NR Digital

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.