Thursday, 15 September 2011

Are we in danger of going neuro nuts?

The Neuro Revolution by Zach Lynch (with Brian Laursen) gives a great overview of all the fields where neuroscience is, or is about to, have an impact. And from the obvious (like medicine) to the unexpected (like theology) neuroscience seems to be everywhere.

Aside from 'neuro revolution", Lynch names, among other things, neuroeconomics, neurofinance, neuroenablement, neuroenhancement, neuroesthetics, neuroethics, neurolaw, neuromarketing, neurospirituality and neuroentertainment.

It's enough to send anyone neuronuts!

Lynch writes with an enthusiasm that borders on evangelism, and sometimes, I think, lets his enthusiasm get the better of him. There were a couple of times while reading the book that I picked up some errors in research, and some glossing over of important points. (But maybe I'm just jealous - the only real difference between Lynch and me is that he's got the money and contacts to support his neuro-obsession and I don't...okay, there are probably other differences, but I digress.)

No book is perfect, including this one, but that doesn't take away from the incredible range of once totally unrelated fields that neuroscience is now involved in, and Lynch does a great job of giving some insight into where each of these fields might be heading.

Which makes me wonder, are we heading into a period of 'brain worship'? By that I mean, is western culture (in particular) heading towards a place where the filter of neuroscience is layered over everything? A couple of interesting research papers that I've read for my PhD research come to mind.

In 2008 Weisberg et al published an article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that showed including “...irrelevant neuroscience in an explanation of psychological phenomena may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of [the] explanation.”. Both general public and first year neuroscience students were swayed by the irrelevant neuroscientific facts. Similarly, a study by Simon Cohn on the meanings attached to brain scans by psychiatric patients, published in 2008, found that many patients:

"...tend to assume, irrespective of the complex technical processes, that [the scan] is a straightforward picture of inside their head: ‘I think it’s weird  – to think that’s me inside [and] that those colours show what I’m thinking.’"

It's human to want to know as much about the mystery of ourselves as we can. The ability to look inside the human brain in more or less real time appears to offer us the answers to the secrets locked up inside ourselves, and this is a powerful attraction. However, just as a brain scan is not a picture but rather a complicated composite of algorithms, of educated guesses and data excluded or highlighted, the allure of neuroscience and the answers it appears to offer us is no simple thing.

Lynch writes in his conclusion, "Like the gigantic shifts of humanity's past, our emerging neurosociety is a wildcard. It holds enormous, seemingly equal promise for inducing an age of bliss or a living nightmare." I agree, and I think one of the big dangers may be people being too keen to look to the human brain for all the answers.

The human brain is incredibly complex. Life is even more complex. And we're kidding ourselves if we think all the answers to life's problems can be served up to us on a nice, neat neuroscientific platter.