From ethics and art history to social policy experts are embracing neuroscience as the answer to understanding human behaviour. Raymond Tallis rallies the neurosceptics
Contemporary neuroscience is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. As a researcher for many years into new methods of rehabilitating people with neurological damage, in particular due to strokes, I have been thrilled by the promise of new technologies such as sophisticated brain scanning to help us to understand the processes of recovery and (more importantly) suggest treatments that would promote the kinds of reorganisation in the brain associated with return of function. In contrast, I am utterly dismayed by the claims made on behalf of neuroscience in areas outside those in which it has any kind of explanatory power; by the neuro-hype that is threatening to discredit its real achievements.
Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-”. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities. Even philosophers – who should know better, being trained one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of “Exp-phi” or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages have embraced “neuro-ethics”, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classic dilemmas. Benjamin Libet’s experiments on decisions to act and the work on mirror neurons (observed directly in monkeys but only inferred, and still contested, in humans) have been ludicrously over-interpreted to demonstrate respectively that our brains call the shots (and we do not have free will) and to point to a neural basis for empathy.
Art, that most distinctive of human activities, most remote, one would have thought, from our organic being, has been a particular focus of attention. The aficionados of “neuro-aesthetics” link the impact of different kinds of art the different areas of the brain that light up when we engage with them. The creation of art itself is a neurally mediated activity by which the artist unknown to himself behaves in such a way as to promote the replication of his genetic material. “Neuro-arthistory” explains the emergence of different theories of art by the influence of the environment on the plastic brain of the critic. Even the sponsorship of the arts is regarded as a manifestation of the reputation reflex by which, like the peacock whose useless tail advertises the health of his genes, the sponsor advertises the health of his business.
This might be regarded as harmless nonsense, were it not for the fact that it is increasingly being suggested (as for instance by Matthew Taylor in a recent issue of Prospect) that we should use the findings of neurosciences to guide policymakers. The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart. The last century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudoscience, which treated the individual person not as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe. But historical examples may not be persuasive because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous. A better line of argument is to expose the groundlessness of the claim that observation of brain activity in certain experimental conditions can enable us to understand human beings to the point where neuroscience could usefully inform social policy. To do that, we need to examine the assumptions behind the hype.
The fundamental assumption is that we are our brains and this, I will argue presently, is not true. But this is not the only reason why neuroscience does not tell us what human beings “really” are: it does not even tell us how the brain works, how bits of the brain work, or (even if you accept the dubious assumption that human living could be parcelled up into a number of discrete functions) which bit of the brain is responsible for which function. The rationale for thinking of the kind – “This bit of the brain houses that bit of us...” – is mind-numbingly simplistic. In a typical experiment, individuals are exposed to different stimuli, or asked to imagine certain scenarios, and the change in brain activity is recorded. For example, a person may be asked to look at a photograph of, or think of, someone they love and then someone to whom they are relatively indifferent. The difference between the activation of the brain under the two circumstances is meant to show what is special about the emotion of love. On the basis of these and other experiments, the brain scientists Semir Zeki and Andreas Barthels [link to pdf] have concluded that love is due to activity “in the medial insula and the anterior cingulated cortex and, subcortically, in the caudate nucleus and the putamen, all bilaterally.”
Why is this fallacious? First, when it is stated that a particular part of the brain lights up in response to a particular stimulus, this is not the whole story. Much more of the brain is already active or lit up; all that can be observed is the additional activity associated with the stimulus. Minor changes noted diffusely are also overlooked. Secondly, the additional activity can be identified only by a process of averaging the results of subtractions after the stimulus has been given repeatedly: variations in the response to successive stimuli are ironed out. Finally, and most importantly, the experiments look at the response to very simple stimuli – for example, a picture of the face of a loved one compared with that of the face of one who is not loved. But, as I have pointed out elsewhere (for the benefit of Martians), romantic love is not like a response to a stimulus. It is not even a single enduring state, like being cold. It encompasses many things, including not feeling in love at that moment; hunger, indifference, delight; wanting to be kind, wanting to impress; worrying over the logistics of meetings; lust, awe, surprise; imagining conversations, events; speculating what the loved one is doing when one is not there; and so on. (The most sophisticated neural imaging, by the way, cannot even distinguish between physical pain and the pain of social rejection: they seem to “light up” the same areas!)
Interestingly, there has recently been considerable doubt even within the neuroscience community about the validity of identifying activity in certain parts of the brain with aspects of the human psyche. A January editorial in New Scientist noted that a study by psychologist Hal Pashler and his colleagues at the University of California, San Diego had found that “In most of the studies that linked brain regions to feelings including social rejection, neuroticism and jealousy, researchers … used a method that inflates the strength of the link between a brain region and the emotion of behaviour.”
Neo-phrenology is being increasingly challenged by the evidence that, even in the simplest of tasks, never mind negotiating through the world, deciding to go for a mortgage or wanting to behave well, the brain functions as an integrated unit, with many parts seemingly working together.
So much for the limitations of our present knowledge of how the brain works. This doesn’t impress the believers, who argue that our present state of ignorance does not constitute a principled objection to the notion that, one day, perhaps not even in the near future, neuroscience might advance to the point where it does understand how the brain works. So while we do not need to train our policymakers in neuroscience at present, we may need to do so in future. There is, however, a principled argument for keeping neuroscience out of social policy. It is that we are not just our brains: societies are made of people who are not brains and certainly they are not the kind of disconnected stand-alone brains that are studied in neuroscience. Attempts to make sense of our conscious minds, our sense of self, our intentions, our voluntary actions and our social being in terms of neural activity have failed dismally.
The problems begin at a very basic level. The brain, as understood by neuroscience, is a piece of matter tingling with electrochemical activity. There is nothing in this activity that would make the stand-alone brain capable of making the material objects around it have an appearance to it or able to have the sense of itself as the subject to whom these objects appear. Consider something as elementary as seeing something in front of you. While it is easy to understand how the brain, understood as a material object, would respond with nerve impulses to light falling upon it, it is not possible to explain how those nerve impulses then become a representation of the source of that light; how the effects of light in the brain reach back in a counter-causal way to the object from which the light originated. Material causation, in short, explains how the light gets into the brain but not how the gaze looks out and sees an illuminated world.
Some may argue that, mysterious or not, this is what the brain does. However, there are other aspects of human consciousness – the unity of the self, the formulation of intentions, the performance of voluntary actions – that are even further out of reach of neuroscientific explanation. This has led some neuroscientists and their philosophical followers to deny their existence: the self and free will belong to a pre-scientific “folk psychology”. If this were the case, one would like to know how it would be possible for people to formulate social policies based on neuroscience.
The conclusion from (as we have seen, rather wobbly) correlations of bits of consciousness with bits of brain activity that the former is identical with the latter depends on several elementary errors, notably that correlation is causation and causation is identity and that necessary conditions are identical with sufficient conditions. As regards the latter, while it is obvious that a brain in good working order is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow from this that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness or that its workings are identical with consciousness.
If neuroscience has very little to say about the individual person, or even bits of consciousness, it is unlikely to have anything valid to say about society and policies that may help those within it to flourish. The belief that it might do, however, has been supported by what I have called “Darwinitis”. This is the claim that Darwinian theory can not only explain the biological origins of the organism H. sapiens, but also the manifestations of everyday human life – our cultural leaves as well as our biological roots. Many of the neuro-hyphenated disciplines are predicated on the notion that human behaviour is susceptible to a Darwinian interpretation, having as its, largely unconscious, aim the ensuring of the replication of the genetic material of which our bodies and lives are the mere vehicles. We are our brains and our brains are evolved organs; the behaviour dictated by our brains is directly or indirectly related to the standard biological imperatives to survive to reproduce.
The neuro-evolutionary approach to human societies is reflected in the latest buzz phrase “the social brain”, which is the title of large projects launched under the aegis of both the Royal Society of Arts and The British Academy. Society, it is argued, is made up of a nexus of brains that are evolved to develop and function within social networks but, being evolved organs, do not know themselves very well. Most of the things they do are unconscious or have unconscious motives. This is, of course, nonsense. While it is true that certain decision-making processes previously thought to be self-consciously produced are automatic, this does not mean that all or most of the things we do are unconscious. Try to imagine any ordinary activity – collecting the children from school, writing a report, preparing for a party – being carried out unconsciously. Nevertheless, neuro-evolutionary thinking has excited many journalists, such as Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian (“In Control? Think again. Our ideas of the brain and human nature are myths”) for whom it “challenges almost everything you’re used to thinking about yourself” – such as, for example, that you are a rational or even autonomous agent – and that it marks the end of the 18th-century concept of the individual self. Madeleine Bunting, it seems, has discovered that her columns are written by an automaton.
The notion of “the social brain” is an attempt to have the brain as an evolved organ, and as a participant in a social sphere that an unprejudiced view would see as being remote from organic life, though of course requiring it. This having-and-eating is not on. Firstly, the brain qua brain is a piece of matter which, though it may be wired into the larger environment, including other brains, is essentially solitary. That is precisely why it is possible to look at it in isolation in the lab and, indeed, to examine animal brains in the same way as we examine human brains and find very similar things going on – including the activity of those mirror neurons I referred to earlier, which have been touted as the basis of human empathy and solidarity. It is a solitary organ within a solitary organism.
Secondly, human societies are not like the quasi-societies of the kind underpinned by animal nervous systems. There are, of course, very complex animal groupings and interlocking, pre-programmed, instinctive behaviours that may produce extraordinary monuments of collective endeavour – as, for example, the creation of an anthill. These groupings are utterly different from the societies developed and maintained by human beings, which are mediated through psychology, through an individual take on the collective opportunities, customs, rituals, institutions and so on, by creatures who do not merely live their lives as organisms but also lead their lives as people, who narrate their ambitions, aims, projects, dreams, desires and wishes to one another, who buy into and opt out of various aspects of the society of which they are a part and from which they are apart.
The human world is an entirely new realm created by all the means we have of joining attention and consciousness. It is unknown to nature, though it creates a mirror in which nature is reflected. The public space in which we encounter, become intelligible to, and hence plan individually and collectively for, ourselves, negotiating a balance between individual and collective interest, is created out of millennia of complex pooled, shared, experience. A brain qua matter – as it is approached in neuroscience – no more has this kind of public space than a pebble has. The public realm is one in which “social facts” are, as Emile Durkheim pointed out, as potent an influence on living as the forces of nature. The social facts are not, however, forces, even less forces exclusively exerting an unconscious influence upon us; after all, we have to understand and to assent to them for them to influence us. This world of facts is a construct built up over hundreds and thousands of years as the result of explicitly shared awareness.
While its construction has speeded up over the last 40,000-100,000 or so years since we began interacting with each other through meant meaning conveyed by our many languages, and accelerated immeasurably since we learned to write and then to measure, it has been present since the first artifacts and tools placed our shared needs in the beginnings of a public space. The community of minds in which we live and think and have our being is remote from a cluster of interacting organs, even if those organs are as extraordinary as are our brains.
There is a huge gap between the community of minds and animal quasi-societies. The vast landscape that is the human world has been shaped by the activity of explicit individuals who do things deliberately. Uniquely, the denizens of that world entertain theories about their own nature and about the world; systematically inquire into the order of things and the patterns of causation and physical laws that seem to underpin that order; create cities, laws, institutions; frame their individual lives within a shared history that is recorded and debated over; narrate their individual and shared lives; and guide, justify and excuse their behaviour according to general and abstract principles. Neuro-evolutionary theorists try to ignore all this evidence of difference and have even requisitioned the pseudo-scientific notion of the meme, the unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene that ensures its own survival by passing from brain to brain, to capture human society for quasi-Darwinian thought. Just how desperate is this endeavour to conceal the Great Ditch separating humans from other animals is evident from the kind of items that are listed as memes: “the SALT agreement”, “styles of cathedral architecture”, “faith”, “tolerance for free speech” and so on.
If we were not at a great distance from the kind of activity revealed in our brains and, indeed, from the kinds of aggregations seen in the natural world, then the voluntary adoption of social policies, influenced or not by the latest whizz-bang neuroscience, would be impossible; for there would be no outside from which policies could be dreamed up, judged and tested. Indeed, there would be no outside of the organic world. This is illustrated by the pseudo-science of neuro-law. Supposing, for example, we really could assimilate jurisprudence into brain science, on the grounds that it is our brains that make us criminals or law-abiding, then, since our brains are causally wired into the remainder of the material universe, we would have to look beyond the brain for the ultimate source of our actions. They are objects, not subjects. The plea “My brain made me do it” would essentially be that of “the Big Bang made me do it”.
In summary, such are the limitations of our understanding of the brain, attempting to apply the findings of neuroscience to social policy would be premature, even if this were not wrong in principle. But it is wrong in principle. The fabric of the human world, of the public space that is the arena of our lives, is woven out of explicit shared attention that has been infinitely elaborated in a way that has little to do with what goes on in the darkness of the individual skull, though you require a brain in working order in order to be part of it. If you come across a new discipline with the prefix “neuro” and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.
Raymond Tallis’s new book Michaelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence is published by Atlantic in February.