Neuron Culture

Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-“. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities. Even philosophers – who should know better, being trained one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of “Exp-phi” or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages have embraced “neuro-ethics”, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classic dilemmas. Benjamin Libet’s experiments on decisions to act and the work on mirror neurons (observed directly in monkeys but only inferred, and still contested, in humans) have been ludicrously over-interpreted to demonstrate respectively that our brains call the shots (and we do not have free will) and to point to a neural basis for empathy.

Ray Tallis talks trash to neurotrash who talk too much neuro. Suggested read; good for all your neuromatter.

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

Comments

  1. #1 bsci
    November 12, 2009

    While I agree with some parts of his critique, I split with him on two key points. First he seems to think that philosophers have some special knowledge that should make them immune to using neuroscience for faulty reasoning. The types of imaging studies he mentions use a lot of complex math and methods that have absolutely no relationship to philosopher’s knowledge base. There is no reason to assume philosophers as a category of people have the ability to critically evaluate this research beyond reading the abstracts of papers.

    My bigger complaint is his push-back on neuroscience in social policy. There are many ways to go overboard on this, and he lists some good examples, but there are other concrete examples where there is a current link to social policy.

    Do we treat someone with frontal brain damage, such as fronto-temporal dementia or a focal stroke the same way as others? For example, what if they punch someone in the face? When to they lose the right to sign a contract?

    If someone with a stroke or tumor who suddenly gets regional perceptual blindness liable if they run over a pedestrian who was in their blind-spont and keep driving? Do we take away the license of anyone who has no awareness of a regional loss of vision?

    These are real social policy questions that are being grappled with and some don’t have clean answers.

  2. #2 tbell1
    November 12, 2009

    thanks for the pointer to the article. I agree that there is a lot of neuro-hype, but the author’s conclusions seem overstated to me. I think that neuroscience can inform some social policies, education being the one of most interest to me. I work in a lab dedicated to understanding neuroplasticity, and understanding the developmental time-course and plasticity profiles of brain systems underlying attention and language seems very relevant to educational policy.

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