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What can’t neuroscience tell us about ourselves? Since fMRI — functional magnetic resonance imaging—was introduced in the early 1990s, brain scans have been used to help politicians understand and manipulate voters, determine guilt in court cases, and make sense of everything from musical aptitude to romantic love. But although brain scans and other neurotechnologies have provided groundbreaking insights into the workings of the human brain, the increasingly fashionable idea that they are the most important means of answering the enduring mysteries of psychology is misguided — and potentially dangerous.
In “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience” — a 2014 finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science — psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring — rather than clarifying — the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities. Brain scans, Satel and Lilienfeld show, are useful but often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system. Each region of the brain participates in a host of experiences and interacts with other regions, so seeing one area light up on an fMRI in response to a stimulus does not automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions. The narrow focus on the brain’s physical processes also assumes that our subjective experiences can be explained away by biology alone. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.
A provocative account of our obsession with neuroscience, “Brainwashed” brilliantly illuminates what contemporary neuroscience and brain imaging can and cannot tell us about ourselves, providing a much-needed reminder about the many factors that make us who we are.
Praise for “Brainwashed”
“Science develops new tools that have promise for illuminating age-old questions, and those new tools are then misused or oversold until expectations are finally reconciled with reality. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfield tell the story of neuroscience’s real and illusory contribution to goals that range from treating addiction and detecting lies to mapping the neural underpinnings of morality. It is a daunting topic, but Brainwashed somehow manages to blend the authors’ mastery of their subject with compulsive readability.”
— Charles Murray, author, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010”
“Brainwashed challenges the much-hyped claim that neuroscience will transform everything from marketing to the legal system to our ideas of blameworthiness and free will. Satel and Lilienfeld bring much needed skeptical intelligence to this field, giving neuroscience its due while recognizing its limitations. This is an invaluable contribution to one of our most contested debates about the ability of science to transform society.”
— Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law, George Washington University; legal affairs editor, The New Republic
“An authoritative, fascinating argument for the centrality of mind in what, doubtless prematurely, has been called the era of the brain.”
— Peter D. Kramer, author, “Against Depression”
“Neuroscience is an exhilarating frontier of knowledge, but many of its champions have gotten carried away. This book shows how attempts to explain the human condition by pointing to crude blotches of brain activity may be superficially appealing but are ultimately unsatisfying. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld are not dualists, romantics, mystics, or luddites. Their case for understanding the mind at multiple levels of analysis will resonate with thoughtful psychologists and biologists, and they make that case lucidly, expertly, and entertainingly. Anyone who is interested in the brain—and who isn’t?—will be enlightened by this lively yet judicious critique.”
— Steven Pinker, professor of psychology, Harvard College; author, “How the Mind Works and the Stuff of Thought”
“In this smart, provocative and very accessible book, Satel and Lilienfeld are not out to bury neuroscience; they are here to save it—to rescue it from those who have wildly exaggerated its practical and theoretical benefits. Some of this book is very funny, as when they review the dubious history of neuromarketing and neuropolitics, and some of it is dead serious, as in their discussion of how the abuse of neuroscience distorts criminal law and the treatment of addicts. Brainwashed is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the use and abuse of one of the most important scientific developments of our time.”
— Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science, Yale University; author, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like”
“Brainwashed provides an engaging and wonderfully lucid tour of the many areas in which the progress and applications of neuroscience are currently being overstated and oversold. Some of the hyping of neuroscience appears fairly harmless, but more than a little of it carries potential for real damage—especially when it promotes erroneous ideas about addiction and criminal behavior. The book combines clearheaded analysis with telling examples and anecdotes, making it a pleasure to read.”
— Hal Pashler, distinguished professor of psychology and cognitive science, University of California, San Diego
“There is a widespread belief that brain science is the key to understanding humanity and that imaging will X-ray our minds, revealing why we buy things and whether we are telling the truth and answering questions about addiction, criminal responsibility, and free will. Brainwashed is a beautifully written, lucid dissection of these exaggerated claims, informed by a profound knowledge of current neuroscience. It is essential reading for anyone who wants a balanced assessment of what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about ourselves.”
— Raymond Tallis, author, “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”
“Satel and Lilienfeld have produced a remarkably clear and important discussion of what today’s brain science can and cannot deliver for society. As a neuroscientist, I confess that I also enjoyed their persuasive skewering of hucksters whose misuse of technology in the courtroom and elsewhere is potentially damaging not only to justice but also to the public understanding of science.”
— Steven E. Hyman, director, Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University
Sally Satel is a resident scholar at AEI, a lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a practicing psychiatrist. She is the author of “PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine.”
Scott O. Lilienfeld is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Emory University.
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