Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Brainwashed: The use and misuse of neuroscience  
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld in conversation with David Brooks.

NY Times columnist David Brooks had a dualist epiphany: the brain is not the mind.
It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.

The first basic problem is that regions of the brain handle a wide variety of different tasks. As Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld explained in their compelling and highly readable book, “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” you put somebody in an fMRI machine and see that the amygdala or the insula lights up during certain activities. But the amygdala lights up during fear, happiness, novelty, anger or sexual arousal (at least in women). The insula plays a role in processing trust, insight, empathy, aversion and disbelief. So what are you really looking at?

The fact that the brain multitasks, which we've known for a long long time, now disqualifies it from being the mind? Was he brainwashed when he wrote all those earlier breathless columns about the brain, like Your Brain on Baseball, The Outsourced Brain, The Neural Buddhists and my personal favorite, The Young and The Neuro:
 ...the people who showed up at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference in Lower Manhattan last weekend were so damned young, hip and attractive.

As science writer Ed Yong quipped: "David Brooks attacks his own oeuvre but probably doesn't realise he's doing it."

The video above is from Brainwashed: The use and misuse of neuroscience, an event held on Monday evening at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. As stated in the introduction, the conversation is about:
...the uses and abuses of neuroscience and brain imaging. Sally and Scott describe their book as an anchor in this discussion to expose "MINDLESS NEUROSCIENCE" and also as a critique of the assumption that the brain is the most important level of analysis for understanding human behavior.

Brooks began by talking about himself, presenting a revisionist history of his own pop neuro cheerleading, saying that in his own writings neuroscience didn't help that much, but experimental psychology helped him a lot.
"I wrote a book a few years ago about mindless neuroscience, and it did very well, so you can explain the seductive appeal of that book."

... "I started a book that I thought was going to popularize neuroscientific findings and how it'd apply to public policy and the sort of things that apply in this world, the world we deal with here in this building [the American Enterprise Institute]."

The Positive Side of the Cognitive Neuroscience Revolution

Brooks asked each of the speakers about the bright side of brain science "before we talk about the extremism." What follows below are my notes and paraphrases of the conversation.

Lilienfeld said the field was "brainless" when he came of age in the 80s and 90s -- genetics could not possibly cause behavior.  Environmental factors were the primary causes of autism and schizophrenia. [NOTE: I found this a bit odd, since he attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, site of the famous Minnesota twin studies. But I wasn't there, so what do I know.] Ultimately, injection of neuroscience was helpful, he said.

Satel mentioned the 70s biological revolution in psyschiatry. In her fields of addiction and PTSD, she felt things were too biological. She worked with Vietnam veterans with PTSD, noting both a biological component (failure of fear extinction, adrenergic system, hypothalamus, etc.) plus a profound existential dimension -- a challenge or threat that undermined integrity -- "the meaning they attributed to it was as important as the mechanism, and they both interacted" -- we should come back to somewhere in the middle. "Not to lose the mind in the age of brain science."

Democrat Brain, Republican Brain

A bit of conservative humor was injected into this portion of the conversation. Brooks mentioned the infamous This Is Your Brain on Politics opinion piece that masqueraded as actual science. "Very good pictures, aside from the fact that one is obviously a lot larger, more crenulated." [NOTE: perhaps he meant convoluted?]

"Was that a typically accurate story? If we scanned the brains here [AEI] and the Brookings brains would we see a big difference?"

Lilienfeld: "No." Ha ha [laughter].

Satel: "Yeah, ours would be bigger." Ha ha.  She said that article ...was a bit of a fiasco  -- one of the articles that called our attention to this. Almost read as a parody. Made a mockery of fMRI.

Free Will and Addiction

This might be considered the most controversial portion of the program, since it had policy implications. Brooks called the highbrow version of determinism "nothing but neurons" (Brian Appleyard - "nothing but-ism"), where neuroscience will replace psychology. [NOTE: There is well-articulated philosophical version of this view called eliminative materialism.]  So we have no free will.

Satel (being more measured and erudite than Brooks) said there are a lot of steps in there... We're materialists, decapitation will prove it.

Which phenomena are best observed at level of the brain vs. at the level of the mind? Satel said that addiction illustrates the problem of 'neurocentrism' (neurons genes transmitters proteins) -- it's a good approach for curing Alzheimer's disease but not for dealing with addiction.  Neural underpinnings underlie addiction, sure, but if you're a clinician or a policy maker is that the best way to interact with patients or develop policies? NO, she said. Regarding those with addictions: "in some ways their situation is fundamentally voluntary - let me define that - it's not easy to throw away that meth pipe but do these brain changes make them so helpless or out of control that they can't modify their behavior in response to reason or incentive or consequences?"

Brooks asked how do we define the boundary in this case?

Satel answered that "most people do overcome their addiction" - she referred to the clinician's illusion - they see the worst patients who have comorbidities - but "most people make a choice" - life is hard - essentially it's a self-medicating enterprise. In essence, she suggested that most people quit drugs/alcohol on their own, and that it's a matter of free will. Propensities for addiction and changes in the brain due to substance abuse be damned.

Lilienfeld said that the free will vs. determinism debate will not be resolvable any time soon. Interestingly, he holds the view that neuroscience does not inform free will debate, because it still doesn't say whether there's a ghost in machine even if determinist. [NOTE: uh....] There's no question that people make decisons in everyday life -- but rarely does addiction make it impossible, he said.

Writers on addiction like Maia Szalavitz and Dirk Hanson might be interested in responding to this point of view.

The Q & A with a bunch of old white guys in the audience (and three young white guys) was about half way through the video.

There we learn that Lilienfeld is a reductionist but not an eliminative materialist. An interesting point comes up when he addresses RDoC, one that somewhat questions his reductionist credentials. He's afraid of privileging biological indices as best way of measuring a psychological system. "If you want to find out if someone's an impulsive person, you ask them 'are you an impulsive person?' or you could give them laboratory tests and brain imaging. Will the latter tests give more information that just asking them and their families? We don't know that," he said.

Brooks blurts out, "That seems ridiculous to me! If you want to take an impulsive person you flick them on the ear and see what they do."

Or perhaps you give them a microphone and a column in the New York Times and see what they do...

Satel ends the conversation by mentioning their book's contribution to general neuroliteracy and " these levels of analysis can be bridged.1 ...'s a highly dynamic system that goes back and forth, and not to get seduced by these beautiful pictures which led to our preferred title, which was 50 Shades of Grey Matter." 2

-- Scott Lilienfeld received his BA in Psychology from Cornell University in 1982 and his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1990. 

-- Sally Satel [PDF of CV] received her BS from Cornell University in 1977, her MS from the University of Chicago in 1980, and her MD from Brown University in 1984.

So that's the movie version of the book (which I have not read, other than excerpts). Neuroskeptic wrote an actual book review:
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.3

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.

As usual, the book was better than the movie.


1 Those "levels of analysis in neuroscience" figures are as old as time, so there might not be much new ground covered there. Behavior is an explicit part of many of these. It's not a new concept to cognitive scientists, either.

2 The seductive allure of 'seductive allure' has been strongly challenged (Farah & Hook, 2013).

3 I reacted the same way when I first read an excerpt of the book in Salon (Pop Neuroscience is Bunk!). I had blogged about at least 18 of the examples given in that excerpt alone, so I felt that someone else had written a book based largely on neuroblogs (mine and others).

-link to recent Brooks column via @js_simons.

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At June 19, 2013 6:35 AM, Anonymous JT said...

What Lilienfeld said about impulsivity was not the main point of this, but it bothered me a little. You might want to use a laboratory test of impulsivity because of the problems with self-report of cognitive processes (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977) that might make asking someone "How impulsive are you?" less accurate that a behavioral measure of it.

At June 19, 2013 8:14 AM, Anonymous Bjoern Brembs said...

What I wonder is: what's the seductive allure of magic?

Creations go: "oooh, I don't understand evilution, magic man done it!"

Dualists go: "oooh, I don't understand psychology, it must be magic in our heads!"

What's the neuroscience of compulsively making things up instead of doing research when confronted with phenomena we don't understand?

At June 19, 2013 10:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lilienfeld is the guy who came up with the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-- a self-report tests that, in effect, asks psychopaths if they are truly psychopaths! Seriously. I am not making this up, though I wish I were.

At June 19, 2013 10:40 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your comments, I could have easily expanded on both of your points.

JT - Exactly. Lilienfeld did mention asking families, but in cases of a major manic episode or a severe traumatic brain injury, the person may be lacking insight into their own impulsivity. And the whole point of RDoC is to study multiple levels. This includes self-report, laboratory tests, brain imaging, genetics, etc.

Bjoern - And I excluded some of my notes/comments on free will, one of which mentioned your work:

Brooks asked them to estimate how many neuroscientists are atheists, how many believe in free will:

95% do not believe in free will and 60% are atheists, acc. to Lilienfeld. Hmm.

But see Christof Koch - "However, more subtle readings of free will remain." Can also read an excerpt from his book. {Finding Free Will}

Björn Brembs - Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates.

At June 19, 2013 10:42 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Your comment came in while I was writing my earlier reply. Thanks for pointing that out.

At June 19, 2013 2:26 PM, Anonymous Bjoern Brembs said...

My longer reply will be blogged here tomorrow:

At June 19, 2013 4:52 PM, Blogger wiley said...

It seems to me that popular perceptions of the applications of systems and scienctifi disciplines to purposes of good or evil, from the F-35 to the capabilities of computer network crunching data for intelligence agencies to neuroimaging is grounded in something analogous to people snorting the corporate brochures and papers underwritten by manufacturers and getting entirely too high off of them.

At June 20, 2013 3:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paraphrasing what one person said in the NYT comments section: Mr Brooks, I challenge you to undergo a frontal lobotomy and then report back on how your mind was unaffected by it.

Hard to believe Brooks could embarrass himself more than he's done over the year with his partisan NYT pieces on politics. But he did it.

At June 24, 2013 3:56 PM, Anonymous SPR said...

There is a difference between recognizing that the mind is not IDENTICAL to the brain (or "nothing but" the brain) and being a complete Cartesian dualist. One can consistently hold the former while rejecting the latter.

At June 24, 2013 7:25 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

SPR - Sure. A NYT column and an open AEI forum might not be the best places to discuss the concept of emergent properties.

At July 02, 2013 11:53 AM, Blogger Dirk Hanson said...

Making bad choices as an addict, and getting pulled under by compulsion and cravings, doesn't mean that you must be an automaton, nor does it mean that addiction is something other than the product of disordered neurobiology. It's really quite easy to see through this problem using diabetes as the example. Those lazy diabetics--if they would just eat right and exercise properly, their symptoms would greatly diminish. But most of them don't. Why? Is it because diabetes is not a neurochemical disorder? Or consider people with Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, who can shoot their red blood cells all to hell simply by eating fava beans or taking antifungal medication. If they don't eat the beans or take the meds, they don't manifest the disease. Does that mean the disease isn't real? Everybody hates pharmacogenetic diseases because the seem to steal away volition. But when you see that as part of the disorder's pathology, it becomes enlightening.

At July 02, 2013 1:21 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Dirk - Thanks for your incisive comment. That pretty much sums it up.

At February 08, 2014 9:21 AM, Anonymous beneficii said...

I'm curious to know what you think about this commentary written by Josef Parnas, published recently in _World Psychiatry_?

At February 08, 2014 10:23 AM, Anonymous beneficii said...

Also, here is the Feb 2014 issue of _World Psychiatry_, which has a special focus on RDoC:

At February 08, 2014 10:36 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

beneficii - Thanks for the links. I hadn't seen the Parnas commentary before, but will take a look at that and the special issue of World Psychiatry.


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