Thursday, November 1, 2012

Too Many Brain Books

Science & Society

The large number of books that have "neuro" as a prefix somewhere in the title speaks of Science's fascination or obsession with the idea that delving into our brains with the latest medical technologies can offer explanations on how we not only think but also on how humans behave and make decisions.

An article in the New Statesman by Steven Poole speaks of the tiredness many of us are feeling with the new gurus of Science and their pronouncements from on high:
Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.
 Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.
This has become a religion of sorts for individuals who have replaced scientism with traditional religion; it results in the same kind of faulty thinking and conclusions about humans and their condition as religion does—where individuals have a blind devotion to an idea and place too much emphasis on their dogmatic theories, which seem to explain everything.

This is not new. "The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty," the article states. Well said.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Statesman].


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