Is neuroscience the spice of truthiness?
Posted Jan 20, 2014
I know it has been a few months since my last post. Writing a book about zombies and brains took up all my spare time (i.e., that 1hr a week when I’m not working on papers, grants, teaching or data analysis). But I’m back… and boy to I have a rant cooked up.
Now where is my soapbox?
First I have to confess something. The title and idea for today’s post comes from a dear friend of mine. A few months ago he sent me a link to a science article that was trying to use functional brain imaging to explain a very unscientific topic. Like many papers in our field of cognitive neuroscience, the authors were using the allure of pretty pictures of brain activation to sell a narrative that went way… way beyond the data.
The subject line of the email read: "Can we start our 'quit doing dumb neuroscience' review paper yet?"
As a cognitive neuroscientist I must admit that we sometimes have a tendency to be a little over-the-top. We spin our work to sound as novel and interesting as possible in the hopes that an editor and anonymous reviewers will find our story interesting enough to get it published in a highly respected journal. Sometimes we go just a bit too far. Sometimes when we go too far, it catches the attention of journalists looking for an exciting story and then things really get out of hand.
But while the scientists in the trenches may be trying to make their findings look a little bit sexier in order to get published (and hopefully get more grants), there is an entire cottage industry outside of traditional academia that tries infusing subjective opinions with an air of authenticity by adding in a dash of neuroscience.
Yup… it turns out that neuroscience is the spice of ‘truthiness.’
Apparently, at some point after the advent of functional MRI, neuroscience became capable of explaining everything.
- Why do we love our iPhones? Our insular cortex.
- Why do some people have difficulty doing math? Our 'left brain.'
- Why are some people conservative and others liberal? Our brain wiring.
- Why is it okay to lie to your kids about Santa Claus? Neuroplasticity.
Yes, neuroscientists apparently have the answers to everything. Philosophers, theologians, political scientists, etc. can all find other things to do because we can explain anything using magical insights about that three pounds of tissue sandwiched between your ears.
No matter what you are trying to show, apparently you can use neuroscience to prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And I literally mean anything!
The pseudo-science of the afterlife
Did you know that neuroscience can prove the existence of the afterlife?
But if you read the book Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eben Alexander, then you’ll be told again and again that science has confirmed that heaven exists. Well, to be a bit more accurate, he says that science can confirm that his individual experience of thinking he had gone to heaven is proof of the afterlife.
For an excellent and highly detailed analysis of this story, its background and its inconsistencies, I highly recommend reading Luke Dittrich’s profile in Esquire.
But for those of you in a hurry, here’s the short… short version.
Dr. Alexander was a neurosurgeon with a somewhat shaky, although maybe not felonious, history of medical malpractice. One day, Dr. Alexander contracted a bacterial infection that ended up becoming a rather severe case of meningitis. Delirious and hallucinating, the medical doctors treating Dr. Alexander placed him in a medically-induced coma while he fought off the infection. During this time, he had some really fantastical images of ascending to heaven, meeting his long-lost biological sister, while she was riding a butterfly, and all sorts of other strange things that you’d expect to experience upon entering the pearly gates (or, if you are some of my friends, at a Phish concert).
For Dr. Alexander, these experiences all provide undeniable scientific “proof” for the existence of the after life.
It's okay if your first reaction to that last statement was, "Wait... what??"
The crux of Dr. Alexander’s eponymous argument for heaven/soul/after-life/etc. is that when he was in a coma his brain activity had stopped. According to his story, Dr. Alexander was no longer having any brain activity whatsoever. Therefor if his brain wasn’t active, then his experiences of ascending to the light and seeing the girl on the butterfly must have all been the product of something beyond the activity of the neurons in his brain.
In other words, this anecdotal account is proof that we can have conscious experiences that are independent of the brain.
This pseudo-neuroscientifc argument has been quite profitable for Dr. Alexander. It has landed him a deal for a best-selling book, it gets him paid a lot of money to go speak on his authority as a scientist of the after-life, and it allowed him to start a subscription based series of medication seminars.
A brain-dead story about brain death
Now I should point out where Dr. Alexander is, in fact, correct. If your brain were to stop working, with all the electrical functioning of neurons stopping, and yet you have a series of complex perceptual experiences, then those experiences could not be attributed to the brain itself. How can the brain be the root of all of our mental experiences if you had mental experiences while your brain was turned off?
The problem for Dr. Alexander’s story is that his brain was never actually "off". At no point during his entire ordeal did his doctors report him as being brain dead. His neurons worked just as well as your neurons do when you sleep.
You see, the brain is still very much active when you are put in a medically-induced coma. If you put the electrodes of an electroencephalogram (or EEG as it’s more commonly referred to) onto a patient who is placed in a medically-induced coma, you will see the telltale readings of massive amounts of neural activity. At no point whatsoever did Dr. Alexander’s brain stop working. His brain was closer to being asleep than it was to being dead.
Let me repeat that just to make sure you got the point: Dr. Alexander was never ever EVER pronounced brain dead. His brain was working every second he was in the medically-induced coma. While it was working, it is entirely possible that his brain was creating the dream-like sensory experiences that Dr. Alexander experienced.
But the whole never-actually-being-dead-thing isn’t the only other flaw in Dr. Alexander’s pseudo-neuroscience argument.
Let’s play along here for a second and assume that maybe, at some point during his coma, Dr. Alexander had a brief cessation of neural activity. For a brief moment his brain activity did stop and most of the neurons in his head quit talking to each other. Even if this did happen, there is still another hole in this argument: timing.
In this scenario, we have no idea when Dr. Alexander actually had these lucid dream-like experiences. Presumably he did not wake up the split-second after coming back from a pure brain-death state. Even if it took a few minutes to gain consciousness (it would very likely took hours or days), that is still rather long period of time (neurally-speaking) for the brain to kick back into gear and give you a lot of dream-like mental experiences.
Scientifically, it is impossible rule out this possible explanation of Dr. Alexander's experiences, even if we allow for the possibility that, for a brief window of time, he was brain dead (and his doctors somehow missed it).
Now unlike many authors who misuse neuroscience for their own gains, Dr. Alexander is a neurosurgeon. He is an expert on brain function. He is well versed in the science and research brain function. He should know the difference between a medically-induced coma and brain death. Even in cases of brain death, he should know that there is a long window of pre-wakefulness brain activity that could easily result in dream-like states.
But I believe Dr. Alexander knows something else. He knows that couching phenomenological experiences like the afterlife in scientifically sounding terms increases the perceived validity of the argument he's making.
In other words, it sells more books.
Dr. Alexander could have told a perfectly lovely story about his experiences of surviving meningitis and what he thought was the afterlife. But it would have just been a story about his personal experience. However, couch the story with an appeal to his authority as a doctor and someone supposedly well versed in neuroscience, and suddenly it moves from an opinion piece to a statement of empirical fact.
It's instant truth... just add science!
At the end of the day, that appears to be the purpose of what I like to call the 'fashion neuroscience' industry: use science-sounding terms or out-of-context anecdotes to add a sense of validity to whatever narrative you’re trying to sell.
Now I pick on Dr. Alexander’s story because it is a particularly easy to break apart, but there are many authors (some who are even established neuroscientists) who build more tantalizing tautological stories that premised on the authority of science.
By now you might be thinking, “So what? What’s the harm in someone misusing neuroscience to sell a few books?”
Well the casualty of this industry is the very reputation of the field that it is capitalizing on.
Each time one of these trendy articles, books, TED talks, etc. comes out, it trivializes the actual science that thousands of people dedicated years of their lives to. By spinning a result to the point of triviality, the fashion neuroscience industry hijacks the narrative. It morphs the interpretation of perfectly valid science into something that it is not and in the process, leads to a misunderstanding in the general public that's difficult to fix.
And the really sad part is that cognitive neuroscience has some perfectly amazing stories to tell, like the neuroscience of echolocation, real-life mind reading, and simulated brains that learn like people. But these fascinating research studies get drowned out by the sugar-coated narratives of the fashion neuroscience industry that end up telling the general public very little about how the brain actually works.
So as someone working in the trenches of neuroscience, trying to find a modicum of truth that might one day contribute to our knowledge of the brain, I ask the fashion neuroscience industry one simple question.
Can we please quit doing dumb neuroscience now?