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In defence of brains


  • Social brain

The backlash against what Ray Tallis calls ‘neuromania’ is in full swing. As well as Tallis (you can download my recent debate with him from the RSA website) there is, for example, a pretty damning critique of David Brooks' book, The Social Animal in a recent New York Review. Indeed on the same topic I recently endured what must be the worst argument I have ever had as an adult with my father. I am sure there were diners sitting on the other side of the restaurant who heard him slam the table and exclaim furiously ‘my appreciation of art has got sod all to do with bloody neural pathways!’.

Later this week I begin recording a new three part Radio 4 series on the brain and society (modest fee to the RSA and a plug for us too). So I will have these various critiques of neurobollocks (another Tallis neologism) and scientific reductionism ringing in my ears.

In the Tallis debate I happily accepted some of Ray’s points. I do think the mind is more than the brain. I agree that non-scientists can become over-enamoured with sometimes very speculative bits of science and jump to huge and unwarranted conclusions about the self and society. For me, the most valuable aspect of current explosion of interest and research in brains and behaviour is when reflection, everyday observation, science and social science are put together to help to deepen our interest in an issue.

Here’s an example that I have been pondering over in the last few weeks. One of my sons combines great intelligence, teenage moodiness and slight tendency to pessimism. When he is down he has the ability to develop an explanation for his mood, usually one which involves the failings of his loved ones or adults in authority. On holiday in Spain recently I found myself warning him against the danger of rationalising. Sometimes, I argued a mood just comes over us. If it is negative the best thing may simply be to try to dismiss it rather than look for a cause to which to attach it.

I’m not sure my argument made much impression, but as is so often the case (and in keeping with the argument), it is only when you find yourself saying something that you start thinking seriously about whether it’s true.

My tentative view is this; very often our moods are the result of either physiological or ephemeral events: on the one hand, we are tired, we are going down with something, we have suffered a minor allergic reaction; on the other, we are affected by a forgotten overnight dream, an unconscious association with the past, a connection between thoughts which occurs without us being fully aware of it.

But, as science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, ‘man is rationalising animal not a rational one’. So when a mood comes over us we naturally look for a rational explanation, a tendency enhanced by the reflexive way modern people think of themselves in the world.  Finding a rational cause for our emotions has the upside of suggesting a way to intervene to restore our equanimity. The downside is that we may make the ephemeral substantive and take decisions on the basis of false attribution. It also means that the messages we receive can be very powerful. As we swing gently from contentment to discontentment, there are plenty of advertisers out there offering us erroneous explanations based on whether we have, or have not, bought certain products recently.

If this view is correct it suggests that people like my son and me, who have a tendency to over rationalise, could adopt two contrasting strategies in the face of mood shifts. First, and foremost, don’t assume they mean anything, or at least anything to which we can usefully respond. Second, if they are strong feelings or they persist, think more deeply about what has set off the mood; don’t assume the obvious, explore a range of explanations from the physical to the subconscious (by the time you've gone through all the possibilities your mood will probably have sorted itself out).

I am not suggesting this is an original idea. Philosophers, novelists and poets have all explored the elusive basis of emotions much more elegantly than me, but, the idea that most moods start off with non-conscious processes and that that we subsequently attach them to ‘causes’ of which are conscious could be explored through – among other things - observations of behaviour and mapping neurological processes. As a research question it has some similarities with the controversy set off by Benjamin Libet’s classic research on what comes first the action or the decision to act.

This post only scratches at the surface of a complex issue and a huge and well-rehearsed debate. I guess my point, as I embark on the radio series, is that good science and social science does not have to reduce the big issues to simple ones but offers us new angles from which to ponder some of the eternal questions (the kind of questions we often ask ourselves) about why we act as we do and how we might live better.

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