Finding Middle Ground on Neuroscience

Bubble Eye GoldfishLed by books like Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanityand Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld’s recent Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, there’s plenty of neuro-bashing going on. Even USA Today is getting in on it, with its June 22nd piece, Has neuroscience left us ‘Brainwashed’? That’s mainstream.

This piece is not about how right or wrong the critics are. They are right on the over-extension of scientific results, right on the crude and often misguided popularization that can have little to do with the science, and right that things really go wrong when scientists’ over-extension and the popular imagination come together in nasty ways that have little to do with the science and a lot to do with power and culture. See, for example, the work of Cordelia Fine and the Delusions of Gender.

But that doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. The critics leave one feeling that whoa, maybe this should have never happened in the first place. And that’s an untenable position. One, it already has happened – neuroscience has become part of the popular imagination. And two, the questions being posed about humanity and the science of ourselves are ones can be fruitfully answered by drawing on good science and good interpretation, wherever such work may be found.

A suite of defenders of neuroscience have rallied forth in recent days, ones that operate in this border zone. Critical inquiry is necessary, but so too is the science of neuroscience. Here are three to highlight.

Gary Marcus and The Problem with the Neuroscience Backlash

The worst possibility of a full-scale, reckless backlash against neuroscience, to the exclusion of the field’s best work, is that it might sacrifice important insights that could reshape psychiatry and medicine. A colleague at N.Y.U., the neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, wrote in an e-mail: “It would be ridiculous to suggest that we shouldn’t use brain science to help in the treatment/diagnosis of mental disorders, but if one takes the [current backlash] to the extreme, that is the logical conclusion.” …

For now, we still need fields like psychology and psychiatry, which take the mind as their starting point, rather than the brain, to complement neuroscience. The basic elements of psychology, like beliefs, desires, goals, and thoughts, will likely always play a key role in our understanding of human behavior, which is why science needs researchers who study the mind every bit as much as it needs researchers who study the brain. Our aim should not be to pick the brain over the mind, or vice versa, but to build stronger bridges between our understandings of the two.

[Keep going. The goldfish reference is coming…]

Alicia Puglionesi and The Seductive Allure of Neuroskepticism

Within the circumscribed sphere of their study and its predecessors, Farah and Hook’s explanations are compelling. Researchers and journalists were taking for granted the irrational power of fMRI without demonstrating that power in rigorous experimental scenarios–taking an intuitively skeptical stance, declaring “I will not be suckered by images” when it seems that the potential for suckering was no higher than without images.

But feelings and beliefs and rhetoric are not irrelevant to the study of the mind. For the rest of us, it’s not just a matter of hacking through the bad science and the lurid popularizations to get at the truth. Taking a critical stance towards neuroscience means wading in to the tangle of social and cultural meanings surrounding the study of human thought. Some of the most important work on neuroimaging has come from social scientists like Joseph Dumit and Anne Beaulieu, who trace the implications of brain images through the media, the legal system, and the identities of the mentally ill.

Neurocritic and All Washed Up

I believe that the brain is the ultimate arbiter of behavior (and that “the mind” is ultimately reducible to brain activity), but this doesn’t preclude the view that interpersonal and social factors influence people’s actions. Does anyone actually think that brains exist in isolation from any complex external influence (other than sensory stimulation)? It’s a false dichotomy and a straw man argument foisted on neuroscientists by the neurotrashers. There are many different levels of analysis within the field, from molecules to synapses to systems to behavior…

Scientists and scholars in various disciplines generally do specialized research based on narrow areas of expertise. Are historians negligent because they’re not incorporating knowledge of the brain into their analyses of past events? Of course not. So why are neuroscientists remiss if they fail to include detailed sociological and developmental accounts of crime in their Human Brain Mapping journal articles? 3

It’s not surprising that each discipline privileges one level of explanation over another. The danger lies in discarding all other explanatory models in favor of your own. This also holds for theorizing within a field.

So, what to do? Well, one approach might be to realize that fields are morphing.

Take the mind. Understanding the mind without culture is like trying to master fishing by fishing in your local fishtank. You’ll catch lots of weird goldfish, but won’t really get a good sense of how to go fishing after the big questions of life.

Emerging fields like cultural neuroscience and neuroanthropology are one route to trying to understand the mind cross-culturally, taking into account both the brain and culture. For the latest on cultural neuroscience, see our recent posts on the International Cultural Neuroscience Consortium Meeting and Advances in Cultural Neuroscience.

Other fields are actively looking at how neuroscience is interacting with popular culture and vice versa, and the role of neuroscience as a type of knowledge in social science and the humanities. Critical Neuroscience and Science and Technology Studies approaches to Neuroscience are working at understanding neuroscience as part of our overall human activities, from the practice of the science itself to how neuroscience shapes cultural models of understanding ourselves.

Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached’s recent book Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mindis an excellent example here.

But you might not have time to read an entire book. So here is a short video of Nikolas Rose in action. One reason to highlight this video is because it’s the closest I’ve seen to turning an hour-plus lecture into something like a blog post.

For those of you who want to see the full Nikolas Rose lecture, you can find his CEU talk “Our Brains, Our Selves? The Social Implications of New Brain Sciences” here. The action doesn’t really get going until 9:50. It’s definitely a great talk, so worth it to watch the whole thing.

One tension highlighted by Rose is whether the “psy complex” (the fields from the 20th century focused on psychology and mind) will be overtaken by a “neuro complex” in the 21st century. In one sense, that’s what the big fight going on right now is about. Will the autonomous self, with self-control and rationality and an accompanying unconscious, be replaced by a reductive brain? How will one century’s core understanding give way to a new type of materialism, united around ideas of circuits, whether those are neural or technological?

You can get a sense of that in what Gary Marcus writes in The New Yorker:

But the idea that the mind is separate from the brain no longer makes sense. They are simply different ways of describing the same thing. To talk about the brain is to talk about physiology, neurons, receptors, and neurotransmitters; to talk about the mind is to talk about thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions, and desires. As an old and elegant phrase puts it, “The mind is what the brain does.”

Similarly, the Neurocritic says “I believe that the brain is the ultimate arbiter of behavior (and that “the mind” is ultimately reducible to brain activity).” As Nikolas Rose says (starting around 18:00), “Mind is what brain does – that seems like a pretty obvious statement these days. What else could mind be, apart from a property of brain?”

That is a relevant question. Alva Noe, with his piece The Mind Is an Open Book on NPR, gives us a quite different taste of what the mind could be. Rather than circuits, we have information as the core image, the grounding metaphor.

What it is to be thinking this or that, what it is to intend this or that, is precisely for one to be integrated, in the right sort of way, in a complex causal or informational network. This is controversial, but it is remarkably well established.

Indeed, it is the very foundation of the theory of computation. Computers aren’t smart because they have, inside them, clever thoughts. No. What makes the micro-electronic states of a computer intelligent, or just contentful — for example, what makes it the case that a computer is performing this or that task — is the way those internal states are hooked up, causally, and systematically, to the right kinds of inputs and outputs. Computers don’t need to understand what’s going on inside of them to solve problems. They are simply physical gizmos. Its the way they are hooked up to the world around them — to put it technically: the way the transitions in their internal states preserve isomorphisms with computationally significant states — that let them perform cognitively significant tasks.

Let’s give a super-simple case. The coin in your pocket. It means something. It’s a coin. It’s currency. It has a value. It’s worth 25 cents, let’s say. In what does this value consist? Not in the coin itself, thought of as a piece of metal, or thought of as an artifact. No, the value consists, roughly, in the way the coin gets used and on its place in a complex web of relationships, practices and institutions…

We like to think that our thoughts are inside. We reveal them to others by making them external in the form of action, words, writings, messages and the like. That’s all well and good for describing ordinary life. We can keep secrets. We can publicize our deepest yearnings.

But actually, there is no inside. Or rather, use any device you like — from the scalpel to the brain scan — and you won’t find meaning, significance, value, in the head, just as you won’t find value in the coin’s material body. The very inside/outside distinction breaks down.

Does this mean that, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message? That the circuit is the mind?

That’s what the coming fight is about. The more neuroscience-oriented people will argue exactly that – the circuitry is indeed the mind, a complex web defined by brain activity while still shaped by interpersonal and social factors. The more humanistic, like Noe, want the mind to extend out, to rely as much on relationships, practices and institutions as anything that the brain does.

In my research, that conflict can boil down to whether addiction is primarily a brain problem or a societal problem. And yet all my years of work have convinced me time and again that addiction is both. And that’s the rub. If we take Noe seriously, and we break down the inside/outside distinction, then how do we still make sense of addiction? Not just as a category or interpretation we create, but also as something that impacts people’s lives, that carries with it a certain life-shaping reality that unfortunately millions of people experience today.

One idea is to break the fundamental linkage of mind as defining person, this legacy of the 20th century. Addiction is not defined by the person, and thus the mind (and from there, now, thus the brain). Rather, addiction is a pattern of activity where brain and society meet, and relies on both at once. A sort-of updated cybernetics of the self, Gregory Bateson’s famous paper on alcoholism. Just without the self as an encompassing entity. Or, really, as an encompassing idea, a way that we define and make our subjectivity, returning to Nikolas Rose and his invocation of Foucault. Rather, habit and setting and desire and drug come together, often in ways separable from a 20th century self, one that cannot quite make sense of just why drug use is so alluring, so seductive. Can’t make sense of it either individually or socially…

The message is not the medium. If anything, the brain shows that. The message can even shape the medium, as the latest research on brain development of sensory areas shows.

Perhaps it’s where multiple mediums come together in one consistent message, whether that’s a broad societal pattern like our “neuromania” or the repetitive use of alcohol or drugs in one individual life. It’s a pattern in the information, and one that relies on our own authoring subjectivity. Or a pattern across types of information, driven precisely by our needy, expansive, meaning-making, banal living, a broader sense of subjectivity that breaks it away from the humanists’ 20th century grip on self.

I don’t have a good sense of it yet, other than as a problem to be tackled and tackled again.

But for neuroscience, the funny thing is how much they’ve bought into the “psy complex.” Use the brain to explain the mind, and you’ve found the holy grail. But that’s last century’s holy grail. The middle ground isn’t the mind, whether explained by brain or by society. The middle ground is simply where we live our lives.

Photocredit: Bubble Eye Goldish, from Goldfish Varieties : A Brief Look At Some Of The Many Types

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