Book Review: Brainwashed

By Neuroskeptic | June 18, 2013 12:59 pm

Brainwashed, by Sally Satel and Scott O Lilienfeld. Basic Books.

I wanted to dislike this book.

You see, I was suspicious of the fact that one of the authors is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an organization whose political values I oppose, and, insofar as it’s an organization with political values, has little  business going near science.

Then, when I found that the book cites me (with fellow neurobloggers Mind Hacks and Neurocritic) in the Acknowledgements and elsewhere, that actually made it worse. A sense of intellectual possessiveness joined my ideological reasons for not liking the thing.

I was hoping that it would be dreadful so that I could unleash the venom I had brewed up: “Ayn Rand, Please Get Off My Bandwagon”; “The only good bits here are the bits they stole from me” – it would have been glorious.

However, sadly, Brainwashed turned out to be good.

The book’s subtitled “The Seductive Allure of Mindless Neuroscience”, and it covers a range of examples of the modern mania about ‘the brain’.

The overselling and misinterpretation of neuroscience is everywhere, because – for some reason – we’ve convinced ourselves that the human brain, which has been working away quite steadily for 50,000 years, has suddenly become more important.

Brainwashed begins with a brief introduction to fMRI scanning (because most, though not all, neurononsense involves it) and then takes us through ‘neuromarketing’, lie detectors, addiction, and what neuroscience means for free will, the law, and moral responsibility.

These chapters outline several different ways in which, if we’re not careful, misapplied neuroscience could cause real harm – in particular, in the justice system, as well as in medicine and business.

The discussion is well-written and remarkably balanced; it doesn’t make the mistake of throwing out the baby of neuroscience with the bathwater of hype. As for the AEI, there’s no problem. This is one of the less political popular science books I can remember.

It’s 150 pages of solid content; there’s no waffle here. In fact, I wished this book were longer, and it’s not often that happens.

This however brings me onto Brainwashed‘s main flaw. The reason I wished it longer is that the whole book felt like an introduction to something… but no, it just ends.

What I was hoping for was more of a birds-eye view examination of what makes vulgarized neuroscience so attractive, and why it’s wrong to use neuroscience in the ways that it is – fundamentally.

We don’t really get that. There’s a few bits, but by and large it’s about particular cases. Brainwashed offers a pleasant and informative walk amongst the trees. But it doesn’t show us the wood.

Should you buy it? Honestly, I would recommend it for anyone who doesn’t heavily read blogs like this one. Those that do will likely be familiar with the names and ideas in here. But for new readers, or as a gift, it would be fantastic.

  • Buddy199

    There you go, an open mind is a wonderful thing. Just goes to show how much closed minded ideologues miss in life.

    • teknowh0re

      Ha! Agreed.

  • Dirk57

    I think everyone is incredibly hard on a relatively young and promising new avenue of research–fine-detailed brain imaging. Of course some of it will look stupid in retrospect. And as for “what’s all this sudden fuss about the brain,” in the last 20 years, the brain is finally getting its due, and I for one can only welcome that development. I remember what came BEFORE the current emphasis on brain function, and it wasn’t pretty.

    • Euler

      No, not everyone is hard on it and that’s a problem. You can see terrible articles in the press that interpret these scans to say things they just don’t say. They just uncritically parrot a press release. There is no rule that says we have to wait a certain amount of time to call something stupid when it is stupid, so that it will only look stupid in retrospect.

      Being critical, especially of new important developments, is very important to scientific progress. There are good and bad ways to interpret this data, and when people interpret it in a bad way, they should be called out on it.

  • teknowh0re

    Thats just it though, its NOT a blog. its a book. And IMHO, its okay for it to just be a walk through the forest.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      It’s a book, that’s my point – I like my books to be more forest than trees. But that’s a matter of taste really.

  • teknowh0re

    I agree with Dirk, that the brain is finally getting all the study and attention it has always deserved! We finally are ABLE to begin studying it in ways
    we only dreamed of before. And yes, as Dirk said, its a science still in its infancy, so, u know, give it a frickin break will ya? I personally found this article, blog, whatever you want to call it, rather pointless, sort of like the author described the book as being. Sort of….goes nowhere.

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

      Infants still need to be taught and discouraged of wrongdoing, else they grow up to become a brats and no one likes a brat.

      • teknowh0re

        I would agree, constructive criticism, or criticism, analysis, challenging of any theory or idea is how progress is made.

    • Euler

      Science doesn’t work by giving new ideas “a break”. Finding the worst flaws in research and pointing them out is how progress is made.

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  • Adam Hinz

    I haven’t read Brainwashed, beyond the prologue which is available on Amazon. However, it seems to make sense to me. I’m someone who is very interested in neuroscience–an avid student of the Feldenkrais method, and a big fan of Ramachandran and Norman Doidge. It sounds like Brainwashed is actually debunking the same thing that many good neuroscientists are debunking–that the brain is full of plasticity rather than localization. Therefore, we can’t identify X as being the part of the brain that does Y, because ultimately those areas of the brain can be remapped, and will appear differently in people who have developed different skills and abilities throughout their lives. I think the title of the book is disappointing because it sounds like a critique of neuroscience, when it appears to be truly be a critique of neuroscientists who are in pursuit of a one size fits all model of the brain.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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