The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

We believe that the fMRI can help us explain everything subjective. The problem is that brain imaging cannot explain everything — at least not yet.


No doubt you’ve seen the clickbait: this is your brain on love. This is your brain on happiness.

Clicking through leads you to a series of pictures that purport to explain why, for example, we choose Coke over Pepsi.

Once relegated to the speciality of neuroscientists and neurologists, the brain has now become mainstream. Never before has brain science captured the attention of the masses. The prime reason behind this is called the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), something that has barely been around long enough to hold a driver’s license. The fMRI, for those wondering, measures brain activity and converts it into some pretty vibrant images.

As I was reading Brainwashed, a book by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, it struck me that while we’re advancing, knowledge turns over pretty quickly when it comes to the brain.

What we think we know, doesn’t always turn out to be so. The book’s goal is to bring perspective to the speculations surrounding the promise of neuroscience.

“With its implied promise of decoding the brain,” they write, “it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will. The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet.”

Why are we so fascinated with the fMRI machine?

Well the brain is a pretty big mystery, containing upwards of 80 billion cells, or neurons, each of which can communicated with thousands (millions?) of other neurons. The three pound lump in our heads has more connections than anything we can imagine. Anything that offers the promise of looking inside and telling us how we come about our subjective judgments is sure to capture our imagination and attention.

Now we add pictures. Of all our senses, vision is the most developed. But just because you can see something doesn’t make it true but we have a bias for what psychologists and philosophers call naive realism.

This misplaced faith in the trustworthiness of our perceptions is the wellspring of two of history’s most famously misguided theories: that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. For thousands of years, people trusted their raw impressions of the heavens.

Despite our best intentions it’s pretty difficult to look at something firing in a certain spot in the brain and draw certain conclusions. Neruoimaging, after-all, barely has a drivers license.

In such a fledgling enterprise, the half-life of facts can be especially brief. To regard research findings as settled wisdom is folly, especially when they emanate from a technology whose implications are still poorly understood. As any good scientist knows, there will always be questions to hone, theories to refine, and techniques to perfect. Nonetheless, scientific humility can readily give way to exuberance. When it does, the media often seem to have a ringside seat at the spectacle.

Brainwashed takes aim at pop neuroscience “because these studies garner a disproportionate amount of media coverage and shape public perception of what brain imaging can tell us.”

“Problems arise,” they write, “when we ascribe too much importance to the brain-based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones.”

Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis. The key to this approach is recognizing that some levels of explanation are more informative for certain purposes than others.

Advances in knowledge of how the brain works makes us think we understand the underlying mechanics of ourselves. At best, however, this seductive illusion of understanding is only partial.

The neurobiological domain is one of brains and physical causes, the mechanisms behind our thoughts and emotions. The psychological domain, the realm of the mind, is one of people — their desires, intentions, ideals, and anxieties. Both are essential to a full understanding of why we act as we do and to the alleviation of human suffering. The brain and the mind are different frameworks for explaining experience. And the distinction between them is hardly an academic matter; it bears crucial implications for how we think about human nature, personal responsibility, and more action.