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Brain Teases

by Theodore Dalrymple

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld (Basic, 256 pp., $26.99)

Nearly 40 years ago, and only four years after CAT scans had been introduced into clinical practice, I had a patient who believed that his neighbor, a London bus driver, had developed a thought scanner that could read his thoughts when it was pointed through the wall at him. It is probable that millions of people now believe something very similar, albeit that the scanners are in laboratories rather than in neighbors’ apartments and are wielded by benevolent neuroscientists rather than by malevolent bus drivers.

In this short but incisive and clearly written book, Satel and Lilienfeld, respectively a psychiatrist and a psychologist, examine the modern superstition that has come to surround neuroscience and to invest it with quasi-miraculous powers. The authors are not scientific Luddites who want to break the machines for fear of what they will one day tell us about ourselves, and they acknowledge the intellectual brilliance and technical ingenuity of those who work in this field; they are materialists who believe that there is no mind without brain, but they warn against the all-too-gullible acceptance of the wilder claims of the popularizers of neuroscience and those one might call the neuro-boosters, who sell it to anyone who will buy, as if the brain were Florida real estate in the 1920s.

First, with admirable lucidity, they explain to the lay reader why scans of the type that appear regularly on television and in newspapers and magazines, purporting to show in tasteful color the parts of the brain that are responsible for, say, our fear of snakes or our propensity to lose our spectacles, are not really the pictures of the brain that we take them to be, but constructs with many degrees of separation from the actual phenomena. They point out that the fact that a certain area of the brain “lights up” when the brain performs a certain task does not prove that, when it lights up, it is performing that task. They also explain repeatedly, but not redundantly, why experiments conducted in laboratories are not directly applicable to real-life situations, and why they indeed tell us much less about ourselves than is frequently claimed. Much of what such experimentation shows is, moreover, banal or knowable by other, much simpler means. The notion that, thanks to modern neuroscience, man is much nearer to self-understanding than ever before is quite simply false, even bogus.

Nor is the overselling of neuroscience entirely harmless. For example, it completely skews the field of research into addiction and its treatment, a field that Satel knows well. The notion, more or less an orthodoxy or dogma in the religious sense of the word, that “addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain disease,” propagated and defended by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (or NIDA, the source of the overwhelming majority of American research on addiction), is only a very partial truth at best, and its insufficiency has been obvious from the moment it was first enunciated. It overlooks entirely the fact that many millions of people have overcome addiction without the assistance of therapy, and such well-known historical examples as that of the American soldiers who addicted themselves to heroin when in Vietnam and stopped taking the drug on their return to the United States.

By overlooking the wider context of addiction, and by disregarding entirely the addict’s agency both in the development of his situation and in his capacity to overcome it himself, the dogma leads to the expensive and futile search for a magic bullet. The authors are more circumspect than I would have been in their condemnation of the NIDA, even though they quote Bob Schuster, the agency’s head from 1986 to 1992, who said that though he did not think addiction was a disease, he was “happy for it to be conceptualized that way for . . . selling it to Congress” (i.e., to get more money for the NIDA). Thus the slogan that addiction is a brain disease can be described as being, at best, rent-seeking by a group of scientists and their bureaucratic hangers-on, and, at worst, outright fraud. The problem with lies of this nature, however, is that, if they are repeated often enough, people, including those who tell them, come to believe them.

Another field into which neuroscientific, or neuroscientistic, entrepreneurs, both economic and intellectual, have obtruded is that of the criminal law. Their reasoning is fundamentally as follows: All acts are caused by the brain, therefore wrong acts are caused by wrong brains. This being so, no one can be held responsible for his acts, and therefore punishment is a primitive concept. What is needed, rather, is treatment that will, as a matter of empirical fact, simply prevent the wrongdoer from wrongdoing in the future.

All this had been said long before the advent of modern neuroscience, and the authors rehearse many of the arguments against it. Most people who take the hardboiled-determinist line imagine that, if their ideas were accepted as the basis of policy, the treatment of criminals would be much less harsh than it is now, but this does not follow at all. The utilitarian approach to criminology eliminates the concept of justice altogether; it has nothing to say in principle against the amputation of the hands of thieves, or even against the harsh treatment of people who have done no wrong, if such treatment conduces to a lower general level of wrongdoing. Justice is a question of meaning and not just of mechanics or physics.

As this book illustrates, when neuroscientistic utilitarians speak of crime, they implicitly, though unintentionally and no doubt subconsciously, divide humanity into two. For while the criminal is deemed a person victimized by his own brain, the judge who sentences him to prison is not so deemed. He is the kind of person, very much like the neuroscientist himself in fact, who can be persuaded by argument. In other words, there are two types of people: the automata who are determined by their brain, and real people like judges and neuroscientists who are persuaded by the arguments. At heart, then, the neuroscientists (at least those who claim too much on behalf of their discipline) are the most frightful snobs. They believe themselves to be in possession, like priests of old, of arcane truths not known to most of their fellow humans. No one is a determinist in his own case (except when it suits his purposes, for example in court).

The authors examine the wilder claims of neuroscientists in three main areas, marketing, addiction, and criminal justice, and find them in each case to be grossly exaggerated and, at least in the latter two, potentially or actually dangerous. They do so succinctly and, in my view, decisively. They regard these claims as the latest example of our desire, perhaps our post-religious need, for a total explanation of human existence, a worthy (or unworthy) successor to Marxism, Darwinism, and geneticism. They are circumspect about the future prospects of neuroscience; obviously, it will advance rapidly in the technical sense, but whether it will ever pluck out the heart of our mystery may be doubted. Personally I do not think that it ever will do so, for purely metaphysical reasons: Meaning will never be reducible to physical phenomena, even if without physical phenomena there can be no meaning. But I might be wrong. In the meantime, if you want to know where and why the neuroscientific used-car salesmen are wrong, if you want to arm yourself against their preposterous overselling, read this book.

– Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Farewell Fear.

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