Neuro-backlash? What backlash?

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    Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
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Article Highlights

  • Any critique can always be abused by one’s enemies to discredit an entire enterprise.

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  • We don’t see any neuroscience backlash threatening to toss out the baby with the brain-water.

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  • For now - and for the foreseeable future - we mustn’t lose the mind in the age of brain science.

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This summer, a popular neuroscience blogger established a new site called “I’m starting a backlash against the fashionable anti-neuro backlash,” he announced. His concern was shared by some neuroscientists and commentators who had earlier charged New York Times columnist David Brooks, yes that David Brooks, with spearheading a backlash against their field.

Some backstory. In a June column, Brooks had expressed skepticism that “understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior.” He referred to some recent books on the topic, ours among them. These books did four things. First, they urged readers to be skeptical of definitive conclusions about subtle contents of the mind from brain-based data at least within the current state of technological development. Second, they cautioned against the premature application of brain scans in the courtroom, and other non-research venues. Third, they challenged neurocentrism, the assumption that human experience and behavior are best explained from the predominant, let alone exclusive, perspective of the brain, at the expense of psychological or social perspectives. And, fourth, the books affirmed the value of neuroscientific inquiry while seeking to preserve its credibility in the public’s eye by pushing back against these excesses.

As for Brooks, he concluded his column stating: “The brain is not the mind.” Reaction was swift. Brooks was castigated as a “neuroscience hater,” and was said to have “call[ed] neuroscience pointless,” “lash[ed] out” at the field, and launched a “general condemnation of neuroscience.” Worse, Brooks was excoriated for allegedly endorsing dualism, the long-discredited notion that the mind and the brain are independent of each other and composed of different physical substances with consciousness existing in a spiritual world separate from the body.

To some extent, this reflexive response is understandable. Any critique, no matter how measured or how circumscribed, can always be abused by one’s enemies to discredit an entire enterprise. And, Brooks, a political columnist, may not have parsed technical terms as precisely as an expert would have. Still, if there is a shadowy “anti-neuro” lobby looking to twist legitimate scrutiny into a wholesale denunciation, it must be pretty ineffectual. Indeed, the brain is riding high: stunning new discoveries are pouring out of labs; the Obama BRAIN initiative is well under way; university neuroscience programs are thriving; academically serious disciplines such as neurolaw and neuroeconomics are part of many graduate school curricula; and popular-science books about the brain are flying out of publishing houses.

So, we don’t see any neuroscience backlash threatening to toss out the neuroscientific baby with the brain-water. And we’re glad about that. What we do see, however, is value in examining the language people use when talking about the relationship between the brain and the mind.

Let’s begin with the proposition, suggested by Brooks, that the brain and the mind are “different.” Does this necessarily mean that the two are materially separate domains? Virtually all psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, ourselves included, certainly don’t think so. Every subjective experience, from the ache of nostalgia to the frisson of a Christmas morning, corresponds to physical events in the brain. The mind - the realm of feelings, desires, ideas, memories, intentions, and subjective experience - is produced by the action of neurons and brain circuits. How else could it work? Yet, as Brooks observed, the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. So, to say that the brain and the mind are different is not necessarily evidence of scientific ignorance. It means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological or behavioral level.

As an analogy, consider the words Shakespeare wrote on a page. They are, of course, “material,” but one could not capture the meaning of his plays by conducting a chemical analysis of the ink in which the letters of his words were written. The brain and the mind are different levels of explanation of the same phenomenon; when we talk about the brain, we talk about mechanism underlying perception, emotion, and cognition; when we talk about mind, we talk about awareness and meaning. Because brain and mind are different levels of description, they have different properties. This position, which we endorse, is called property dualism.

Similarly, one cannot rely on the brain alone to predict or understand everything important about human subjectivity or behavior. This is because many psychological phenomena are emergent properties of lower-order constituents such as neural circuits, neurons, proteins, and genes. “Constitutive” reductionism - reducing complex entities to the sum of their component parts to facilitate study - is not controversial in the scientific community. But, radical or “eliminative” reductionists go a crucial, and questionable, step further. They insist that everything mental will ultimately be explained fully at the material level of analysis. This variant of reductionism ultimately eliminates the need for the psychological level of analysis, not to mention all other levels - social, cultural, and so on.

In his 2006 book, An Argument for Mind, Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan notes that the appreciation of an impressionistic painting requires far more than the sum of its parts. [1] “As a viewer slowly approaches Claude Monet’s painting of the Seine at Dawn there comes a moment when the scene dissolves into tiny patches of color.” When we adopt the eliminative reductionist position, Kagan states, “the coherent psychological component vanishes.”

Some philosophers of mind take a different view. They speculate that such properties (the painting in full) will ultimately prove reducible to more basic elements (the paint). They may prove correct. But for the foreseeable future, valuable information is often lost when descending from higher explanatory levels, such as mental states, to lower levels, such as neuronal systems.

The distinctions between substance and property dualism and between constitutive and greedy reductionism may appear arcane, but overlooking them can lead us to overestimate the explanatory power of neuroscientific findings. Take addiction, for example. The dominant view among researchers is that it is a “brain disease,” plain and simple. Without a doubt, chronic drug exposure often changes the brain, but knowledge of the neural mechanisms underlying addiction typically has less relevance to the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism than the psychological and social causes. To be sure, intervening directly on the brain, say with medications such as methadone, can sometimes be of value too. But understanding the brain of addicts gives us only partial insight into why they become addicted and how they recover.

A similar point holds for clinical depression. Although depression is clearly influenced by biological factors, including a genetic predisposition, this does not mean, contrary to common assumptions, that it is necessarily best treated by medication. In fact, certain psychological treatments, especially cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal psychotherapies, appear to be at least as effective as medications for depression while having no known physical side effects and showing superior prevention of future episodes.

As for a neuroscience “backlash,” well, we just don’t see it. Distinguishing brain from mind, or criticizing the excesses of brain imaging, is hardly a repudiation of the great insight of human neuroscience: that our mental lives arise from brain activity. Both levels, the brain and the mind, are essential to a complete description of human experience and behavior. Psychology and neuroscience can test theories that explain and forecast human behavior - and someday, we will know much more about how they are integrated.

For now - and for the foreseeable future - we mustn’t lose the mind in the age of brain science. Like the Seine at Dawn, if we get too close to the elements of a grand tableau, we will miss the coherent picture.

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