Our Brains Are Not Us: Review of Brainwashed

Scrub your mind clean
Scrub your mind clean
My nomination for Worst Use of Inference in a Scientific Paper (2009) is “The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief” by brain scientist cum philosopher Sam Harris and colleagues. It is a circus of manipulation, hire-wire extrapolations, a midway of rigged scientific-sounding games, and a glittering sideshow lined with colorful lights.

The lights were from a functional magnetic imaging device, or fMRI, an instrument which Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist) in their terrific Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience compare to an automated phrenological machine, a contrivance which when placed in proximity to the skull is purported to reveal all secrets, desires, motivations; even to expose lies and to prove that we are nothing but wet meat machines, mere automatons.

In his three-ring work, atheist Harris puzzled over why anybody would be something as strange as a Christian. Until he hit on the idea that they didn’t have a choice. Their brains made them. The brains of believers and non-believers must be different! He set out to prove this, and by failing to distinguish between kinds of Christians and unbelievers, biased use of stimuli, and by treating believers unbelievers differently within the experiment, his fMRI “confirmed” what he hoped would be true. This delighted the press, which is always seeking to serve up sexy-sounding science which aligns with its conceits.

And there is nothing sexier than brains. Besides the granddaddy neuroscience, reporters are drawing upon the newborn bustling press-releasing fields of neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurophilosophy, and neurotheology; and there’s surely more neurothises and neurothats on the way.

We have learned plenty that is true about the brain, but with the increasing availability and falling prices of gee-whiz instruments and the stampede of researchers into all things brain, we have also “discovered” much that is false. Satel and Lilienfeld caution that “Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy” where “the half-life of facts can be especially brief.” Yet experiments are tripping out of labs, all caution forgotten in the desire to be there first.

A good reason for circumspection is that brain research is usually conducted on the WEIRD; or Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, the label Joseph Henrich and colleagues in a 2010 Nature article gave to the college students who form the bulk of experimental subjects (in many fields). Henrich warned that American college kids aren’t representative of the world’s population and that conclusions gleaned from studies will be accordingly over-certain.

Studies also rely on those colorful brain scans which are not, as many think, “photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look ‘in’ the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actual representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli” or when they go off script and wonder why they volunteered to be squeezed into a claustrophobia-inducing tube and told to lie as “still as a corpse” for over an hour.

This distinction is important because there is no (non-circular) way to check if a person is thinking what he is told, thus it’s only a possibility that the heavy oxygen-using regions are directed toward the specified experimental tasks. The best that can be said is the areas which glow brightly are correlated with the emotional states said to be under investigation—never minding that emotions are difficult to define, extraordinarily complex things. Is the “hate” center of the brain found in one experiment that same “hate” found in another experiment?

And then even the non-glowing regions of the brain seethe with activity. Satel and Lilienfeld quip, “The only truly silent brain is a dead brain.” They recount the now infamous experiment in which Craig Bennett and pals loaded a dead salmon (sushi grade) into an fMRI machine and asked it a series of personal questions. Yes. Behold, “a tiny area in the salmon’s brain flared to life in response to the task.” How? Because those beguiling glows are not pictures of the brain, they are the output of an immensely complex statistical model, one which is capable of falsely crying “Success!” Even worse, the already-manipulated fMRI outputs are further massaged and modeled, perhaps several times as in Harris’s work, before the experiment ends. The uncertainty present in each level of analysis is never carried forward, with the result that conclusions are stated with unwarranted confidence.

These limitations would never be guessed from the glittering prose which touts fMRIs as marketing tools, lie detectors, and identifiers of “brain disease.” Incidentally, the chapter on the science and politics of addiction as “disease” is worth the price of the book alone.

Now it gets strange. Many researchers are curiously anxious to turn fMRIs into exculpation engines. When somebody done somebody wrong, it’s not because they chose sin, it’s because (say) their amygdalae were on the fritz. The amygdala are the pair of pistachio-sized beads smack in the medial temporal lobes of the brain, and there is nothing evil an amygdala cannot do. They have been blamed for men not understanding women, why the brains of conservatives differ from whatever it is progressives carry in their noggins, racism (naturally), that women can spot snakes faster right before they menstruate, why scarier faces are scarier than non-scary faces, and on and on. Withered amygdalae are a sure sign of lack of control and reduced judgmental powers.

So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that I had no choice but to write this review. Maybe my amygdalae are over-sized. I didn’t want to write this—I’d rather be out for a walk—but my brain made me do it. Just as yours is making you read these words. Blame my brain for the bad jokes, too, and yours for not laughing at them. Turns out that we’re nothing but slaves to our our brains, the creatures.

Or so say folks like neurolawyers (my term) David Eagleman and Jerry Coyne, Hard Determinists and the Scrooges of neuroscience. (Recall Ebeneezer speculated that Marley was only a vision produced by “a fragment of an underdone potato.”) Hard determinists claim there is no free will, that there is no I in me, that we are nothing but perambulating bundles of chemicals following predetermined courses of action, that everything is guided by immutable, unwilled laws of physics.

Eagleman and Coyne believe that if only people knew they had no choice in their actions, then they would make better choices and thus society would be improved. Yes. They’re especially keen that criminals don’t get their comeuppance because, Coyne says, it is a “false notion that people can choose to do wrong.” They would keep punishment but jettison “retributive justice” which is “scientifically mistaken” and instead embrace “utilitarian punishment.” Makes a difference if the hangman scowls and says, “Take that you despicable rat!” or smiles and says, “It wasn’t really your fault, but we all have our roles to play” as he pulls the lever.

But hold on. If a crook was forced by rogue neurons to murder then isn’t the judge who sentences him to death obeying the irrefragable dictates of his own brain? Neurolaw accounts depressingly are one-sided: it’s the guilty who aren’t guilty and the not-guilty, society and victims, who are really at fault. Where have we heard this before?

Satel and Lilienfeld aren’t buying it. “The question whether humans can live in a material world and yet be morally responsible is not empirically testable. It is not a scientific problem.” And thus not one which can be solved by neuroscience no matter the precision of brain scans.

But you should buy it: the book I mean.

Update The End of Neuro-Nonsense: Is the age of mindless brain research already over?


  1. Scotian

    Are you sure that your position is supported by this book? What is your position, by the way? We’ve only gotten jokes.

    Looking at your Amazon link I note two comments. The first from Steven Pinker, who I greatly admire after reading his blank slate book, gives a nuanced opinion. Quote:

    “Neuroscience is an exhilarating frontier of knowledge, but many of its champions have gotten carried away. This book shows how attempts to explain the human condition by pointing to crude blotches of brain activity may be superficially appealing but are ultimately unsatisfying. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld are not dualists, romantics, mystics, or luddites. Their case for understanding the mind at multiple levels of analysis will resonate with thoughtful psychologists and biologists, and they make that case lucidly, expertly, and entertainingly. Anyone who is interested in the brain—and who isn’t?—will be enlightened by this lively yet judicious critique.”

    In the past you have suggested that books should be judged by the more critical of the Amazon consumer reviewers. How about this one?

    “I am a neuroscientist in this very field. This book is trivial. There is a highly selective presentation of data.”

    Cheers 🙂

  2. Ye Olde Statistician

    Eagleman and Coyne believe that if only people knew they had no choice in their actions, then they would make better choices and thus society would be improved.

    That’s the part that always astonishes me. Dawkins made the same elementary error in logic in his Blind Watchmaker book, where it was the genes (or “memes”) in general, rather than the brains in particular, that were the responsible agents. This reflexive avoidance of You-Know-Who leads people to deny all sorts of obvious things. I am especially intrigued by people who are determined to convince me that they really don’t exist.

  3. Scotian

    Briggs, can you show me where the following statement was made.

    “Eagleman and Coyne believe that if only people knew they had no choice in their actions, then they would make better choices and thus society would be improved.”

    I read the Jerry Coyne linked article. It is very good and not at all as you suggest.


    Both the above and the Steven Pinker link discussed make a point about the use of the term scientism that is very close to what I have said many times in the past.


    My admiration grows leaps and bounds.

  4. Briggs


    Your reading list is too limited. The views of Eagleman and Coyne are in fact very well known. S&L discuss them in the later part of their book (you have it with you?).

    I suggest Ed Feser for the views on scientism. Particularly this. Scroll down for the relevant authors.

  5. Scotian


    “Your reading list is too limited.”: I’m reading as fast as I can! 🙂

    The S&L book just came out and so I haven’t read it yet. I would like to as I have read earlier book(s) by Satel.

    Feser is a little too trite for me. I have read earlier articles of his that you have linked to.

  6. Ken

    The summary for the study basically says: Religious people react to statements about their faith using brain regions associated with emotion, etc. while thinking about ordinary facts other brain regions are used–those associated with memory retrieval networks.

    It’s not like anybody needed a MRI to realize that.

    Here’s the quote from the paper at the link:

    “We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure signal changes in the brains of thirty subjects—fifteen committed Christians and fifteen nonbelievers—as they evaluated the truth and falsity of religious and nonreligious propositions. For both groups, and in both categories of stimuli, belief (judgments of “true” vs judgments of “false”) was associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area important for self-representation [3], [4], [5], [6], emotional associations [7], reward [8], [9], [10], and goal-driven behavior [11]. This region showed greater signal whether subjects believed statements about God, the Virgin Birth, etc. or statements about ordinary facts. A comparison of both stimulus categories suggests that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation, and cognitive conflict, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks.”

  7. Ye Olde Statistician

    IOW, concepts of God have deeper emotional meaning than “ordinary facts” (whatever those were). Who’d’ve thought it. What about extra-ordinary facts, like “your mother contracted cancer” or “your pet dog was run over by a car” or even “broiled haddock in butter sauce is delicious.” Those are far more likely to have an emotional resonance than “the sky is blue” or “cheese is made from milk.”
    + + +
    At the Pinker link, he makes the usual error of ascribing “scientism” to “creationists” before going on to display the usual scientism. However, the critique of scientism actually stems from such luminaries as Wittgenstein, Feyerabend, Hayek, and Midgley, who saw it as an attack in the age-old war between Science and Humanism. Feyerabend and Midgley are atheists. Hayek was an agnostic. Atheist blogger Aaron Darrishaw recognizes that scientism threatens to distort science into pseudoscience by pressing it into molds in which it doesn’t fit. Atheist Alex Rosenberg, for example, proudly proudly espouses scientism by name, as does chemist Peter Atkins.
    It helps that Pinker defines “scientism” far too broadly and confuses it with “scientists.” (Not all scientists fall into scientism.) Or that he defines “science” as anyone using reason and evidence, which would make police detectives, building contractors, and Thomas Aquinas into scientists.
    Further comments here: Ismism.

  8. Scotian


    I carefully reread the Pinker article and I just do not see what you see in it. I even did a google search for the word “creationists”. It does not appear to be there. Also what usual scientism does he show?

    Also using google search I can not see where he defined science as anyone using reason and evidence.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    Eek. Good catch. That was Jerry Coyne, through which the Pinker was accessed. Thank you. Pinker’s scientism is a bit more understated. He is a psychologist, not a physicist or a chemist, and the author of the statistically-challened Better Angels…

  10. Scotian


    Thanks for the acknowledgment. I haven’t read Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our nature”, only reviews, but I gather that there are a few problems with it. We can’t be right all the time, but we’ve been no worse than anyone else, or better if it comes to that. A quotation from Scrooge, from memory.

    I found Jacques Barzun’s definition of scientism interesting. He mostly uses it in reference to the humanities mistakenly adopting the methods of science and that this has led to its downfall. This is quite different than the usual use of the term to put scientists in their place. Pinker may not agree with either use, but I found it interesting.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    Scientism is not limited to, nor primarily found among, scientists. One finds its most virulent forms among science fanboys. Some scientists happen to be science fanboys, too. It is always a temptation to the practitioner of any art to see that art as the be-all and end-all. “If it was nae for the weavers, wha’ would ye do?” And physics-envy is found among biologists no less than among sociologists and their ilk. But the success of the natural sciences — actually of engineering — has given physics and chemistry a cloak-of-glory that leads biologists and other soft “sciences” to believe in the omnicompetence of their methods. That’s why any historians or artists or writers reading Pinker’s article would be startled by what he believes are the “important” contributions of natural sciences to their fields. It reminds me of something Deming once said about a professional manager: “He knew everything there was to know about the business except what was important.”

    Midgley has something to say about scientism in Science as Salvation.

    Creationists also got all hepped up over Eldrege and Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium.” That didn’t mean there was no punctuated equilibrium.

    (PS. I noted in an earlier comment that hyperlinks don’t seem to embed here. Or else I was doing them wrong. Pfui.)

  12. Briggs


    Yikes! You’re having problems with the HTML? What exactly? I’ll fix.

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    How does one take a text like Ismism and embed a link in it to an essay of that title? I used:
    (open caret)ahref=”url”(close)text(open)(slash)a(close caret)
    which did the trick elsewhere. Italics and bold are not a problem.

  14. Scotian


    Although I agree with you that it is, in principle, possible to arrive at a definition of scientism that is useful, in practice I agree with Pinker when he says: “The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine.” Much the same can be said of your use of the term “fanboy”. I think that a clearer, better defined word or words should be used. But this will not happen since obscurantism is the current trend in the humanities.

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