I once knew
who wore a shirt
“Stare at your own damn tits!”
I once knew
The grip of neuroscience on the academic and popular imagination is extraordinary. In recent decades, brain scientists have burst out of the laboratory into the public forum. They are everywhere, analyzing and explaining every aspect of our humanity, mobilizing their expertise to instruct economists, criminologists, educationists, theologians, literary critics, social scientists and even politicians, and in some cases predicting a neuro-savvy utopia in which mankind, blessed with complete self-understanding, will be able to create a truly rational and harmonious future.
So the smile-worthy prediction, reported in the Huffington Post, by Kathleen Taylor, Oxford scientist and author of The Brain Supremacy, that Muslim fundamentalism “may be categorized as mental illness and cured by science” as a result of advances in neuroscience is not especially eccentric. It does, however, make you wonder why the pronouncements of neuroscientists command such a quantity of air-time and even credence.
It would be a mistake to assume their authority is based on revelatory discoveries, comparable to those made in leading-edge physics, which have translated so spectacularly into the evolving gadgetry of daily life. There is no shortage of data pouring out of neuroscience departments. Research papers on the brain run into millions. The key to their influence, however, is the exciting technologies the studies employ, notably various scans used to reveal the activity of the waking, living brain.
The jewel in the neuroscientific crown is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), justly described by Matt Crawford as ”a fast-acting solvent of the critical faculties”. It seems that pretty well any assertion placed next to an fMRI scan will attract credulous attention. Behind this is something that goes deeper than uncritical technophilia. It is the belief that you are your brain, and brain activity is identical with your consciousness, so that peering into the intracranial darkness is the best way of advancing our knowledge of humankind.
Alas, this is based on a simple error. As someone who worked for many years, as a clinician and scientist, with people who had had strokes or suffered from epilepsy. It did not follow from this that everyday living is being a brain in some kind of working order. The brain is a necessary condition for ordinary consciousness, but not a sufficient condition.
You don’t have to be a Cartesian dualist to accept that we are more than our brains. It’s enough to acknowledge that our consciousness is not tucked away in a particular space, but is irreducibly relational. What is more, our moment-to-moment consciousness – unlike nerve impulses – is steeped in a personal and historical past and a personal and collective future, in cultures that extend beyond our individual selves. We belong to a community of minds, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, to which our brains give us access but which is not confined to the stand-alone brain. Studies that locate irreducibly social phenomena – such as “love”, the aesthetic sense, “wisdom” or “Muslim fundamentalism” – in the function or dysfunction of bits of our brains are conceptually misconceived.
The greatest excitement, orchestrated by the most extravagant press releases, surrounds the discovery of correlations between the responsiveness of certain areas of the brain and particular aspects of our personality. This neo-phrenology is actually based on shakier grounds than is usually appreciated. Few people realize how indirect is the relationship between what the scan detects and what is happening in the brain. There are many steps in the processing of the data that generates the beautiful colored pictures that command such credence.
The much-touted idea that neuroimaging will soon be able to see “thoughts” – so that brain scans will be mind scans – fails to reflect the fact that even simple thoughts (such as “I live in Stockport”) belong to a nexus of significance called a world and have a multitude of meanings and implications. Taylor’s neuroscience of fundamentalism is absurd in principle because “fundamentalism” is an ill-defined cluster of propensities that will be realised differently in different people and will anyway be subject to normative judgments by others. It will not boil down to something a scan could pick up, such as over-activity in the brain’s Qur’an interpretation center.
Encouragingly, some scientists have started to sound the alarm, beginning in 2009 with Ed Vul and his co-authors’ savage attack in a paper initially called “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience”. They found serious problems with the localisations observed in such studies. The links between brain regions and feelings such as social rejection, neuroticism and jealousy used methods that artificially inflated the strength of the connection. Katherine Button’s more recent review of the field in the prestigious Nature Reviews Neuroscience is even more devastating. She concludes that the statistical power of most studies is very low. On top of this, there is publication bias towards picking out positive correlations, with little incentive for checking for repeatability after the excitement has died down.
The will to believe that brain scans reveal our deepest secrets and will give us the tools to manipulate our fellow humans for our collective benefit probably has quite deep origins. The idea that we are our brains, and that we are destined to act in certain ways prescribed by this biologically evolved organ, relieves us of some of the responsibility for our behavior. There is also the erroneous idea that if, as many of us wish, we are to reject a supernatural account of the world, along with the idea of the self as an eternal soul planted in the material body, answerable to god, then we are obliged to embrace a naturalistic account of ourselves as organisms, and the self as identical with the key part of that organism, namely our brain.
This mistake was anticipated by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind: Man need not be degraded to a machine by being denied to be a ghost in a machine. He might, after all, be a sort of animal, namely a higher mammal. There has yet to be ventured the hazardous leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is man.
Neuroprattle that locates our experiences, propensities and character in the activity of parts of our brain stops us taking this hazardous leap and gets in the way of the humanist project of truly understanding ourselves.
Next time you see a prettily colored brain scan next to an article burbling on about breakthroughs in understanding our humanity, reach for the salt.
the squeak of strings
as her fingers slide
to the next chord
grey concrete wall
plastic bag waving in the breeze—
morning rush hour
Q:Congratulations on making it to round 2 of Iron poet. Please check for your prompt and feedback, and complete your entry by Thursday.
Wow, how cool. Thanks. I look forward to Round 2.
830 Practicing Road
The following is a poem written by John Yau. Well, sort of. I made a slight change that I hope he will forgive me for. I’m not in the habit of editing other people’s writing but when I heard this poem read by someone this is how I heard it. Not literally. I heard the word “painting” where the poet wrote the word “painting” but I also couldn’t help substituting the word “practicing” for “painting” as I listened. It’s a yoga thing, try to understand.
Mr Yau’s poem was inspired by a Jackson Pollock quote, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.” Every time you see the word “practicing” below, Mr. Yau actually wrote “painting.”
Practicing (830 Fireplace Road, John Yau)
“When I am in my practicing, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”
When aware of what I am in my practicing, I’m not aware
When I am my practicing, I’m not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I’m not practicing my I
When practicing, I am in what I’m doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I’m not in my practicing
When I am of my practicing, I’m not aware of when, of what
Of what I’m doing, I am not aware, I’m practicing
Of what, when, my, I, practicing, in practicing
When of, of what, in when, in what practicing
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I’m in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Practicing “what” when I am, of when I am, doing, practicing.
When practicing, I’m not doing. I am in my doing. I am practicing.
this popcorn sucks give me more
And then there is reading. Awkward grammar aside, a greater drug there never will be. Imagine if seeing the color green were considered the best way to understand the natural world. I need to get to the bank and make that deposit. It doesn’t have to be green. It could be brown. The point is that one could simply step outside and be absorbed by a hundred variations, a thousand occurrences, each containing a piece of the puzzle, each wanting to be noticed, to convey it’s inherent meaning to the viewer. Imagine an internet of green. How would one ever get anything done? How does one?
Why do we write so much about writing? Is any other discipline so self-referential? In the beginning was the word and the word was “solipsism.” Do painters ever feel so alone with themselves that they can only paint their guts? Does a potter shape his mud with one hand on his cock? I need to go to iKea and get two more bookshelves. What is the sculptural equivalent of “woe is me?” There’s Woody Allen, of course, but isn’t a filmmaker just a glorified writer?
The pleasure of a cup of coffee doesn’t help or last. If I drank it for the caffeine I suppose it would but I do not seek the buzz. Drinking coffee is a somatic comfort, something to ease the transition from walking sleep to functionally awake. I need to oil all the door hinges. I drink coffee for the taste, the earthy bitterness mellowed by the soft, sweet foam that together make it cappuccino. My coffee is an unreliable companion who promises succor but delivers a fleeting and insubstantial half-hug before disappearing, leaving me to face the computer screen alone.
There are times when writing flows but mostly not. Often, sitting down to write feels like a sacrifice of time that could be spent on productive things. I need to clean the coffee machine. I can write without effort if I stick to free associative introspection but attempts at ‘creativity’ can be like trying to shit out a bowling ball. Speculation comes naturally but anything resembling a plan or an approach to a communicative truth stops my fingers.
Count me among the many who have finally abandoned Scrivener for Storyist. The lack of an iPad option just went on too long.