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.