Neuroscientism and neuroporn (updated)

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Am feeling for Jonah Lehrer this weekend, following Steven Poole's review of his latest book, Imagine – How Creativity Work in the Guardian. I've met Jonah a couple of times and read his work frequently and – as is often the case – feel for the real person I've construed in my head.

Unflattering reviews are never pleasant to receive (I've had a few in my time and much as I'd like to pretend they don't hurt, they genuinely do) but at the heart of this one is a critique that I have a lot of sympathy with, if it's true – namely Imagine's overwhelming neuroscientism.

"…(The term has been employed by the philosopher Colin McGinn and the critical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, among others.) Scientism is the confidence that science can explain all aspects of human life; neuroscientism is the more specific promise that brain-scans (using the limited current technologies of fMRI and EEG) can explain the workings of the mind"

In recent posts, I've talked about neurocartography and brain-porn: others – such as the ineffable David Penn – have used the term neuromania. All of us share a concern at the very reductionist approach that sees brain activity (and groovy pictures of brains in action – which btw are reconstructed as-if they were based on a clear view of what goes on inside the skull rather than being a reconstruction of readings of changes in the electro-magnetic field in different parts of the brain) as essentially the "truth" about mind and decision-making; a rhetoric that defaults to the synaptic without further thought.

Some – like Poole? – primarily resist the reduction of the mental and cultural to the physiology of the grey matter between our ears on the grounds that these phenomena are much richer than these pictures – this brain porn – suggest. A fair point, you might think, given the relative youth of neuroscience as a discipline – we're far from the claimed precision in understanding the functionality, let alone from understanding the relationship between specific brain activity and specific action.

Me, I have another – additional – problem with looking to the individual brain for answers: most human life is lived in the company and under the influence of others – looking between the ears of an individual is only going to get you so far in understanding our fundamentally socially-shaped behaviour. It's just the wrong place to look for much beyond general principles – however well one reads the literature.

And – let's be clear – our biology is only part of our evolutionary success: for sure, it's our biology that has enabled us to develop, share and exploit culture but that culture itself is the same thing as our biology. Focusing on the biological roots – as if they are the ultimate grounding – seems to me myopic at best.

Trying to understand human behaviour through the lens of individual brain activity in the lab is like understanding dolphin behaviour by dragging individuals away from the pod and out of the water: it tells you somethings but misses the key contextual pieces.

PS The notion so widely trumpeted in support of what I'm sure is a very enjoyable book – that we are all creative – also found its way into the heart of a tome call Welcome To The Creative Age (which I published a decade ago)…and I certainly wasn't the first to suggest it!

UPDATE: John points out the fascinating debate (including Jonah's comments) around this post

3 Comments

  1. Rosie Campbell
    April 23, 2012

    I am hoping to demonstrate how ‘socially constructed’ our decision-making is in a conference paper at the Rome AQR/QRCA bash this week, Mark….referencing the Milan Systemic Therapists who have always inspired me…brilliant mid last-century psychotherapists who, basically, got frustrated with merely working with singular individuals in therapy because of the inevitability of the (self) editing and stuckness of the accounts of their worlds and problems, so widened it to seek the roots of dysfunctionality in behaviour by exploring other people in the system, cultural influences, etc, often through circular questioning;really worth looking at…….anyway, I utterly agree with you and think we have to be ever-creative (!) in how we ‘research’ behaviour, attitude, decision-making so that we get something of the flavour of the social effects and influences….oh and/but I really like Jonah Lehrer too so will read this new book v ‘generously’!It may be time for a balancing voice vs the ‘only by means of co-creation’rhetoric on creativity
    Good blog post!

  2. Mark Earls
    April 23, 2012

    Thanks, Rosie. I’d love to know more. When you’re free let’s catch up!

  3. wendy gordon
    May 1, 2012

    Hi Mark – I agree too both about neuromadness, clever Jonah Lehrer and your blogging. Rosie’s paper was interesting although as usual at a conference she had limited time to explain it in detail.
    In my view – never sure whether or not this concurs with yours – we have to try much harder at understanding people from different perspectives. Then integrating what we learn in a holistic way…culturally, socially and experientially. They say that no two siblings (even twins) have the same parents so there is something about the individual experience that plays out both between lots of ears as well as inside a pair of ears!