In defence of brains

August 30, 2011 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

The backlash against what Ray Tallis calls ‘neuromania’ is in full swing. As well as Tallis (you can download my recent debate with him from the RSA website) there is, for example, a pretty damning critique of David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal in a recent New York Review. Indeed on the same topic I recently endured what must be the worst argument I have ever had as an adult with my father. I am sure there were diners sitting on the other side of the restaurant who heard him slam the table and exclaim furiously ‘my appreciation of art has got sod all to do with bloody neural pathways!’.

Later this week I begin recording a new three part Radio 4 series on the brain and society (modest fee to the RSA and a plug for us too). So I will have these various critiques of neurobollocks (another Tallis neologism) and scientific reductionism ringing in my ears.

In the Tallis debate I happily accepted some of Ray’s points. I do think the mind is more than the brain. I agree that non-scientists can become over-enamoured with sometimes very speculative bits of science and jump to huge and unwarranted conclusions about the self and society. For me, the most valuable aspect of current explosion of interest and research in brains and behaviour is when reflection, everyday observation, science and social science are put together to help to deepen our interest in an issue.

Here’s an example that I have been pondering over in the last few weeks. One of my sons combines great intelligence, teenage moodiness and slight tendency to pessimism. When he is down he has the ability to develop an explanation for his mood, usually one which involves the failings of his loved ones or adults in authority. On holiday in Spain recently I found myself warning him against the danger of rationalising. Sometimes, I argued a mood just comes over us. If it is negative the best thing may simply be to try to dismiss it rather than look for a cause to which to attach it.

I’m not sure my argument made much impression, but as is so often the case (and in keeping with the argument), it is only when you find yourself saying something that you start thinking seriously about whether it’s true.

My tentative view is this; very often our moods are the result of either physiological or ephemeral events: on the one hand, we are tired, we are going down with something, we have suffered a minor allergic reaction; on the other, we are affected by a forgotten overnight dream, an unconscious association with the past, a connection between thoughts which occurs without us being fully aware of it.

But, as science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, ‘man is rationalising animal not a rational one’. So when a mood comes over us we naturally look for a rational explanation, a tendency enhanced by the reflexive way modern people think of themselves in the world.  Finding a rational cause for our emotions has the upside of suggesting a way to intervene to restore our equanimity. The downside is that we may make the ephemeral substantive and take decisions on the basis of false attribution. It also means that the messages we receive can be very powerful. As we swing gently from contentment to discontentment, there are plenty of advertisers out there offering us erroneous explanations based on whether we have, or have not, bought certain products recently.

If this view is correct it suggests that people like my son and me, who have a tendency to over rationalise, could adopt two contrasting strategies in the face of mood shifts. First, and foremost, don’t assume they mean anything, or at least anything to which we can usefully respond. Second, if they are strong feelings or they persist, think more deeply about what has set off the mood; don’t assume the obvious, explore a range of explanations from the physical to the subconscious (by the time you’ve gone through all the possibilities your mood will probably have sorted itself out).

I am not suggesting this is an original idea. Philosophers, novelists and poets have all explored the elusive basis of emotions much more elegantly than me, but, the idea that most moods start off with non-conscious processes and that that we subsequently attach them to ‘causes’ of which are conscious could be explored through – among other things – observations of behaviour and mapping neurological processes. As a research question it has some similarities with the controversy set off by Benjamin Libet’s classic research on what comes first the action or the decision to act.

This post only scratches at the surface of a complex issue and a huge and well-rehearsed debate. I guess my point, as I embark on the radio series, is that good science and social science does not have to reduce the big issues to simple ones but offers us new angles from which to ponder some of the eternal questions (the kind of questions we often ask ourselves) about why we act as we do and how we might live better.



  • Duncan Lawie

    I found the discussion between you and Ray Tallis fascinating. (I don’t get to the RSA lectures often, but do listen to a substantial proportion as podcasts.)

    I thought much of what Tallis had to say to be obviously true regarding the reductionist tendencies of brain analysis maps and the “my brain made me do it” attitude. However, I was most struck with your response to his statement that “it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.”

    I tend to agree that neural studies haven’t done much yet, except provide confirmation, but surely this is the first state of any science. Once a field of science can explain the world we see, it can then move on to provide insights that wouldn’t be available otherwise – and if those predictions can be shown true, the field can be considered to have matured. For example, science which shows how the sun goes around the earth doesn’t tell us anything new – but once we make the conceptual leap to a sun-centred solar system, a huge amount of new insight was possible.

    Of course, a question here how one predicts and proves in a field as messy as society, where the subjects of experiment may well be able to influence the outcome.

  • Philippe Mücher

    Dear Matthew,

    My interest in this debate was re-ignited when I watched the video on the RSA site. I commented on it – I will quote it here.

    “It seems to me this debate sprouts from the fact that Neuroscience as an interdisciplinary science is very young and so far it’s findings are incidental and it’s tools operate at a low level of granularity.
    For the purpose of other sciences the brain has been a ‘black box’ and that is fine, but the sheer complexity of the task of unraveling the box and the fact that we are only just now scratching the surface should not be reason enough to dismiss the value of this activity in such an offhand way.

    On top of that there are several levels to this scientific eco-systems that are being too freely intermixed to my taste. The brain in relation to the unconscious, the brain in relation to the mind, the brain in relation to culture (the community of minds – which holds several levels of complexity in itself). Keeping track of all these micro-cosmes and macro-cosmes interacting is a mind boggling task on it’s own – that task up to now has been deferred to the realm of philosophy but it could warrant to be a discipline on it’s own – a topic that I could digress into.

    The discussion holds a lot of value, but if both sides would acknowledge the youth of Neuroscience more and acknowledge the total lack of multi-facetted interdisciplinary grasp that we have, the resulting argument would be less controversial and much more productive.”

    Now, after reading this entry in your blog, I value the level of differentiation you show much more! But there is one thing that struck me, and prompted me to present you with one of my philosophical ramblings.

    This is what jumps out to me – the dichotomy that you present between “good science” and “social science”. I wonder why you think social science cannot be good science?
    I am not well updated on the status quo of large scale behavioral modelling – I believe Asimov’s “Psychohistory” has not yet turned to fact fiction, right? But as a self-proclaimed philosopher I am loathe to dismiss the approach, especially since both area’s deal with the formal system of the node (neural, I believe is the common phrase) network.

    Unraveling the ‘meaning’ of brain activity related to consciousness would be just as ethereal a task as unraveling the ‘meaning’ of individual communications in a social community. Explaining identify in terms of conscious neurological processes would be just as daunting as explaining the genesis and development of ideas and dynamics in a cultural environment (a community of minds). All this assuming that both disciplinary area’s would be completely up to the task, which neither of them are – hence the ‘would’.
    Statistics would be at the very heart of the efforts on both sides of this comparative analogy, and the fact that one deals with electrical impulses and the other with linguistics and ideas does not make all that much of a difference from where I stand.
    Either can make as much claim to being ‘good science’ as the other, both are in their infancy at best and it would not surprise if it would turn out that the laws that drive the mind are not much different from the laws that drive humanity.

    There are keys to psychology in neurology, and there are keys to sociology in neurology. Acknowledging social sciences and supporting their advancing into ‘solid science’ is key to mutual understanding and key to giving (social) neurology a proper place in the larger scheme-of-things-to-be.

    There are many side-tracks that I have to dismiss when I go into a mood like I did here today, because not everyone has a stomach for speculative philosophy. But some keywords to remind mainly myself in case I might ever elaborate: homunculus/dualism vs. auto-genesis – the threshold of emergence – the role of language and meaning across disciplines – the ‘true’ source of cognition, of consciousness , of psychological/cultural identity and dynamics – synergy and synchronicity in views on identity emergence across disciplines – similarity of self-re-enforcing dynamics across disciplines.

    If you have made it this far, I thank you for your indulgence and I hope I have been able to offer some value to your perspective.

    Many regards, keep it up and keep ‘em coming :)


  • Philippe Mücher

    Adding notification, entry can be deleted

  • Ian Glendinning

    Yes the “Libet meme” is scary in being misunderstood. People somehow crave simplistic reductionist causal explanations, yet react when no one neural mechanism can explain the whole. With mass communication, the worst ideas establish themselves the best. Anti-intellectualism generally and anti-brain in this case.

    Our minds emerge from the whole of our neuro-chemical-physio systems, in many layers, many of which are below our level of immediate consciousness. Free won’t. “It’s just complicated enough”.

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  • Livy

    This entry is pretty amazing. It’s hard to believe there’s not even one mention of ‘human nature’.

    I happily accepted some of Ray’s points. I do think the mind is more than the brain.

    Regardless of whether or not this is true, is it worth accepting that particular point when discussing the question of mood disorders? One explanation for the recent decline in social stigma around anti-depressants is the increased understanding of the brain as a physical organ; in a similar way to a pancreas failing to produce insulin requiring the patient to take artificial insulin to compensate.

    The whole ‘Nueromania’ issue has almost turned people who are paying attention into an audience at a comedy club. Even they can split into two halves, where one will delightfully laugh at a very particular type of joke and will continue to do so when told they have the tendency, and the other half who are conspicuously (and even efficiently) quiet in their reactions – especially after they hear the comedian tell the other half about the tendency . No matter who an individual is before they take one of the unassigned seats in the room, they’ll share laughter response patterns with their half far more often than not. Audience members laugh at the same volume and intensity for similar lengths of time to those seated directly around them, without realising they’re doing it. Even if the comedian is shit, which isn’t a particularly rare occurrence in the UK.

    ” I agree that non-scientists can become over-enamoured with sometimes very speculative bits of science and jump to huge and unwarranted conclusions about the self and society.”

    Right… but that type of concession wasn’t used very often by people on that side of the debate three or four years ago, and is only grudgingly mumbled now that the subject is no longer as trendy. This all goes back to the crash. In ’08, Conservatives rubbed their hands because they thought it was, or at least had the potential to be used as, proof of UK Government spending being the cause of a worldwide economic depression. The left also rubbed their hands together, because they thought the insights gleaned from behavioural sciences into wider intellectual and regulatory failures could be extended to serve as an evidence base for a much broader critique of individualism itself.

    Skewing the conversation towards this kind of attack does not help dispel the myth that we are in a mess due to a government failure rather than a market failure. It also has the tendency to come off as an equity argument that descends into fairly trite territory of slamming bankers’ greed, which is a risky and unnecessary way of going about it. The left can win on efficiency.

    The ability to uncover (rather than develop or concoct) an explanation for a mood about the failings of loved ones or authority figures can be invaluable, especially at a very early age. Those explanations can often bear out to be correct and even predictive of future stumbling blocks in our lives that we successfully avoid. Too few people see the world through their own eyes, and too many like it that way. The danger is that we’re either oblivious to or dishonest about why we actually make the arguments we make; a fear of rationalising or a warning against false attribution are sometimes really fears around personal growth or what unleashed human capacity will do to us. Attributing mood shifts to the failings of those close to you can, for example, lead you to develop more mature boundary functions and surround yourself instead with friends of stronger character. Recognising failings of authority as commonplace and almost inevitable where a correct personal attitude is lacking can healthily cultivate one. It is after we adopt an approach where we expect nothing from the world that we will, in the long run, get back no more and no less than that which we deserve.