Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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Recently I’ve been reading “Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,” by Sally Satel and Scott O. Litienfeld. The book gives neuroscience its due while recognizing its limitations. It’s a judicious critique, attempting to save neuroscience from wildly exaggerated promises and claims.

Today I watched the video on “Athene’s Theory of Everything” and thought of this book. The video appears as an example of “neuroscience gone wild.” I won’t attempt to comment on the entire video but only on a brief segment. Here’s a typical sampling of the narrative:

“We now know that a purely scientific view, with no attachment to our identity or “story” yields a far more accurate, meaningful and ethical paradigm than our anecdotal values.

“This is logical, since our traditional tendency to define ourselves as imaginary, individualistic constants neutrally wires the brain toward dysfunctional cognitive processes, such as compulsive labeling and the psychological need to impose expectations.

 “Practical labeling underpins all forms of interaction in our daily lives. By psychologically labeling the self as internal and the environment as external, we constrain our neurochemical processes and experience a deluded dysfunction.”

OK, so what’s wrong with this picture?

First, the narrator of the video is an impersonal computer-voice that presumes to speak with the sober and flat intonation of scientific omniscience, with a monotonous electronic sound-wall playing in the background.

Second, the narrator claims that we now have a purely scientific view, with no attachment to our identity or “story.” And yet it is impossible to deny the fact that the impersonal neuroscience narrative is itself a story, and even that it assumes an “identity”, that is, the impersonal presumed scientific omniscience of the computer-voice narrator. At the same time it is implying that one can transcend identity altogether through a knowledge of neuroscience.

Third, it is assumed that the so-called scientific view, with no attachment to our identity or “story” will result in a far more accurate, meaningful and ethical paradigm than our anecdotal values. It is not clear what is meant by anecdotal values. However, we can say that there are those who live in small parochial worlds and those who inhabit large, inclusive worlds, and that both employ “anecdotes” from life experience as a way to illustrate their meanings and values. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with anecdotal language. Anecdotes, similies, metaphors and analogies are the stock-in-trade of literature and of everyday life. Scientists and philosophers also use them but are frequently unaware that they are doing so.  There are banal anecdotes and analogies, just as there are profound ones, but the assumption of the video is that “neuroscience” (as interpreted by the narrator) has FINALLY given us higher, better and more true language of pure objective rational and empirical science. This is scientism at work, subordinating other languages of human discourse to its own authoritative finality.

Fourth, the impersonal scientistic narrator says this distortion via anecdotes is logical, “since our traditional tendency to define ourselves as imaginary, individualistic constants neutrally wires the brain toward dysfunctional cognitive processes, such as compulsive labeling and the psychological need to impose expectations.”

Here the word “traditional” is used in a depreciatory manner, implying ignorant, primitive, delusional, misinformed, and uninformed by neuroscience. It is assumed that the “traditional” person tends to define himself (in his imaginative delusion) as in an “individual”, and that this differentiation of the individual self from his environment necessarily results in dysfunctional cognitive functioning. Certainly there are those persons whose movement toward differentiating themselves from the collective may take a dysfunction form, but to make a blanket statement can only sound like irrational dogma to those who value and respect the hard work of cultivating a highly  differentiated and nuanced identity.

Is it the assumption of the computer-voice narrator that he, alas, is in possession of “a view form nowhere,” scientifically established as beyond the limitations of personal identity and social context? (See a brilliant critique of this dogma in “The View from Nowhere,” by Thomas Nagel.) Both the inter-subjective perspective of a particular person inside the world and the search for an objective non-personal view of the world need to be given their due without either side oppressing, demonizing or eclipsing the other.

Our  narrator is concerned about “compulsive labeling and the psychological need to impose expectations.” But it does not logically follow that because one develops an individualized sense of selt that this will lead to compulsive labeling. And is not our mechanical-voice narrator himself engaging in a bit of compulsive labeling when he claims that all persons (not merely some obsessive types) who perceive (or falsely imagine) themselves to be “individuals” must necessarily be prone to compulsive labeling and to imposing expectations? It is an integral element of our shared humanity to have memories and experiences, and to have future expectations and  anticipations that are based upon these memories and experiences. The pivotal word here seems to be imposing, but one can have expectations and anticipations without imposing them harshly or willfully on others. Moreover, is it not an extraordinary thing to claim that our normal neurological wiring of the brain is “toward cognitive dysfunction,” that we are all cognitive damaged and distorted by our illusions of identity and story…except of course for the self-anointed “neurologist god” who has finally seen through this illusion and returned to tell us that we are all quite mad.

Fifth, our computer-voice narrator tells us that “practical labeling underpins all forms of interaction in our daily lives.” The assumption again is is all “labeling” is a bad thing. But isn’t even the science of classification and taxonoly a form of labeling?  He tell us, “By psychologically labeling the self as internal and the environment as external, we constrain our neurochemical processes and experience a deluded dysfunction.” Here the narrator has pejoratively labeled certain kinds of persons as being guilty of “deluded dysfunction.” And what kind of persons would they be? They are persons who “label the self as internal and the environment as external.” Such persons are “guilty of deluded dysfunction by definition.” Wow! By that definition who is not guilty of deluded dysfunction, except the “neuroscience elect” who make no distinction between the self and the environment. Lucky them!

Of course one does not need to believe that the internal self and the external environment do not mutually interact with and influence each other. Of course they do. We are all influenced by our environment, and we in turn influence our environment. But to “label” as “delusionally dysfunctional” all those who label (or better recognize) the self as internal and the environment is external is an absurdity at best. Certainly there are those who have not cultivated much sense of an interior reflective and reflexive self,  just as there are those who pay almost no attention to their external natural and social environment, but to collapse these two seems an unnecessary and unhealthy move.

All of these wild assertions are predicated on the assumption that the computer-voice with its Theory of Everything is speaking not from a particularly ideological perspective (which is reductive scientism), but as the latest discovery of the new secular god of “neuroscience” which will, among other things, free us from the problems of identity, stories, labeling and expectations. It promises to grant us “a far more accurate, meaningful and ethical paradigm than our anecdotal (story-telling) values.” But is it not truly astonishing that the computer-voice narrator with his impersonal, mechanistic, electro-chemical worldview does not recognize that he himself is telling a story, if not a very human, empathic, coherent or convincing one.

 

 

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