July Walking Book Club – Brainwashed: the seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience


Neuroscience seems to offer daily insights into the very core of what it means to be human. But caution is advised.

I’m the first to admit its easy to fall into the trap of ‘pop’ neuroscience, neuro-hype, neuro-mania, or ‘mindless neuroscience’. Writing and communicating the complexities and nuances of neuroscience and the brain is hard. There is a fine line to walk between keeping things simple and engaging, and remaining skeptical and true to the science. Thankfully, I have a raft of readers and social media followers who correct me (gently or otherwise!) and remind me to keep thinking critically!

To keep myself on the neuro-straight and narrow, I thought it would be wise to finish this particular book that I first started to read when I was away camping last summer:

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld.

The premise can be summed up in the words of Satel:

By reducing human thought and behaviour to colorful images of excited neurons, neuroscientists have turned brain scans into brain scams.

A discussion with Sally Satel and Geoffrey Aguirre at Penn Center for Neuroscience & Society.

From Amazon:

What can’t neuroscience tell us about ourselves?

Since fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging—was introduced in the early 1990s, brain scans have been used to help politicians understand and manipulate voters, determine guilt in court cases, and make sense of everything from musical aptitude to romantic love.

But although brain scans and other neurotechnologies have provided groundbreaking insights into the workings of the human brain, the increasingly fashionable idea that they are the most important means of answering the enduring mysteries of psychology is misguided—and potentially dangerous.

In Brainwashed, psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring—rather than clarifying—the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities.

Brain scans, Satel and Lilienfeld show, are useful but often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system.

Each region of the brain participates in a host of experiences and interacts with other regions, so seeing one area light up on an fMRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions.

The narrow focus on the brain’s physical processes also assumes that our subjective experiences can be explained away by biology alone. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.

A provocative account of our obsession with neuroscience, Brainwashed brilliantly illuminates what contemporary neuroscience and brain imaging can and cannot tell us about ourselves, providing a much-needed reminder about the many factors that make us who we are.

What happens after I read Brainwashed?

In about two weeks time I’ll send out my newsletter with questions for you and your friends to discuss while you walk (and I’ll also put the questions here on the blog).  If you haven’t already signed up for the Your Brain Health newsletter you can sign up here.

As always, the questions will be designed to spark discussion about broader issues raised in the book, not a page-by-page analysis of the evidence!!

If you need a reminder of the philosophy behind The Walking Book Club you can read more here….

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