Thursday, September 13, 2012

Brain Porn (!?)

Came across this interesting (and quite funny) article in THE NEW STATESMAN today.
It's about the proliferation of brain science - or shall I say, pseudoscience - in the past five years or so. U.S. authors like Malcolm Gladwell and the recently dethroned king of accessible neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, have led the trend. But many others from the U.K. as well as the U.S. have jumped on some sort of bandwagon. The bookstore shelves are full of them, and I'm sure many are soon to be published.
Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist (and you can be, too!)

I have to say that I'm glad people are publishing articles and books about one of the most fascinating things in the universe, the human brain. (For one thing, I hope to turn this blog into a book one day, and I have another [smaller] book in the planning stages.)
However, I am alarmed that, like many fashions that pop up overnight like mushrooms after a rain, this one could be easy-come, easy-go. Once people catch wind of the insubstantiality of most claims, they will lose interest and move on to something else - something less solid underneath. After all, neuroscience on its own isn't exactly snakeoil, it's a perfectly respectable study of a highly challenging subject, with plenty of legitimate results. The trouble is, many of these so-called science writers don't bother to weed out the flimsy findings (that may sound wonderful) from the well-supported ones.
I like how this writer describes how neuro-everything is spreading throughout popular culture, largely due to the use of brain imagery, or "scans."
In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.
 I wish someone would pay me to read a pile of these books (without the scan, thank you) and do a compare-and-contrast for a magazine - after I check some of each book's central thesis with a trusted source, of course.
I'm all for caveat emptor: but how would the average consumer ride out this latest tsunami of fashionable cure-alls?