"My Brain Made Me Do It!" Are We Seduced by Neuroscience?

Beware the hype. How we feel is no "realer" for findings of brain research.

Posted Aug 21, 2013

Emotions are a hot topic these days. As far as I can tell, this has a lot more to do with the reaction to findings coming out of neuroscience labs than to the findings themselves. Haven’t we known for a century or two that the brain is involved in our emotional lives, since it’s involved in the entirety of our lives? Certainly, new methods that reveal heretofore unseen brain activity during a particular emotional experience tells us something new and potentially significant about brain chemistry. But about our lived emotional life? That’s a different story.

Or it should be. But what many in the therapy and psychology fields, the media and the pharmaceutical companies are doing with these discoveries is troublesome. Some are drawing unwarranted conclusions and making ridiculous claims. Others take a more measured tone, but their reasoning is faulty, or worse, spurious. Companies might sell products, science labs might get more funding, print and online media might increase readership and profits, but the public gets increasingly mis-educated—to become even more reductionistic than we already are (“You are your brain”) and to mistake correlations for cause and effect even more than we already do (“My brain made me do it”). We clearly need help to resist seduction!

Among the helpers I recommend is fellow Psychology Today blogger Christian Jarrett.  His blog, Brain Talk, regularly takes a healthy skepticism toward claims made for neuroscience and the assumptions underlying them. For example, in “Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense,” he advises us to be wary of “the mistaken idea that a neurological reference somehow lends greater authority to an argument, or makes a societal or behavioural problem somehow more real.” 

The recent attention psychotherapy is paying to emotion is a case in point. Earlier this year, the  Psychotherapy Networker promoted some of its activities this way: “Neuroscientists have recently established that emotion is the prime organizing force shaping how we cope with challenges…emotion is anything but primitive and unpredictable. It’s a complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interests of survival.” 

Putting aside the presumption that everyone thought emotions were primitive before neuroscience (I didn’t. Did you?), the message here is that now we have “real” evidence. Using neuroscience in this way to “prove” that emotions are “anything but primitive” is a bit like using geology as evidence that we “really” do feel awe when gazing at the Grand Canyon. All emotions, including awe, are amazingly complex human activities. They are both products and processes of our cultural, political, economic, industrial, technological, biological and environmental history. Do not let all that fade into the background of your understanding. What people do is no “realer” for discoveries about the amygdala or the Ice Age. 

The help I can give in guarding against these “reality bites” is to share the latest thinking about cultural and relational understandings of emotionality—which I plan to do in my next posts.