Neuroscience can help tame the elephant
Not all explorations of how the brain influences behaviour are neurotrash. Matt Grist, director of the RSA’s social brain project, responds to Ray Tallis
In the current issue of New Humanist the estimable Ray Tallis launches a well-rehearsed attack on simplistic neuroscientific determinism. It makes good copy but in criticising others, including us, for overstatement the good Professor makes the same error himself.
He also gets some things plain wrong. Tallis says the RSA has started a big project called the “Social Brain”, as has the British Academy. The RSA’s project can hardly be considered big, as it employs only one full-time researcher. The British Academy's project on the other hand is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between several UK universities.
The British Academy project is concerned with uncovering the origins of human language. As such it involves some neuroscience, some evolutionary anthropology, and some archaeology. It is a project that looks at language use – that is, it is concerned not only with the brains that generated the first human language, but the nexus of tools, practices and customs within which the possessors of such brains communicated. Professor Tallis’s accusation that this project reduces human culture, social interaction and language use to “quasi-animal societies” controlled by genes is unfair. Just because neuroscience is in the mix, doesn’t mean every explanation is reduced to it.
The RSA project takes a similar interdisciplinary approach. We have gotten together psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers, along with neuroscientists. From the very start we understood that neuroscience was a necessary not a sufficient condition for understanding human behaviour. But we thought it was a level of understanding that should not be ignored.
Understanding a necessary condition of a phenomenon is still a worthwhile task, even if that understanding is limited. To make an analogy, if the other behavioural sciences understand the rest of the car, neuroscience understands the engine. One might drive the car perfectly well without understanding how the engine works, but it surely doesn’t hurt to know more about the engineering.
Tallis accuses Madeleine Bunting of thinking an automaton wrote a recent Guardian article, because she admitted she had come to doubt the idea of a completely autonomous self. This is silly. Accepting that automatic and unconscious brain processes contribute to conscious action is not the same as thinking one is an automaton.
The reason policy makers might be interested in brains and behaviour is that policy has to do (but not only to do) with aggregate level effects of individual actions. So if it can be shown that brains have certain shortcomings or potentialities not previously understood, then this is useful for informing policy direction. However, it is not clear that any policy yet has been informed by neuroscience. Even so-called “nudge” policies such as auto-enrollment in private pensions could have been devised from behavioural observations alone (observations attentive to the power of inertia in human decision-making). Part of the idea of our project is to have a conversation about what neuroscience does add to purely behavioural research.
Perhaps it adds nothing at all beyond what Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, speaking at the RSA, called, “the seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations”. Camilla Batmanghelidjh, after fourteen years experience of supporting neglected and abused children through her organisation the Kids Company, has come to believe vehemently that punishing and blaming such children is counterproductive. Such a punitive method is based on the mistake of thinking that the kids see before them an array of choices, one of them presenting itself as the morally correct one, yet which they choose to ignore. She argues that in fact what is needed is to get these kids into a position where they can see the full array of choices in the first place. This is done through structured activities that build-up the kids” capacity to see the world from the point of view of others, to gain control of their emotions, and to feel self-worth. The work Ms Batmanghelidjh has done has been highly successful. However, she has now embarked on research with neuroscientific partners so that she can present evidence of her success in terms of brain scans. We, as a society of empiricists, seem to need the neuroscientific level of explanation to convince us such a social policy is right. So the role of neuroscience in policy may simply sometimes be one of corroboration.
When neuroscientists started mapping how the brain works, they expected to find the relatively newly evolved neo-cortex (seat of controlled and goal-oriented behaviour, amongst other things) responsible for most of what we do. In fact, they discovered that much of our behaviour is mediated through automatic brain functions – that is, processed by an incredibly powerful system of dedicated functions that run in parallel, but which make our learning and acting emotionally sensitive and habitual. These discoveries sparked research in psychology and other behavioural sciences which fed back in to how neuroscientists thought about the brain. That is, some understanding of the engine, such as Libet’s experiments, helped fuel further understanding of how the rest of the car worked, which in turn helped neuroscientists better understand the engine.
This “collaborative holism” changes the picture we have of human behaviour. Long-enamoured of the Platonic image of reason-the-charioteer bringing to submission the horses of “appetite” and “zeal”, we find ourselves rather with the image of an elephant, a rider and the forest through which it runs, where the rider is deliberate decision-making, the elephant our automatic brains and bodies, and the forest the social milieu in which we live. The rider can learn to steer the elephant well with the aid of repeated practice, guidance and a well laid-out forest.
We are now properly understanding human behaviour (if only in outline) in the holistic setting of our actual dwelling, rather than in terms of the abstractions of Platonic philosophy. And the lesson seems to be that being a rational, creative, happy and well-behaved human being is a social achievement that takes time, dedication and certain kinds of environments. These latter are precisely what the kids Camilla Batmandjallah helps have tragically missed out on. Their weak riders let an uncontrolled elephant run wild through a dark forest that has no pathways laid out at all.
Ironically, despite what Professor Tallis says, it is neuroscientists and those of us who have the temerity to try to popularise some of their insights that are helping to propagate a less reductionist and more helpful image of how we behave.