This is the abstract for one of the two talks that I gave last week in Búzios, Brazil for the SBNeC conference: “Why Is It So Hard To Think About The Brain?” The talk didn’t end up following this plan exactly, but all of the ideas are here. I had an incredible time at SBNeC and learned much; I’d like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to be there, especially Olavo Amaral and Patricia Bado.
“Why Is It So Hard To Think About The Brain?”
Today, we are thinking – and talking – about the brain more than ever before. It is widely said that neuroscience has much to teach psychiatry, cognitive science, economics, and others. Practical applications of brain science are proposed in the fields of politics, law enforcement and education. The brain is everywhere.
This “Neuro Turn” has, however, not always been accompanied by a critical attitude. We ought to be skeptical of any claims regarding the brain because it remains a mystery – we fundamentally do not understand how it works. Yet much neuro-discourse seems to make the assumption that the brain is almost a solved problem already.
For example, media stories about neuroscience commonly contain simplistic misunderstandings – such as the tendency to over-interpret neural activation patterns as practical guides to human behavior. For instance, recently we have heard claims that because fMRI finds differences in the brain activity of some violent offenders, this means that their criminal tendencies are innate and unchangeable – with clear implications for rehabilitation.
Neuroscientists are well aware of the faults in lay discourse about the brain – and are increasingly challenging them e.g. on social media. Unfortunately, the same misunderstandings also exist within neuroscience itself. For example, I argue, much of cognitive neuroscience is actually based on (or, only makes sense given the assumption that) the popular misunderstanding that brain activity has a psychological ‘meaning’.
In fact, we just do not know what a given difference in brain activity means, in the vast majority of cases. Thus, many research studies based on finding differences in fMRI activity maps across groups or across conditions, are not really helping us to understand the brain at all – but only providing us with a canvas to project our misunderstandings onto it.
Why do these errors arise? I see the origin of these misunderstandings as being a fundamental difficulty that we have in thinking about “the brain”. We are misled by an implicit mind-brain dualism that leads us astray. The problem is not so much that is difficult to find answers about the brain, but rather that it is easy to ask the wrong questions.
What can neuroscientists do? There are solutions. Neuroscience should be based on clear, falsifiable hypotheses that seek to explain, rather than merely describe, neural and behavioral phenomena. The process of framing testable hypotheses helps us to escape from the misunderstandings. Much of neuroscience already does this, but not enough.
As for the public and the media, it is important to remember that misunderstandings of neuroscience can have serious consequences, both directly and indirectly. Generally these errors consist in seeing brain science as more certain than it is, and giving it more authority than it should do in real life scenarios. This lends undeserved power and influence to ideas (e.g. political ideas) that wouldn’t otherwise seem convincing. Public discourse this moves away from rationality towards the appearance of rationality.
In conclusion, both neuroscientists and the public are subject to the same misunderstandings when trying to think about the brain. Neuroscience can advance when it is based more on formal hypothesis testing and less on intuition and interpretation. But the latter approach is common. And in the public sphere it can be dangerous.