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Further Reading

DEPROGRAM with Denyse O'Leary

Brain Scams

Have Some Neuroscientists Lost Their Minds?

by Denyse O'Leary

During the Decade of the Brain (1990–2000), clinical neuroscience thrived. But pop neuroscience really took off after 2000. Brain scanners became increasingly available for non-medical research, including research into political views. Soon stories like these festooned the pop science media:

• "How facts backfire: Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains"1
• "Left brain, right brain: researchers link neurology to political orientation"2
• "French government begins 'neuropolicy'" (against smoking)3
• "Hate Area of Brain Identified"4
• "Political Science: What Being Neat or Messy Says about Political Leanings"5
• "Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults"6

Anything bother you about these themes? They leaked over onto the campaign trail. For example, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine suggests that if voters were attracted to Sarah Palin as a candidate in 2008, it may have been because the "mirror neurons" in their brains were going "'ding, ding, ding—this person is just like me.'"7 And another group of scientists suggest that voters who rated Hillary Clinton unfavorably on questionnaires were, according to their brain images, actually "battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton."8

That's neuropolitics. The take-home message is: We don't know our own minds, but neuroscientists do. And reasoned judgment plays little role in our decisions. So say again, why do armed forces personnel risk life and limb to maintain democracy? Should they bother?

Revolting Against Neurotrash

Out of the blue, some neuroscientists revolted. The occasion was a September 2011 neuromarketing sally in the New York Times titled "You Love Your iPhone. Literally." In this piece, Martin Lindstrom wrote that brain imaging provided evidence that people have a personal love relationship with the popular Apple device.9 That news coincided with the vast commercial noise around new iPhone features and releases—too closely for ethical comfort.

A key rebel against this claim was neuroscientist Russ Poldrack of the University of Texas at Austin. In a letter to the Times, he noted that activity in the anterior insula part of the brain, cited in the Times article as evidence of love, is observable in nearly a third of all imaging studies. Besides, other well-known studies of brain images don't even show activity related to love in the insula, but instead in the classic "reward system" areas of the brain. (A reference to an earlier letter to the Times indicates that the 2007 "battling unacknowledged impulses" piece on Hillary Clinton seethed in the background of Poldrack's protest, too.10) Forty-four other neuroscientists signed Poldrack's dissenting letter, which was published in edited form in the New York Times in October 2011.11

Atheist neuroscientist Raymond Tallis has also been an influential recent critic of this type of "neurotrash" (his word). His recent book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, denounces thinkers who see human beings as animals "acting out a biological script inscribed in our brains by evolutionary forces."

But will the revolt make any difference?

One senses it won't. However much they are concerned by these developments, most neuroscientists are committed to materialism. Materialism is, after all, the establishment creed, whose interest areas—neuromarketing and neuropolitics— will likely prevail.

Materialist power brokers deal with atheist challengers as they do with any other: The tank divisions, Power, Status, and Money, roll in, quiet but sure. To judge from the recent profile in the Chronicle Review, the influential Tallis is already beginning the descent into "marginal crackpot": We are told that he "likes a fight" and that most opponents withdraw establishment approval simply by refusing to debate him.12 And the New York Times gets revenue from the vendors of cool toys, not from dissenting neuroscientists.

Help, if it comes, will be from Another Quarter.

Endnotes
1. By Joe Keohane (Boston Globe, 7/11/10): http://tinyurl.com/28pxyka.
2. By Andrew Duffy (Ottawa Citizen, 4/7/11).
3. By Vaughan Bell (Mind Hacks, 5/31/10): http://tinyurl.com/3cwxd4n.
4. By Rick Nauert (PsychCentral, 10/29/08): http://tinyurl.com/cy5epg.
5. By Jordan Lite (Scientific American, 10/13/08): http://tinyurl.com/68f3zne.
6. By Ryota Kanai et al. (Current Biology, Volume 21, Issue 8, 677–680, 4/7/11): http://tinyurl.com/3bugf9e.
7. Jordan Lite, op. cit.
8. Marco Iacoboni et al., "This Is Your Brain on Politics" (New York Times, 11/11/07): http://tinyurl.com/3duogo9.
9. Martin Lindstrom, "You Love Your iPhone. Literally." (New York Times: 9/30/11): http://tinyurl.com/43swtep.
10. Russ Poldrack, "NYT Op-Ed + fMRI = complete crap" (russpoldrack.org, 10/1/11): http://tinyurl.com/42rd6g3.
11. Russ Poldrack, "The iPhone and the Brain" (New York Times, 10/5/11). The uncut version and list of signers are at http://tinyurl.com/6fck9ur.
12. Marc Parry, "Raymond Tallis Takes Out the 'Neurotrash'" (Chronicle Review, 10/9/11): http://tinyurl.com/6gnfboo.


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