Cover of Can neuroscience change our minds

Steven and Hilary Rose debunk the ideologically loaded claims of reductionist neuroscience in a short but clear book, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh


Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Can Neuroscience Change our Minds, (Polity Press 2016), vii, 170pp.

Neuroscience is fashionable science. It has spawned numerous neuro disciplines, from neuroeconomics to neuromarketing, and dominates academic writing to the extent that just one publisher, the Oxford University Press, lists 1,200 neuro books among its titles. On one level it might seem perverse to object to this; while neuro soft drinks, advertised as a way of improving brain function, may be a little ridiculous, surely greater understanding of how our brains work could only be beneficial? The problem, as the Roses point out in this brief but incisive book, is that the neuroscience project is an ideological one, used by governments to ‘shape social and environmental policy, targeting the deprived and the unemployed … while offering the prospect of rational neuroscience-based education to enhance and optimize the brains of the young’ (p.10).

In this respect, it is similar to the previously fashionable sociobiology. Sociobiology, rebranded as evolutionary psychology in the 1990s, holds that individuals are simply vehicles for ‘selfish genes’, interested only in reproducing themselves. Human nature therefore means that communal, co-operative societies are a myth; societies are only ever made up of individuals competing against each other to ensure the survival and spread of their genes. Humans are naturally and irreversibly ‘hierarchical, individualistic, competitive and patriarchal’ (p.9). If this sounds suspiciously redolent of Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ dictum, there’s a reason for that. Evolutionary psychology was both the creation of the neoliberal world view and an important theoretical underpinning of the argument that there is no alternative to free-market capitalism.

Like evolutionary psychology, neuroscience is a reductionist discipline; as Francis Crick, one of the founders of neuroscience put it in the 1990s, ‘you are nothing but a bunch of neurons’ (p.18). The implication here is that if you can understand how the brain functions, you can understand everything you need to know about human behaviour. This immediately removes any understanding of humans as a social species and reflects, as evolutionary psychology also did, neo-liberalism’s focus on the individual and denial of the collective. For neuroscience, ‘each neuro-self [is] responsible for their own well-being, sustained through promises of personalized medical care’ (p.10).

The popularisation of the neuroscientific idea that we can be reduced to the working of our individual brains, can be seen in the way that many media treatments of neuroscience have a tendency to elevate brain images to the level of absolute truth. Brain imaging techniques such as fMRI scans have proved popular with media reports of neuroscientific studies, so pictures of brains with different areas lit up have become a familiar accompaniment to articles about different sorts of brain functions, from ethical decisions to maths problems.

In fact, the usefulness of fMRI for understanding how people work is limited: far from being snapshots of brains working, the images are produced using a number of assumptions and statistical models which are themselves questionable, and the speed and resolution they use are actually insufficient to capture the minute but significant changes in brain workings. We should also be suspicious of claims by some proponents of brain imaging that it is possible to find specific areas in the brain for things like career choice or moral values. These are socially constructed, arising from the realities of our societies, not from the structure of our brains. Such attempts to see the social as biologically determined may give us indications of the ideological direction of much neuroscience, but as science they are dubious at best.

The examples given by the Roses show that neuro language is often used to give an air of scientific legitimacy and complexity to official pronouncements which would otherwise be exposed as either wrong or banal. They quote for example neuroscientist Vincent Walsh, commenting on a 2007 OECD report on the importance of understanding ‘the scientific basis of the learning process’ for educational policy. The conclusions of the report included the pronouncement that ‘Education is a powerful form of cognitive enhancement’, to which Vincent Walsh responded, ‘Education IS cognitive enhancement. “Education is a powerful form of … er … education”’ (p.126).

The same OECD report however also revealed the ideological uses to which neuroscience can be put. It is important here to understand the difference between the neuroscientific view of the brain and a Marxist materialist one. The absolute opposite of neuroscientific view would be dualist; the Cartesian view that the mind and the body are separate and that we are ghosts in the machine, with our conscious selves living within our brains but separate from them. Marx on the other hand emphasised the importance of our material reality, our experience, in shaping our consciousness.

The work of Marxist biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Lewis and indeed Steven Rose, demonstrates how this materialist approach provides a framework for studying the human brain and the human mind. Part of this is to understand that the effects of social processes on humans happen to the brain, because there is no disembodied consciousness outside the brain for them to happen to. Thus if, for example, the stress of living on a low income makes it more difficult for people to make long-term financial plans, that effect is happening physically to the brain (even though the issues with fMRI scans means we are unlikely to be able to see it). The cause is social and economic but the effect is physical, because we are physical beings.

This matters because an underlying, if often unspoken assumption of neuroscience is that what happens in the brain starts in the brain. If brain function is seen to be impaired, or just not working in the right way for a rational consumer under capitalism, then the fault must lie with the owner of the brain. A biological effect in the brain is not considered as having a possible social cause. The concomitant solution also must come from the individual, not from society: the brain owner should be able, through hard work and correct ideology, to improve their brain function, but the only economic and social processes to be considered are the ones which would help them do this.

Another of the OECD report’s conclusions was that ‘there are individual differences in learning ability with a basis in the brain’; in other words, that children are only disadvantaged because of their brain function, not because of the deprivation or oppression to which they and their families may be subject. This demonstrates the neuroscientific thinking which holds that individuals, by their own efforts, should be able to overcome the effects of poverty; if they don’t do so, the implication is clearly that there is something lacking in them, not in their circumstances.

It is in this context that we should see the UK government’s moves to change the definition of poverty, arising from the 2015 Tory manifesto, in which the root causes of poverty were held to be not low wages and unemployment but ‘entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency’ (p.70). In other words, poverty is the result of brain functions which make some people more likely to be lazy and addicted, not a product of government policies which benefit the 1%.

The advantage to the Tory government of a science which blames poor people for their own poverty is obvious. It is also clear that in sectors such as education, the popularity of neuroscience has given rise to successful markets, such as the ‘booming brain-optimization market’, including the peddlers of everything from Ritalin to the benefits of playing Mozart to foetuses (p.112). As often with market-driven fads, the development of educational theory based on neuroscience is, the Roses note, particularly top-down: teachers are informed about what would make their students learn better, often by academics or business people with little personal expertise in education, rather than engaged in a collaborative way to use their experience as part of developing recommendations.

It is also remarkable how little evidential basis many of the new neuro-inspired classroom orthodoxies have. Take for example Spaced Learning, a project where a forty-five-minute lesson is divided into three ten-minute sessions, interspersed with ‘distraction breaks.’ The first and second sessions repeat each other while the third gives the students some relevant activity. The neuroscientific basis for this is that memories are supposedly more efficiently retained by the brain if given in spaced bursts with gaps in between, rather than continuously over a longer period. The research that established this, however, was performed on fruit flies. The work showing that the way that fruit flies learn to avoid electric shocks can tell us anything important about how children learn GCSE biology is yet to be done, and the assumption of some neuroscience would seem to be that it is inevitable. After all, whether it is in drosophila or homo sapiens, a brain is a brain.

Neuroscience, like other reductionist dogmas before it, gives government, media and academics scientific respectability when they want to ignore what we know to be true: that children’s opportunities for education are greatly diminished if they are cold, hungry, anxious, poorly housed and see no hopeful future. It is much easier to blame poor people for their own situation if you have science backing up your contention that they are only poor because they have not tried hard enough. It is similarly handy for the party of the rich to have a scientific basis for the belief that the wealthy are wealthy because they deserve it.

This is a short book but it is an important corrective to the rise of neuroscientific ideas, and to the neoliberal ideology that spawned them. Neuroscience purports to interpret for us the human condition, but ironically, misses one of the most important facets of humanity, that we are social. Reducing us to our brains, like reducing us to our genes, ignores that salient fact, that we are more than our neurons; we are not and do not have to be a collection of competing individuals. Human societies develop as societies, neither as vehicles for selfish genes nor selfish synapses. It is an inconvenient fact for the proponents of neoliberalism but, as works like this show, the real science is on our side, not theirs.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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