot of what goes on in our brain is outside our day-to-day awareness, and maybe not even accessible to us. That doesn’t mean we have no control over our subconscious behavior; if we have a bad habit, for example, we can bring it into consciousness and change our behavior. Or, we can at least try (think New Year’s resolutions!).

To be fair, Saletan addresses this bit of illogic:

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But … Haidt’s account of reason is a bit too simple — his whole book, after all, is a deployment of reason to advance learning…

Bingo! The portion of the review that follows is actually quite good. He talks about the differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic ones. Assuming he is accurately portraying Haidt’s views here, though, I have to disagree with the takeaway from this enlightened discussion. Along this axis, at least, I do not see the conservative (collectivist) view to be morally equivalent with the liberal (individualist) philosophy.

A Sidebar on Political Philisophy

Again, this topic deserves a separate blog post, so I’ll only skim the surface here. Western individualism, rooted firmly in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), stresses the value, responsibility, and reward of individual actions. Eastern and Native North American traditions tend to emphasize a more holistic view, with the welfare of the individual subservient to the collective good.

Modern American conservatism and liberalism are strange blends of these two worldviews, and libertarians seem to want to pick and choose the best that both of these philosophies have to offer, adding to the confusion. One of the slogans of the right, for example, is “individual responsibility” which sound like individualism, but it really isn’t. The “responsibility” is to the collective. Women, for example, do not have the freedom to decide whether to bring a baby into the world; it is in the collective interest that they do so. Liberals stress individual liberty, but only to the extent that no other individual is harmed. Thus, the rights of each individual are sacred, and it is the collective responsibility of society to care for those in need, according to this view.

Beliefs have consequences. We’ve all seen those maps and tables mocking the “red states” for their high divorce rates, teenage pregnancy, and so on; when these are the very things they preach against. I see these statistics not so much as ironic as being evidence of the outcome of a collectivist mentality. There is a dark side to this, too. Steven Pinker has documented, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that rates of domestic violence have little or nothing to do with education and wealth, and everything to do with cultural norms around collectivism versus individualism.

The Value of Diversity

Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”

The metaphor is a bit weird, but the basic point is a good one. We don’t learn and grow if we only talk with people we agree with. Haidt’s proposals for “civility” (civil dialog), however, quickly devolve into silliness. The review ends with the appeal I quoted near the beginning of this essay. Haidt, according to the reviewer, wants us to “reconcile our differences.” I don’t see how that is possible. One either sees individual rights or the collective good as paramount. There is no intermediate position.

Evolution is said to result from the “survival of the fittest.” Throughout most of human history, survival of groups required group cohesion. Diverse ways of thinking and behaving were not well tolerated. Things changed with the advent of agriculture and permanent dwellings. Society became much more complex, and specialized division of labor became necessary. Suddenly, creative thinking was valued, not suppressed. Still, this was only a heartbeat ago in the long life of the human race. Our genes still carry the collective urge. Our job, it seems to me, is not to honor that urge but to overcome it.

A Few Words on the Neurobollocks Essay

Earlier in this already-too-long post, I promised to comment on the NewStatesman essay by Poole (quotes here are from that article).

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.

I don’t claim to be an expert on William James, but in my understanding “medical materialism” had quite a different meaning. Perhaps more relevant to this discussion is that the modern view of emotion (“intuition” if you will) arises from James’s understanding that emotions have a physiological origin. See page 182 in Subliminal.

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.

Ah, yes, now we’re talking! One of the most informative books I’ve read recently on this topic is The Emotional Life of Your Brain. There are many others. All of this brings to mind (so to speak) one of my favorite quotations, “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny; that of which we are ignorant is vast.)

Finally, skipping over Poole’s critiques of other books and authors, we have

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.


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?

This mockery may be ill-advised. I’ve participated as a subject in brain studies of mirror neurons, and have experienced heightened awareness when they have been activated. One participant told me she was able to see emotional content in text that previously had been blandly neutral to her. A subject for another day.

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  1. […] Overestimating our own capabilities and understanding can also have a downside, if we take ourselves too seriously, as it sounds like Ariane’s attacker did. Mlodinow provides a nice metaphor here. [As an aside, I find it amusing that the name of Jonathan Haidt appears here, since I recently wrote a piece that included a not entirely favorable reference to him — see for yourself!] […]

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