David Brooks uses neuroscience to criticize Al Gore’s latest book:
[Gore’s argument] grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.
The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience.*
Without emotions like fear, the “logical” mind can’t reach conclusions. On the other hand, many of the most vicious, genocidal acts are committed by people who are emotionally numb, not passionately out of control.
Brooks is right about the science – reason often depends upon feeling - but I think he doesn’t fully grasp the nature of Gore’s argument in The Assault on Reason. The main thrust of Gore’s book concerns the ways in which our public sphere has been corrupted by irrationality. Policy debates have been reduced to pithy soundbites. Fear is used to sell war. The media fixates on Paris Hilton. Etc, etc, etc.
Given this degraded public sphere, it’s largely irrelevant how, exactly, our brain makes decisions and forms beliefs. If the inputs are crap, then so are the outputs. It doesn’t matter whether we are rational agents or amygdala-driven beasts: unless our brain is provided with accurate sources of information, we are destined to make bad choices. If we are repeatedly told that Al-Qaeda and Iraq are linked by the Vice-President, then we’ll eventually come to believe that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are linked. So it’s not particularly insightful to criticize Gore’s view of human nature (a view which happens to be endorsed by most economists), since Gore really isn’t talking about human nature. The thrust of Gore’s critique is sociological, not neurological.
*I find it amusing that Brooks, who likes to talk about oxytocin as the chemical source of all human attachments, would suddenly start criticizing others for scientific oversimplification.