Monday, December 03, 2012

The Mainstreaming of Neurocriticism

Will it strengthen the field of neuroscience? Or is it hurting its image in the eyes of the public? Or both? 

Another article on the limits of neuroscience has appeared in a high-profile media outlet aimed at a general audience. In The New Yorker, NYU Psychology Professor Gary Marcus writes about What Neuroscience Really Teaches Us, and What It Doesn't. As usual, the focus is on the seductive allure of colorized brain images:

Neuroscience Fiction

Posted by
December 2, 2012

...Brain imaging, which was scarcely on the public’s radar in 1990, became the most prestigious way of understanding human mental life. The prefix “neuro” showed up everywhere: neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neuropolitics. Neuroethicists wondered about whether you could alter someone’s prison sentence based on the size of their neocortex.

And then, boom! After two decades of almost complete dominance, a few bright souls started speaking up, asking: Are all these brain studies really telling us much as we think they are? A terrific but unheralded book published last year, “Neuromania,” worried about our growing obsession with brain imaging. A second book, by Raymond Tallis, published this year, invoked the same term and made similar arguments. In the book “Out of our Heads,” the philosopher Alva Noë wrote, ”It is easy to overlook the fact that images… made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in action.” Instead, brain images are elaborate reconstructions that depend on complex mathematical assumptions that can, as one study earlier this year showed, sometimes yield slightly different results when analyzed on different types of computers.

Last week, worries like these, and those of thoughtful blogs like Neuroskeptic and The Neurocritic, finally hit the mainstream, in the form of a blunt New York Times op-ed, in which the journalist Alissa Quart declared, “I applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.”

I wrote about Quart's op-ed piece in Meet The Neuro Doubters, where I tried to strike a balance between justified criticism of flawed studies and bad press releases versus trendy overhyped trashing of 'neurobollocks' and neuroscience research in general. Professor Marcus tries to maintain this distinction as well:
Quart and the growing chorus of neuro-critics are half right: our early-twenty-first-century world truly is filled with brain porn, with sloppy reductionist thinking and an unseemly lust for neuroscientific explanations. But the right solution is not to abandon neuroscience altogether, it’s to better understand what neuroscience can and cannot tell us, and why.

The first and foremost reason why we shouldn’t simply disown neuroscience altogether is an obvious one: if we want to understand our minds, from which all of human nature springs, we must come to grips with the brain’s biology. The second is that neuroscience has already told us lot, just not the sort of things we may think it has.

Judging from reaction on social media, the position of abandoning neuroscience can be seen as a straw man, but Raymond Tallis takes his neurotrash rather seriously; so do many liberal intellectual media outlets. The danger of professional neurocriticism is that it will be used by the anti-science crowd to discredit a reductionist enterprise.

What have we learned?

In the wake of the 2009 voodoo correlations brouhaha (Vul et al., 2009), which caused some to dismiss all neuroimaging as garbage, I stated that...
...I am not a complete neuroimaging nihilist. For examples of this view, see Coltheart, 2006 and especially van Orden and Paap, 1997 (as quoted by Coltheart):
What has functional neuroimaging told us about the mind so far? Nothing, and it never will: the nature of cognition is such that this technique in principle cannot provide evidence about the nature of cognition.
So no, I am not a Jerry Fodor Functionalist. I do believe that learning about human brain function is essential to learing about "the mind," that the latter can be reduced to the former, that fMRI can have something useful to say, and (more broadly, in case any anti-psychiatry types are listening) that psychiatric disorders are indeed caused by faulty brain function. But there's still a lot about fMRI as a technique that we don't really know. The best-practice statistical procedures for analyzing functional images is obviously a contentious issue; there is no consensus at this point. Our knowledge of what the BOLD signal is measuring, exactly, is not very clear either [see the recent announcement in J. Neurosci. that "BOLD Signals Do Not Always Reflect Neural Activity."] The critics among us are not trying to trash the entire field of social neuroscience (or neuroimaging in general). Some of us are taking concrete steps to open a dialogue and improve its methodology, while others are trying to rein in runaway interpretations.

And really, cognitive neuroscience is not the only guilty party here. All sorts of scientific findings are overhyped by the media, university press releases, even scientists themselves. Why do scientists do this? Because it's very difficult to get funding these days, and positioning one's basic research in mice as leading to an imminent cure for schizophrenia or autism is de rigueur. Then when it doesn't happen the public becomes disillusioned with science and politicians lobby for cuts in research funding.

I'll leave you with this cordial Twitter debate that concisely summarizes the problem.

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At December 03, 2012 9:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't me to be rude here, but neurocritic is at least one order of magnitude deeper, better informed, and more balanced than neuroskeptic. Neurocritic does serious and obsessive research on the topic, whereas neuroskeptic is just your average blogger who HAS GOT to say something quickly for whatever reason.
The fact they are grouped together just indicates poor judgment and inability to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre.

At December 03, 2012 4:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Dear neurocritic, once again you state you believe mind can be reduced to brain and psychiatric disorders are caused by faulty brain function. This is worth a debate, don´t you think? You mention antipsychiatrists (yeah, perhaps a few remain alive) but Critical Psychiatry in UK and some psychiatrists and researchers in Brazil share a different point of view...

At December 03, 2012 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second the above comment from Unknown. For example, those ascribing to embodied notions of mind would argue that mind does not equal brain (obviously). And as far as psychiatric disease states go, I would bet they could be better characterized as brain-body systemic disease states. In both cases the brain is obviously a crucial place to look and to perhaps justifiably initially restrict analysis to. But I think it's a mistake to reduce behavioral phenomena to the brain, and doing so is part of the very problem to which critical backlash against neuroscience is responding.

At December 04, 2012 1:02 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous #1 - Uh, thank you for the compliment...

Unknown and Anonymous #2 - I have addressed these issues before, in Post-Antipsychiatry. There I did mention the Critical Psychiatry NetworkMad Studies, Cultural Psychiatry,, Critical Neuroscience, etc.

Although I am a reductionist who emphasizes biological explanations for behavior, I also believe that society, culture, environment, and personal experiences influence the mind/brain [but of course... who doesn't at this point? Kind of a false dichotomy].

And as I previously stated:

"Personally, I do not think that the act of defining mental disorders as diseases of the brain strips these illnesses of their meaning or necessarily dehumanizes treatment. ... There are humane ways of improving the functioning of perturbed brains, which of course exist in bodies, which move around in society and are shaped by cultural and other influences. These ideas are highly interdisciplinary in nature (see Appendix 1) but may not be especially practical yet in terms of everyday clinical implementation."

I'm against overly simplistic explanations (e.g., BOLD signal in a small patch of rostromedial prefrontal cortex can predict speed dating choices) and exaggerated claims, but I'm still a neuroscientist at the end of the day.

At December 04, 2012 11:03 PM, Anonymous Roger Bigod said...

Anonymouse and Unknown,

You might consider the proverb that a good blog, like a good party, requires three types of guests: Those who want to entertain. Those who want to be entertained. And filler.

Clearly you don't fit into any of these categories.

At December 05, 2012 7:04 AM, Anonymous Carlos S said...

"Here Here" to Neurocritic's comments above. I too tend to be a "reductionist", taking a more "biological view", and I often question why people think there is a difference between "nature" and "nurture", when "nurture" is such and important aspect of our biology.

However, I think that it is important for us all to realize that we are watching the beginning of a new way of looking at what exactly the mind, and indeed consciousness and free will, really are. At the beginning of any new field of intellectual inquiry, there are going to be lots of mistakes as scientists tend to throw a lot of "fishing lines" into the water, hoping to snag something. I you remember "sociobiology"? A lot of bunk has come out of that field, but there remain a few tidbits of intellectual insight that will help in the future.

This is why people like as Neurocritic play such an important role in the science itself; the strength of modern scientific inquiry is the concept of testing underlying assumptions as a means of improving understanding, not undermining the research itself. I don't always agree with the conclusions, but Neurocritic is holding the intellectual feet to the fire, so to speak. the heck do you find the time???

Personally, I am waiting for the day that neuroscience meets evolutionary genetics (my own personal field); then we're going to have a powerful tool. Sometimes I'm afraid that some neuroscientists don't really get evolutionary theory (Neurocritic aside, of course).

At December 06, 2012 11:49 AM, Blogger Peter G Levine said...

If you can plagiarize your own writing at least plagiarize it with attribution!

At December 06, 2012 1:12 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Peter G Levine - I've always been very conscientious about attribution. I'm even more sensitive to the "self-plagiarism" issue after the Jonah Lehrer debacle. I did link to prior posts in every case, so I don't understand your objection.

At December 08, 2012 4:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea of "Self-plagiarism" is a scam invented and maintained by publishers. Don't fall for it.
It is not more unethical to reuse things one wrote before than it is to wear the same shirt on more than one occasion.

At December 16, 2012 8:54 PM, Anonymous Heri said...

Dear neurocritic, once again you state you believe mind can be reduced to brain and psychiatric disorders are caused by faulty brain function. This is worth a debate, don´t you think? You mention antipsychiatrists (yeah, perhaps a few remain alive)

At December 16, 2012 9:19 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Dear Heri, once again you state exactly the same thing as Unknown (December 03, 2012 4:30 PM). I already answered your comment, don't you think?


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