Beware of neuro-speculation

Between the downfall of Jonah Lehrer, and Naomi Wolfe's new book that claims chemicals in women's brains force us to demand our lovers shower us with roses and candy and refer to us as "goddess"*, there's been some growing backlash against the long-popular idea of better living through neuroscience. You know what I'm talking about here: You (yes, you!) can succeed at work, be more creative, improve your relationships, and have a better sex life — all you have to do is read this one interpretation of the latest in neuroscience research!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that pitch oversells the reality. What we know about how the brain works isn't really that clear cut. But more than that, the idea of scientific self-help quite often has to severely distort science in order to make any sense. The public comes away with a massive misunderstanding of what MRI does and doesn't tell us, what hormones like dopamine actually do, and what the lab tells us about real life.

There are two big essays that you need to read before you pick up another story or book that tries to make connections between cutting-edge brain science and real life. The first, in New Statesman, is by Steven Poole and the broad overview of why it's such a problem when neuroscience becomes neuro-speculation. The second, by Maia Szalavitz at Time Magazine's Healthland blog, focuses on Naomi Wolfe's new book and uses that as a springboard to talk about the bigger issue of brain chemicals, what they are, and what they aren't.

From Steven Poole's piece:

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

... Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

From Maia Szalavitz:

Correctly understood, neuroscience offers important insight into how our minds function and how our brains shape our lives; many of my articles on Healthland attempt to explore these questions. But the kind of oversimplification seen in Wolf’s book and, sadly, in many other popular accounts of neuroscience, threatens to perpetuate a psychological myth. Rather than illuminating the complex interplay between mind and body, it portrays human beings — especially women — as automatons, enslaved by brain chemicals we cannot control.

That’s not what the science shows. The mind-body connection is far more complicated and wonderful, as a quick tour through some of Wolf’s errors will illustrate. There is a new science of female sexual behavior, but it is far more liberating than the book suggests.

... That’s because the brain circuitry that drives us to love and parent — the same region that can be derailed during addiction — isn’t the only part of our brain. Even in the throes of addiction, romantic obsession or the early chaotic days of parenting, we’re still capable of choice, and none of the neuroscience data proves otherwise. “Just because genes or a molecule modulate a behavior, it doesn’t mean that genes or molecules determine that behavior,” says Young. “People who are in love will generally engage in behavior that they wouldn’t normally do, but I don’t think that means they’re less responsible.”

*Not joking, sex partners of women. If you don't do this, we might be incapable of having a mystical vaginal orgasm that allows us to touch the divine and it would be all. your. fault. Because you didn't make us feel safe and adored enough.


  1. For my part, it seems that I pretty much always have voluntary control of what I *do*, but something else (neurotransmitters?) has control of how I *feel*.  When I don’t have voluntary control of my actions, it’s more a sense of deer-in-the-headlights paralysis rather than running amok.  Also, my features may betray my feelings, e.g. after the first fifteen minutes of “Up.”

    1. You don’t, that’s a false dichotomy. It’s because you’ve probably never experienced something like racing thoughts or any other mental illness, which basically completely break down the assumption most of us that there’s a connection between reason, our internal monologue, and our actions vs. our feelings. Trust me on this.

    2.  I’m guessing you don’t suffer from epilepsy or migraines, which are very much capable of controlling what you do, as well as what you feel.  This is something to celebrate!

    3.  I don’t.  I’ve had a bad couple of weeks in this respect.  I’ve felt like I’m basically just along for the ride and not able to control my actions.  Even normally I can have a lot of trouble making a connection between my intentions and actions. 

      On the other hand, I’ve found that I can have a lot of impact on how I feel simply by thinking of things that make me feel some other way.  Sometimes it seems like I have more control over how I feel than what I do.

      Never underestimate the variety of human experience.

  2. Sigh… Weasely word alert: The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe.

    Um, how about galaxies?  The universe itself?  The set of all possible sets?

    1. Well, one of those doesn’t exist. The two others have at least one representative which contains several billion human brains.

    2.  Although the statement is almost certainly wrong, based even on current knowledge only, you can’t compare complexity with scale. Galaxies (at least in terms of ‘galactic’ features) are the sum of not-that-many interacting processes, notably gravity.

  3. I’ve pocketed the 2 articles you linked for consumption later.  That said, I find I’m surprised that I have to pose the following rhetorical question:

    Given humanity’s history of overt, accidental, well-intentioned, devious or otherwise self-enriching quackery – is it any surprise that new medical technologies designed to probe our neurophysiology are being used in ways that advance the science as well as the career prospects, wealth accumulation and/or exploitative designs of quacks with fMRI/PET data?

    One way the community of specialists creating and using advanced, non-invasive diagnostic technologies could curtail the exploitation and/or misuse of information these tools produce would be to demand that all study findings be both published and made accessible to the public at-large. What I have in mind, beside torturing grammar, is to reject the institutionalized practice of suppressing study findings that fail to endorse a given funder’s objectives. An example of what I’m referring to can be found in the work by Dr Erick Turner who has led a team of researchers investigating the extent of research bias with regard to psychopharmacotherapy. Dr. Turner has published 2 papers on this subject, one in NEJM in 2008 or ’09 and the other in PLoS within the past 12 months.

    The upshot is that “null” findings are just as important as positive findings that report on robust causal or even correlative relationships. “Null” findings, differently than truly negative findings, are crucial because they are the whetstone upon which Ockham’s Razor is kept sharp.

    I realize that publishing more facts is not in itself a panacea that will cure those intent on using their own “facts” from doing so. What I do believe can result from such proactive publication and engagement is that a new foundation for factual, truthful use of complex data is incrementally established. The immediate usefulness of this expanded body of research results data can be analogized to the use of door locks on your home, apartment of vehicle. When door locks are readily apparent and are used, crimes of convenience are largely foreclosed upon. In the research context, experts in one rarefied area of investigation may know what is both true and false in their own discipline, but may only be conversant with what is true in other disciplines – especially those that wholly unrelated.

    One area of etiological and treatment research that intersects all of the subjects raised in Maggie’s post, the articles on neurology and in my own rambling comment is the realm of ADHD research. Non-invasive diagnostic tools have an extra special allure in this field – and not only because the primary organ of study is the brain. The other factor driving patients’ and more often their care-givers to embrace medical imaging techniques is that children predominate the field as study candidates and patients of first order concern.

    I’m not suggesting that other areas of brain dysfunction or disorder aren’t of equal concern. What I am suggesting is that the sandbox that is ADHD study and treatment is fraught with anxiety, some that is organic and to be expected given the predominant demographic of the patient class (from a historical perspective). However, much of the anxiety is imported by parents who are learning how to be parents while also learning how to deal with the real and imagined challenges that an ADHD diagnosis brings into their lives.

    It is in this arena specifically that ready access to “null” results would be of great relief and enormous help. One category of “null” result that has been omitted from the calculus of treatment options presented to parents of minor patients (or to adult patients themselves) pertains to the efficacy and safety of stimulant medication use to remediate the symptoms of ADHD. Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist and ADHD researcher at UC Berkeley, and Russell Barkley have both spoken about the disservice done to the treatment community (patients and providers) by the affirmative absence of “null” result research.

  4. I think that the foregoing review of this book is slightly out of context. Ms. Wolfe experienced a physical injury that impacted her ability to experience the nuances of coitus. With just a small bit of research, anyone can find credible chemicals links to brain chemistry that affects our lives. Our cells are a mix of constantly changing chemicals and as such, whether thoughts produce chemical changes or vice-versa, we are victims of our chemistry. To deny that every human being is a unique chemical factory that is effected both positively and negatively by our unique chemical processes – then we are back to believing that our planet is the center of the universe.

    1. The point isn’t that our behaviour is not linked to chemicals in our brain, but that we know too little at the moment about those links, and they are much more complicated and obscure than Naomi Wolf makes them to be. We definitely don’t have enough evidence that would support the kind of categorical, sweeping statements she makes.

      1. fakefighter,
        I have to ask, did you read the book? Again, context is important. Perhaps I am reaching here, but if it is not acknowledged that Ms. Wolfe’s sex life was negatively affected by a spinal injury and her road to recovering “those special female responses” is also not a part of the review, then subtext has been lost. On a personal basis, Ms. Wolfe can make “sweeping” statements about what either positively or negatively affected her. Our nation operates in a pharmaceutical haze. Not only do we understand a teeny, tiny bit about how drugs affect each of us in the long run, but we also need to be cognizant that what works for Ms. Wolfe may not work for you or I. My message is short: don’t shut down discussion. Accurately portray the circumstances and then determine if the author needs to be slammed.

        1. No, actually Ms Wolf can’t reliably make such statements. If individuals were the experts on the effects of pharmaceuticals (or any) therapy on their personal health and well being, then clinical epidemiology would simply be a matter of compiling detailed interviews and generalizing from the results. But we do not live in solopsistic worlds, and individuals, while expert on how they feel/understand themselves in any given moment, are not experts on themselves in general, and others may have insights into an individual not directly available to that individual (i.e. how familiar are you visually with the back of your neck?).

          1. Lexicat,

            Your reply is counter intuitive. Many, many years ago my MD prescribed hypertensive medicine he was certain would lower my blood pressure. Instead, while I attempted to work and excel in my job, I was greatly affected by the medication and spent most of my days sleeping at my desk while my pressure soared. It took the medical community ( think over ten doctors) over twenty-five years to find the “right” drug combination. So many people rely on the knowledge of their doctors to prescribe medications that will cure them and if the cure is less than expected or makes the patient worse than before, most patient remains silent out of deference to their doctors. And exactly how and why is another, unknown individual an “expert” because of eight or more years of medical school? Sorry, I have had far too many incorrect diagnosis over the years and mostly because my physicians believed, like you, that their knowledge about my condition weighed heavier than my experience of living with a certain condition. If you don’t like what was written in the book, that is your choice but what was written could also be a help to someone else with similar physical problems. You are correct about the world not being solipsistic, but perhaps in the world of health and prescription drugs, a bit of solipsism might be an improvement in a first world country where one in five die in a clinical medical setting.

          2. in a first world country where one in five die in a clinical medical setting.

            Of course they do.  Have you noticed how when people get old they are simultaneously more likely to get sick and more likely to die?  Have you noticed that — purely coincidentally, I’m sure — sick people tend to die at higher rates than healthy people?  And that old people seem to get sick at higher rates than young people?

            It certainly is a bizarre coincidence that so many sick people would die, or that so many dead people had been sick shortly before their deaths.  What are the doctors hiding?

        2.  If she’s claiming that there’s such a thing as “special female responses” then yes, she is making a sweeping statement based on her own experiences. She is absolutely entitled to her feelings about her own experience. However, if she’s claiming that her responses are typically “female” she’s trying to speak for me, and literally billions of other women.

          As for your second response to Lexicat, intuition does not play a very large role in science (although certainly some). We’d be stuck with Newtonian physics and thinking the Earth is flat if it did.

          Furthermore, your doctor couldn’t find the proper treatment because there are limitations in medicine. It doesn’t mean experiments and science are useless. Naomi Wolf’s take isn’t an improvement.

  5. Maggie, have you read Sperm Wars yet?  It’s quite controversial and interesting.  There’s a Wikipedia writeup about it, but unfortunately it seems to be a hatchet job.

  6. fakefighter,
    Your response seems to imply that I am not aware of the limitations of medicine and the people who practice it? I related a personal experience, not a diatribe against medicine or science. I in no way denigrated medicine, or  the necessity for experimentation.   My point was to illustrate that individuals and their experiences (how one woman experiences the joys of coitus after an injury versus any other woman)  can be wildly different.

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