The End of Neuro-Nonsense

Is the age of mindless brain research already over?

Medical MRI Image Showing Brain and Skull

Medical MRI Image Showing Brain and Skull

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Brain-bashing, once an idle pastime of the science commentariat, went mainstream in June. At the beginning of the month, Slate contributor Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld published Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, a well-informed attack on the extravagances of “neurocentrist” thought. We’re living in dangerous era, they warn in the book’s introduction. “Naïve media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.” In the United Kingdom, the neuro-gadfly Raymond Tallis—whose own attack on popular brain science, Aping Mankind, came out in 2011—added to the early-summer beat-down, complaining in the Observer that “studies that locate irreducibly social phenomena … in the function or dysfunction of bits of our brains are conceptually misconceived.”

By mid-June, these sharp rebukes made their way into the mind of David Brooks, a long-time dabbler in neural data who proposed not long ago that “brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” Brooks read Brainwashed and became a convert to its cause: “From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by [neuroscience] and sometimes go off to extremes,” he wrote in a recent column with the headline “Beyond the Brain.” Then he gave the following advice: “The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.”

His final point, that the brain is not the mind—and therefore maybe not so relevant to daily life—has provoked a fierce response in recent weeks. The fact that certain studies of the brain have been overhyped or poorly done has little bearing on the value of the field, say scientists whose work has been maligned. Nor does it in any way imply a central flaw in the project to understand the mind by looking at the brain. Satel and Lilienfeld agree: The principles of neuroscience can be applied to every form of subjective experience, they argue in Brainwashed, and even fMRI brain scans—the brightly colored icons of the neuro-priesthood they so abhor—have a useful role to play in biomedicine.

But in the ruckus of this back-and-forth, and the backlash to a backlash, I think the neuro-critics missed something important: The “time of mindless neuroscience,” as Satel and Lilienfeld describe it, is already over. In the past few years, the brain has lost its influence; fMRI hucksters are on the run. I don’t mean to say that neuroscientists have given up—their field of study is as vibrant as it’s ever been, and it still exerts a massive influence on research funding. (President Obama recently announced a $100 million project to map the brain’s connections.) But as a cultural force—one capable of duping journalists and making money for “slick neuroentrepreneurs”—the brain is almost cooked.

I’ll even name the year when the public turned its back on neuro-hype: The woo commenced its quick decline in 2008. That was its inflection point, its production peak, the moment when pictures of the brain were tapped for all the easy headlines, strip-mined for credulous investors, and otherwise sucked dry of whatever dopey data they could provide. Five years ago the pop-neuroscience project began to wither.

Such things are hard to measure, of course, but I think there’s circumstantial backup for my claim. In Brainwashed, for example, many of the key examples of mindless neuroscience come from 2008 (or before). Chapter 1, on the fallibility of brain imaging, starts with an article from ’08 by Jeffrey Goldberg, for which he traveled to Los Angeles to find out how his cortex might respond to pictures of Jimmy Carter and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s a useful study in the practice and promotion of witless pseudoneuroscience, but at the time, Goldberg’s case was not unique: That election season saw a rush of like-minded (and like-mindless) political neuro-coverage. Brain-based marketing firms placed their spurious analyses of presidential candidates and potential voters in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and many other outlets; the neuropundits were running wild. But a lot has changed since then. Four years later, during the 2012 election, these sorts of stories were nowhere to be seen. At some point in Obama’s first White House term, interest in these political brain scans evaporated.

Chapter 2 of Brainwashed begins with another scene from 2008—the publication of the best-selling pop-neuroscience book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Satel and Lilienfeld describe its author, Martin Lindstrom, as a leading member of “an upstart generation of Mad Men known as neuromarketers.” But attempts to revolutionize the field of market research through the use of brain-imaging techniques haven’t gained much traction in the past 10 years. Though the marketing giant Nielsen purchased one of the neuromarketing startups in 2011, the industry at large has been (rightfully) suspicious of the concept. In January 2012 the industry-funded Advertising Research Foundation released a careful and quite critical assessment of the field. “What our investigation made very, very clear,” an ARF executive told me, “is that there is a gap between the science and the application and marketing.”

Last year the president of one neuromarketing firm told me that the business concept hadn’t really taken off. “It’s a tough sell,” he said. “I think that people are still reluctant to try it.” Another CEO mentioned that his company had abandoned the term neuromarketing altogether and rebranded its services as consumer neuroscience. Since the publication of Buyology, Lindstrom and his colleagues simply haven’t had much impact.

As for neuro-best-sellers, those too have been on the wane since 2008. I went through the archives of the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover books going back to 2001 and counted up the number of entries that included a mention of the word brain in either the title or the description. Eighty entries met my criteria, including those for Buyology, David Eagleman’s Incognito, Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, and Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. The results are shown below.

The neuro-self-help genre may be in winter, too. Jonah Lehrer, the reigning master of that category (and author of the Frontal Cortex blog) published his first two books, Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, in 2007 and 2009. In the years since then, he has more or less renounced the brain. “I write here about many scientific studies, but these are not studies of temporary chemistry or cortical folds,” he declared in the proposal for his newest work, on the science of love (which sold to Simon & Schuster in early June in spite of his professional disgrace). “It’s not enough to simply describe the hormones of Romeo, or the fMRI results of Juliet. These scientific results are interesting, but mostly because of what they cannot explain, of all the reality they leave out.”

2008 may also have been the high point for critical neuroscience blogging. The excellent Neuroskeptic wrote his first posts that autumn, in the darkest moments of the neurobabble epidemic. Another sharp-eyed blogger, the Neurocritic, started up in 2006—and as of several weeks ago, he’s built a brand-new persona “designed to counter gratuitous anti-neuroscience sentiment.” He calls this one the Neurocomplimenter. Meanwhile, my favorite neuroscience watchdog—the James S. McDonnell Foundation’s Neuro-Journalism Mill, dedicated to “separating the wheat from the chaff in neurojournalism reporting”—saw fit to shut its doors in October 2009.

If I’m right that “peak neuro” has already come and gone, then the recent rash of brain science-bashing may be beside the point. Other, trendy modes of explanation have already started to emerge, with a brand-new set of jargon phrases—epigenetics, anyone?—that carry out their own dangerous seductions.