Brainwashed: Neuroscience vs neurobollocks

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience is a smart and sometimes devastating critique of "neurobollocks" — the propensity for using brain-science (and, particularly, brain imaging) to reductively explain human motivation. The authors, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, are a psychiatrist and a psychologist (respectively) and so it's hard not to suspect that there's a little professional rivalry at play here, but they present a compelling argument nonetheless — a picture of promising science oversold in the name of winning grants, winning court cases, and, at the worst, duping the gullible.

Brainwashed is broken into five brisk sections that each address a different critique of "neurocentrism," or the belief that there is something special about the brain (and especially the brain scan) that trumps virtually every other account of human behavior. The authors open up with a scathing indictment of "neuromarketing," whose practitioners distort and manipulate the literature on brain imaging, getting rich off of gullible clients who are seduced by the idea of a scientific method for "pushing the brain's Buy Now button." This is complemented by a later chapter on the use of neurological imaging for lie-detection, another extremely profitable field based on shaky science. This later chapter is also interesting in the questions it raises about the nuance of falsehood, by way of illustrating the difference between successfully identifying the "induced falsehood" of a lab subject and determining whether an accused adulterer or murderer is spinning lies.

Also immediate and practical are the chapters on addiction and criminal culpability. On addiction, the authors show how neurocentric views of addiction ("I'm not a crack addict, my brain is") rests on a nonsense theory of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that has become War on Drugs dogma, and which, therefore, produces proscriptions that add little to the practical business of helping people who struggle with painful drug problems. On the subject of neuroscience and guilt, the authors introduce the nuanced and chewy idea of human agency and free will, and the larger social purpose of a justice system. This discussion is accompanied by a philosophical argument about the need for "retributive justice" (punishment) as a means of creating legitimacy in the justice system, presented as an argument against the idea of treating crime as a neurological disease. This was, for me, the book's weakest argument, and reflective of the political agenda of the American Enterprise Institute, a libertarian thinktank where Sally Satel is Resident Scholar.

The book ends with a wider philosophical inquiry into what neuroscience can tell us about free will — not much, in the authors' view, especially not much that hasn't already been captured by centuries of philosophical debate. But this closing chapter is also a good summary of the overall message of the book: that we are irrationally swayed by brain imaging, imputing to it a precision and informative value that far exceeds the present state of the science — a science that is extremely promising and fascinating, but which is routinely oversold.

At 150 pages (with 50 pages of dense end-notes), this book is a brisk read, but a good one — and, I would argue, an important one.

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience