Battle in Print: What neuroscience cannot tell us about humanity

David Perks, 20 November 2007

The holy grail of modern neuroscience is to unravel the mechanics of consciousness and explain the machine that gives rise to the mind. The new science of the mind promises to uncover the biological basis for many aspects of the human character and potentially to know our thoughts better than we know them ourselves. Whilst such claims are not without parallel in history, the appetite for a science of the mind is stronger now than it has been since the invention of the polygraph lie detector in the early 1920s. Almost before the ink has dried on newly published research, astonishing claims are made for new techniques of reading the mind and their potential to radically alter public policy in one field or another. But is our attempt to fathom the workings of the brain a dangerous chimera that will only lead us to abandon in a real sense an idea of what it is to be human?

Mapping the mind is by no means a new idea. But with every new advance in scanning technology greater claims are made for the power of science to visualise the inner workings of the brain. The most recent technique is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). It follows a long line of such techniques, most recently positron emission topology (PET) and near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), all of which use blood flow and oxygen metabolism to measure brain activity in a living subject. The benefits of FMRI lie in its temporal and spatial resolution. It can resolve areas of the brain down to the size of a grain of rice and capture a cross-section through the brain in about two seconds. Scans ‘light up’ regions of activity in the brain. Correlations are then made between the mental processes which take place as subjects respond to different stimuli and the regions of the brain which show increased activity. As a result, neuroscientists believe they can see the regions of the brain that correspond to particular mental operations, for example, memory or emotion. We are all familiar with the now ubiquitous images of the brain showing areas light up in response to particular stimuli. For example, the fusiform face area of the brain lights up when men look at pictures of a Ferrari or a Porsche. Brain scan images are apparently a window into our innermost thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, since the development of FMRI in the early 1990s there has been a rush to invest in this technique, both in the UK and elsewhere. The Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) was opened in 1998 and is a leader in the field. Its offshoots include Neurosense, a company focusing on the link between mind and behaviour in market research. As it says on its website (www.neurosense.com):

Because so much of our thought occurs in the unconscious, traditional research methods that mine the surface are likely to miss many of the factors that influence consumer behaviour. Bridging the gap between mind and behaviour is thus one of the key challenges that face marketers today. Cognitive neuroscience now offers us a means to bridge that gap.

The enthusiasm for FMRI has been, if anything, even more dramatic in the US. Another company with links to FMRIB called No Lie MRI started up in San Diego, and claims that its technology ‘represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!’ It is based on an idea put forward by Daniel Langleben, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, that ‘intentional deception’ could be ‘anatomically localized’ by FMRI scanning. Joel Huizenga, who set up No Lie MRI based on Langleben’s work, is currently trying to get his technique admitted as evidence in court.

But it is not just on the fringes of research that we find the influence of modern neuroscience. Education policy is now heavily underwritten by ideas of neuroscience. In 1999, the Centre for Education Research and Innovation, which is part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), set up the Brain and Learning project, bringing together specialists from across the industrialised world. The project culminated in 2006 with the publication of Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science. Its seven years of work aimed to ‘encourage collaboration between learning sciences and brain research on the one hand, and researchers and policy makers on the other hand’.

The consequence of this project is to embed ideas from neuroscience and the role of the brain in learning into the core of national educational policies. In the context of the continuing relative decline in educational standards in the major Western economies, policy makers have turned to neuroscience to shore up their approaches to education.

On both sides of the Atlantic, major universities have made the link between the science of the mind and education a priority. In the US, Harvard University runs the Mind, Brain and Education program (MBE), whilst in the UK, Cambridge University hosts the Neuroscience and Psychology in Education Academic Group (NPEAG). These initiatives are directed at influencing day-to-day practice in the classroom. As the NPEAG put in on their website the part of the aim of the group is ‘to provide information about neuroscience to teachers and educators’. In fact, most teacher training courses on offer in the UK make some reference to ideas influenced by neuroscience, for example, learning styles, multiple intelligences or emotional intelligence. As the OECD report suggests: ‘Neuroimaging potentially offers a powerful additional mechanism on which to identify individuals learning characteristics and base personalisation’ (OECD: 18).

Couched in these terms, the drive to introduce personalised learning into British schools seems to have a firm basis in modern neuroscience. But there lies the rub. The enthusiasm for the science seems to be more fervent in policy circles than it is amongst the academic community.

Even a cursory glance at reviews of the field shows that neuroscience poses more questions than it answers. The Economist‘s review in 2006, although enthusiastic about the potential of neuroscience, is blunt about the long way the science has to go to make good on its claims. Current theories about the biological basis of consciousness certainly give pause for thought. According to Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, the process within the brain which leads a subject to carry out a simple act occurs 0.3 seconds before the mind is conscious of it. In other words, we observe what our brain has already decided to do rather than consciously deciding upon a course of action. The far reaching implication is that ‘free will’ is simply an illusion, a trick our brain plays on us. As the Economist puts it, although Libet’s work is ‘almost laughably simple, it pokes a stick in a very deep pond’ (Economist 2006).

Unsurprisingly, the nature of these claims has given some commentators pause for thought. There is now a growing literature revisiting the question at the heart of neuroscience: does brain equal mind? In a survey of current thinking published in Scientific American Mind in 2005, David Dobbs picks up on the penchant for researchers to throw FMRI scans around, claiming everything from unlocking why consumers buy Coca-Cola even though they prefer the taste of Pepsi to providing legislators with the ultimate lie detector. Dobbs manages to present a much vaguer picture of the success of brain imaging techniques. As one FMRI researcher put it, ‘Hemodynamic response is a sloppy thing’. Despite the claims made for FMRI it can only resolve areas of the brain containing thousands or even millions of neurons and at a time scale around one thousand times slower than that at which neurons fire. Even the most exciting studies have only been based on samples of 20 or so subjects and in circumstances in which the slightest movement of the individual being scanned can invalidate the procedure. Even an enthusiast would have to admit this is an immature science at best.

William Uttal, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, argues that many of the cognitive functions under study in FMRI work are so abstract and vague that they denote little more than a conceptual nervous system. His favourite target is the so-called ‘central executive’ function. According to psychiatrists and neurologists, the executive function exists in a network of regions in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated cortex. The executive function is meant to organise thoughts and give people the ability to plan and carry out their resolutions. But as a culprit in FMRI investigations, this region comes up again and again almost as if it is permanently switched on. In other words, labelling cognitive functions with associated parts of the brain is pretty much a naming game. It tells us nothing about what is happening in the brain - only that an arbitrary structure is being imposed on our limited knowledge of brain activity. In essence, Uttal’s critique implies that modern neuroscience is no better than nineteenth century phrenology, which tried to infer personality traits from bumps on a person’s skull.

Perhaps Uttal is stretching the point in comparing modern neuroscience to phrenology.  Even so, as a reviewer of his work pointed out in Nature, he is correct insofar as ‘many of the problems of functional localization that Uttal outlines are real enough, but he offers no new ways of solving them and no convincing arguments that some other approach would resolve them’ (Marshall 2001).

Nor as Margaret Talbot explains in her brilliant essay ‘Duped’, is the art of lying about to capitulate to the new science of the mind - despite claims to the contrary. Having herself been on the sharp end of one of the most infamous scams in journalistic history, she has some personal experience of trying to detect deception. Stephen Glass wrote for The New Republic during the period of Talbot’s editorship. It was only an accidental cross-checking of one of his stories that revealed he had made it all up, along with 27 other articles the magazine had to disavow. As she elegantly explains, ‘it is hard to imagine that all these lies will bear the identical neural signature. In their degrees of sophistication and detail, their moral weight, their emotional valence, lies are as varied as the people who tell them’ (New Yorker 2007).

Talbot’s dismissal of the promise of FMRI to provide the ultimate lie detector revisits Dobb’s criticism of the research to date. Almost more damning is her comparison of FMRI with the polygraph lie detector test. Both have at best a 90 per cent chance of success. But the polygraph lie detector test has been inadmissible in US courts since 1988. So why is there such an interest in the possible use of FMRI in lie detection?

The recent history of education reform in the UK holds a clue to the appetite for seemingly fragile neuroscience amongst policy circles. One of the most overused phrases in education is ‘multiple intelligences’ theory (MI). Developed by Howard Gardner in his book Frames of Mind in 1983, it replaces the concept of general intelligence with multiple intelligences each based on independent biological potentialities or aptitudes. MI is a neat trick for avoiding the consequences of the measuring stick of intelligence - an individual’s intelligence quotient (IQ). According to Gardner, a person’s intelligence can only be measured in its own terms, making IQ an inappropriate measure of, for example, an individual’s kinaesthetic intelligence which can only be measured kinaesthetically. His theory was founded on a concept called ‘the modularity of mind’ developed by Jerry Fodor in an essay he published in 1983. His idea was based on computer modelling in the field of artificial intelligence. But the trouble with theories of the mind is they are notoriously short-lived. By 2000, Fodor had already published a refutation of his own work attacking the overuse of modularity in explanations of the mind (Fodor 2007). This somewhat undermines the scientific basis for Gardner’s theory (Perks 2004). Nonetheless, it was just about this time during which Gardner’s idea really caught on in the UK.

It was with the election of New Labour in 1997 that Gardner’s ideas became all the rage in educational circles. Promoted by Demos, the British think-tank, Gardner’s ideas quickly found their way into mainstream education. Now it is all too common to hear teachers discuss their pupils in terms of their kinaesthetic or musical abilities in much the same way Gardner described. This is the case even though few within the field of neuroscience would consider his ideas robust enough to stand up to scrutiny.

An explanation can be found in New Labour’s avowed rejection of ideology. Public policy under Blair was to be based on purely pragmatic considerations. Policy must be ‘fit for purpose’ and ‘evidence-based’. In the absence of any ideological justification for their policies, science became an attractive rationale informing policy reform. Calling on the weight of scientific proof to explain policy decisions gives credence to policy that was once supplied by political rhetoric. The demand for scientific credibility for policy decisions comes from the need for legitimacy rather than the veracity of a given scientific theory. This explains why the rush to introduce policy on the back of what amounts to very sketchy scientific evidence seems to have a momentum all of its own. It is noticeable that the drive to bring in evidence-based policy reform has accelerated during the tenure of this government. The further the government has distanced itself from political discussion of policy decisions, the more it has drawn on scientific explanations for its actions.

But ‘evidence-based’ policy is a blunt instrument. It holds scant regard for debate, demanding instead the creation of a scientific consensus around an issue in order that policy be fully accepted. The demand for ‘evidence-based’ policy on the part of government is a demand to curtail debate and resist any challenge to its authority to dictate policy. If neuroscience really does threaten our freedom it is not going to be the threat it poses to explain away ‘free will’, but rather its use to deny debate about emerging social policy to which it is far too closely linked.

Author

David Perks has taught in state schools for over 20 years and is a passionate defender of academic science education. His critique of the new school science curriculum published in What is science education for? provoked the front page headline in The Times - ‘Science elite rejects new GCSE as “fit for the pub”’. David writes more broadly on education and the relationship between science and society. His interests range from environmentalism to intelligent design. David originated the Institute of Ideas and Pfizer Debating Matters sixth form debating competition

References

Burne, J. (27.11.2003). ‘A probe inside the mind of the shopper’. Financial Times.

Dobbs, D. (2005). ‘Fact or phrenology’. Scientific American Mind. 16(1): 24-31.

Economist (23.12.2006). ‘I think therefore I am, I think’. The Economist.

Fodor, J. (2000). The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Marshall, J.C. (2001). ‘Bumps on the brain’. Nature 414: 151-52.

OECD (22.6.2007). ‘Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science’. Organisation For Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Perks, D. (2004). ‘The shattered mirror’ in D. Hayes (ed.) The Routledge Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Education. London, Routledge.

Talbot, M. (2.7.2007). ‘Duped: Can brain scans uncover the truth?’ The New Yorker.

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