Monday, April 23, 2012

Rebuttal to "The Brain on Fiction" article

I had posted an article about neuroscience and fiction previously. http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=5630711609871539058#editor/target=post;postID=730063957582045987Here's a rebuttal of that original article; a broad criticism. The author of The Pseudoscience of Neuroscience in the Media, says that her problem is "the flippant use of neuroscience as it is bandied about in our popular consciousness by the media." She coins the phrase "neuro-pop crowd" and adds, "While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this neuro-pop mania is particularly dangerous, it’s misleading." 

Although I hadn't given it a thought when I read the original article, this rebuttal made sense. Neuroscience, well translated into practical information and how-tos is most relevant for clinical diagnosis and treatment and/or learning about thinking, emotions, behavior, and their interactions — not for the arts and humanities. It was fun to see both articles by good writers, smart women, making good points, but in strong disagreement.



The Pseudoscience of Neuroscience in the Media

The New York Times and many other respected, well-known newspapers seem to have an unending love affair with the fMRI machine and what it can supposedly tell us about who we are. In the past two weeks alone, we were blessed with the following gems—“The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” and “The Brain on Love,” both of which try to explain complex human phenomena, like the pleasure of reading or the feeling of being in love, using brain scans. Now don’t get me wrong. Neuroscience is indeed a fascinating field that has and will help tremendously in discovering how the brain works and the reasons which cause it to malfunction. The brain has historically been a mystery to scientists, so to knock neuroscience as a legitimate field is not at all what I’m trying to do.
Most of these “Your Brain on X” or “The Neuroscience of X” articles use the same exact formula—they talk about a study using brain scans, and then they triumphantly conclude that a subjective experience is “real” because parts of the brain light up on the scan. For example, an article will suggest that because the region of your brain that processes pleasure lights up with activity when you eat something fattening, it means that –wait for it—fatty foods really are pleasurable!

Another common thread among the neuro-pop crowd is the mixing of often irreconcilable disciplines to come to some sort of higher truth about both disciplines. Almost no humanistic field of study has escaped the scourge of someone or another trying to explain the field in terms of firing neurons. There’s neuroeconomics, neuro-literary criticism, even neuro-aesthetics. While conciliense—the attempt to unify different bodies of knowledge—can yield interesting results, it’s only possible if the two different fields ask similar questions. Neuroscience and literary criticism do not have the same aims. Raymond Tallis most engagingly criticized this in his article “A Suicidal Tendency in the Humanitiies”:
A mode of literary studies that addresses the most complex and rich of human discourses, not with an attention that aims to reflect or at least respect that complexity and richness, but with a simplifying discourse whose elements are blobs of the brain (and usually the same blobs), wheeled out time after time is the kind of contempt that, along with the mobilization of other disciplines half-digested, in this case bad biology rather than bad philosophy and worse linguistics that we saw in Theory. If literary criticism is to serve any worthwhile function, it won’t be concerned with putative mechanisms of grotesquely reduced and traduced neuralised reader responses or Darwinised authorial motives but with helping readers to make sense of, and put into larger context, a work that repays careful attention.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this neuro-pop mania is particularly dangerous, it’s misleading. It incorrectly reduces both the human self and the field of neuroscience to something simple and easily digested in a 500 word newspaper article. In a world saturated in skin-deep media, this is not what the public needs.

What do you think about neuroscience in the media?
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