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.”

Brain MRI 141752 rgbc CE

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.

5 thoughts on “QA 32. Apr 2012. Confessions of a neuro-skeptic”

  1. funny that you post this now as i have spent a lot of time researching all this new brain stuff and the truth is that, although some of it is indeed revolutionary, it is also highly debated. one neuroscientist will publish a book on something another will dispute with equal amount of fervour and research. as you mention it is interesting is how it backs up some rather old stuff we new all along.

  2. As an enthusiastic follower of the latest developments in neuroscience, I find you negativity about the physiological correlates of love a form of nitpicking. You mention some of the positive aspects of neuroplasticity but choose to make fun of the knowledge of brain changes that take place with love.
    This knowledge is not designed for the person who knows and understands his feelings. However, such information can be valuable for those who have, because of stress and adverse life situations, lost the ability to be in touch with their own feelings. As the physiological correlates of stress, and learning and love can now be observed by brain imaging, this technology is useful in training people to bring their unconsious emotions under the control of consciousness.

    1. I take your point that this research can be useful. It’s certainly very interesting – which I did acknowledge. My skepticism is not negativity or nitpicking; it’s an inclination to question what it all means. (Is it mocking? Only to the extent that we might hope that our humanness can be reduced to empirical science, and that this would be a good thing.) My question was why we are so gratified when the experiential basis of our beliefs about our relations and our potential is confirmed by scientific research. The answer to that is pretty obvious: we can be mistaken, and that’s frightening. My point, I suppose, was that this uncertainty is meaningful in itself. It’s a good thing.

      You raise a different angle: that the technology can offer some reference points for those who have trouble knowing what they feel or what to believe. Maybe so, and whatever relief that brings shouldn’t be disparaged. And fair enough that we want to act consciously. But what are the implications of becoming conscious through neuroimaging rather than something like meditation? Or though a trustworthy relationship with someone? Or some combination of these? Perhaps you’re not saying this, but I do object to the idea that science can (or should) teach us to feel and to heal our broken hearts. I think we have to do that for ourselves with each other. And I think there’s a difference between training and learning.

      Thanks for your response and for helping me to think more about these questions.

  3. From Bill:
    I find a lot of the brain imaging stuff vastly over hyped. Someone does something and parts of the brain are seen to become more active. Not really astonishing or all that informative. The resolution of these scans is low. Many millions of neurons are in these areas. They remind me of those old phrenology maps of the brain. The brain scan tells us a tiny bit. We don’t really have much of a clue about simple things like how particular wavelengths of light being absorbed on the retina give rise to the perception of red let alone something as elusive and multifaceted as love. The mind / body problem remains as daunting as ever despite the scans. How does all this physiology and cell biology generate a coherent model of the world in our heads? A model festooned with our emotions, history and culture.

    The idea that the brain makes new connections when learning something new has been the reigning paradigm for decades, it is not new. It had been thought that new neurons could not be made in adult brains and there is now evidence that that may not be completely true. However, large scale regeneration of neural tissue doesn’t seem to be possible.

    I still think there is something in the “talent” idea. The fact that highly successful people in some field have put their 10,000 hours in does not rule out “talent”. I think it likely there are people who put their 10,000 hours and not not very successful? Do we know about them? Malcolm Gladwell has written a fascinating book looking at the factors other than “talent” or “genius” that contribute to success. Like when you are born if you are a hockey player. NHL players tend to be born early in the year. The age cut off in midget hockey is Jan 1. Thus players born early in the year are significantly bigger than players born late in the year when they first start to play organized hockey. They tend to be better, coaches notice them and pay attention to them. A tiny initial advantage is reinforced and leads to greater success. Soccer players are more likely to succeed if born in the fall, the age cutoff date is Sept 1 in soccer. In the mid 60’s the parents at Bill Gates’ private school raised money and had a teletype terminal installed in the school connecting it to the University of Washington’s main frame computer. Bill Gates and a few nerds at his school might have been the only kids in the country with such access to a computer. He could also just walk into the university computer centre after hours and use the computer with no security hassles. I think there is such a thing as talent and aptitude but it needs nurturing and those 10,000 hours.

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