Who’s Brainwashed?
Progress and hype in the world of neuroscience.

Sally Satel


Kathryn Jean Lopez

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to find the subject of how our brains work fascinating. As Sally Satel points out in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, because the “brain is a very attractive topic to both readers and journalists . . . the sheer numbers of articles present many opportunities for the dissemination of overwrought claims.”

But when news about the brain becomes hype, it can become a disseminator of “false hope and false answers.” As we look at the mechanics of the brain, we shouldn’t “become too carried away with the notion that we are our brains and, hence, not responsible — a message that lay people often take away from discussions about the neural underpinnings of behavior,” Satel cautions. In our daydreaming about a fascinating topic, “we may impede one of the most challenging cultural projects looming in the years ahead: how to reconcile advances in brain science with personal, legal, and civic notions of freedom.”

Satel, a psychiatrist with a “a set of twitchy antennae for politicization of science” and Scott O. Lilienfeld, a psychologist who teaches at Emory University, are authors of the new book, released today, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who are the brainwashed? Who made neuroscience “mindless”?

SALLY SATEL: Non-experts are at risk of being seduced into believing that brain science, and brain imaging in particular, can unlock the secrets of human nature. The media often purvey information about studies of the brain in uncritical ways that foster misimpressions of what brain science can reveal about the mind — and none are more chagrinned about this state of affairs than neuroscientists themselves and the careful science journalists who report on their work.  

My co-author, psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, and I talk about “losing the mind in the age of brain science.” By this we mean that brain-based levels of explanation are regarded, more and more, as the most authentic and valued way of explaining human behavior. Sometimes, this is indeed the proper way to go (when we want to uncover the workings of the brain for clinical purposes or to achieve new insight about the mechanisms of memory, learning, emotion, and so on). But understanding people in the context of their lives — their desires, intentions, attitudes, feelings, and so on — requires that we ask them, not their brains.

To be clear, all subjective experience, from a frisson of excitement to the ache of longing, corresponds to physical events in the brain. Scientists have made great strides in reducing the organizational complexity of the brain from the intact organ to its constituent neurons, the proteins they contain, genes, and so on. Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis.

Using this template, we can see how human thought and action unfold at a number of explanatory levels, working upward from the most basic elements. A major point we make in Brainwashed is that problems arise when we ascribe too much importance to the brain-based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones.

LOPEZ: Why are we so fascinated with the brain?

SATEL: The brain is more complex than any structure in the known cosmos. How this enormous neural edifice gives rise to subjective feelings and our sense of self is one of the greatest mysteries of science and philosophy.

LOPEZ: What do you mean by the expression this is your brain on Ahmadinejad”?

SATEL: That’s our way of describing a dubious attempt to ascertain subjects’ attitudes about political figures by scanning their brains as they watched video clips and photos of these figures.

A few years ago, the Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg submitted to a brain scan in an attempt to clarify his political disposition. (Yes, political operatives have collaborated with researchers to develop a way to assess voters’ impressions of candidates via brain scan — and one of them asked Goldberg, with a straight face, as far as I can tell from Goldberg’s account, to participate.) It turned out that Goldberg’s brain responded to an image of Ahmadinejad in a manner that suggested pleasurable anticipation, according to the researchers. After his adventure in “vanity scanning,” as Goldberg called it, he wondered “to what degree this was truly scientific and to what degree it was 21st-century phrenology.” Goldberg isn’t the first to express such doubts. Frustrated experts have also dubbed over eager readings of fMRI images “neophrenology.”