QA 32. Apr 2012. Confessions of a neuro-skeptic

In an interesting recent article, “The Brain on Love”, Diane Ackerman discusses some findings of “interpersonal neurobiology”, an offshoot of neuropsychology, which uses brain-imaging technologies to explore the relationship between behaviour, emotion and brain function. According to Ackerman, it is driven by “one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us.”

Bestselling books have popularised several aspects of this neuro research. One is Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, which shows that top achievers in various fields have all –– he could find no exception – spent at least 10 000 hours in purposeful practice. The myth of natural talent gives way to evidence of a neural framework built through sustained effort.

My husband loved Bounce. After forty years of teaching experience grounded in the belief that success comes from self-discipline, confidence and good work habits – not inborn talent – he exclaimed, “I always believed it, but I didn’t know it was true!” He believed it from a combination of faith and experience; it was true because it had been researched.

In other accounts of “neuroplasticity”, persons with permanent brain damage regain lost skills as other parts of the brain learn to take over those functions. The brain’s topical division of labour is not as fixed as was once thought. (In her article, Ackerman describes how she helped her husband recover from a devastating stroke with loving care and hard work.)

She also describes a study that made use of electric shocks, handholding and brain scans to demonstrate that people in long-term supportive relationships exhibit less fear and anxiety in painful situations. UCLA’s Daniel J. Siegel tells us that “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom… point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.”

So there you have it. What we pay attention to shapes us. We thrive in loving relationships. This is news? A great discovery of our era? Really? All that’s new is the technology that lets us observe “the brain on love”.

What does it mean that we need empirical, objective, real-time images of the brain to confirm for us the significance of attention and love? Why are we so gratified by scientific validation of what we should already know by heart? Do we trust ourselves so little? More to the point: why am I so viscerally annoyed by the very idea of “interpersonal neurobiology”?

I think I’m offended by the idea that love’s evidence should be observed objectively and impersonally in controlled experiments (especially involving electroshock). And I’m nervous of the mad-scientist dreams that could be fuelled by their findings.

Of course our dealings with each other are manifested physiologically but, just as surely, what is meaningful about them is immeasurable and unobservable. Maybe we want science to give us proof because living with and for each other is such risky business. But isn’t that how it works? The very lack of guarantee calls forth our courage, brings us to life. Our relatedness may be tracked through neural pathways – but it moves by leaps of faith.

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