Taking the neurotrash out

Neuroscientist Raymond Tallis has a barn-storming and somewhat bad tempered article in The New Humanist where he rails against the increasing tendency to explain everything from beauty to crime in terms of brain function.

He begins by criticising how neuroscience is now appearing as a handy ‘neuro-‘ prefix to more and more areas of human society, leading to the likes of “neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology” and so on.

This is probably the bad tempered bit. While he makes an excellent point about the over-enthusiastic interpretation over brain activity in relation to these concepts, I don’t have a problem with people researching these areas, even if they do it in a rather vague and cursory way.

This, after all, is the typical pattern of most new areas of scientific investigation. It’s the tried and tested ‘flailing around in the dark and wild theory making’ stage that we will all look back on and laugh at in a century’s time.

It’s quite a necessary stage though, and only 20 years ago, many mainstream scientists would have regarded the neuroscience of consciousness in the same way.

Tallis seems to criticise all attempts to reduce complex social and cultural interactions to biology, but not all are equal in their conceptual distance from the more fundamental functions of the brain.

Who would have guessed that recognising faces would be one of the more specialised brain functions and most closely tied to a specific area whereas universal disorders like psychosis are not? It’s only through studying these things do we know the how well we can relate them to specific patterns or circuits.

Because of this, the ‘patchy reductionism’ approach, where we assume some mental and social concepts will just be more easily tied to clear neurobiological functions than others, is becoming widely accepted in applied areas of medicine such as psychiatry.

Tallis’ subsequent point is right on the mark though: theory and speculation on these matters are being increasingly touted as a basis for legal and public decision making, and indeed, being increasingly offered as a commercial service.

We are not at a stage where even our most detailed of neuroscience theories could be used as a basis for general social rules and it is doubtful they will be in the majority of cases because they attempt to describe human behaviour at a different level of explanation.

It’s like someone trying to create employment laws for actors based on the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and the equivalent is becoming common in discussions of neuroscience.

Tallis is always worth listening to and this is one of the most critical pieces on neuroscience you’re likely to read in a while.

Link to ‘Neurotrash’ article.

2 Comments

  1. Posted November 12, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your general view of Tallis’ article: He’s got some good criticisms, but applies them a little too widely.
    But I have a different slant. I think he is spot on with his criticisms of work on consciousness but shoots too far in drawing conclusions about work on ethics. Work that Hauser has done on the biology of ethics seems to me very worthwhile but I have never understood what we’re supposed to learn from the neuroscience of consciousness.
    In the case of consciousness, we don’t even know what we’re looking for and on some theories of what consciousness amounts to (like Dennett’s), any search for it is probably doomed.

  2. Posted November 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    It all sounds much too “Big Brotherish” for me.


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