Review: <i>Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience</i>

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Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld is an important book on an emerging problem: brain-scan-driven pop psychology in mass media. From the introduction:

You've seen the headlines: This is your brain on love. Or God. Or envy. Or happiness. And they're reliably accompanied by articles boasting pictures of color-drenched brains -- scans capturing Buddhist monks meditating, addicts craving cocaine, and college sophomores choosing Coke over Pepsi. The media -- and even some neuroscientists, it seems -- love to invoke the neural foundations of human behavior to explain everything from the Bernie Madoff financial fiasco to slavish devotion to our iPhones, the sexual indiscretions of politicians, conservatives' dismissal of global warming and even an obsession with self-tanning.

And then the book gets even better.

The authors go on to tell what neuroscience and the colorful functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans do reveal -- the tendency of some areas of the brain to use more oxygen given certain stimuli -- and don't reveal -- why to choose Coke over Pepsi or murder someone. The authors bemoan the process whereby specks of early inconclusive albeit interesting brain research are regularly trumpeted by overstated press releases of the researchers and then turbo-charged by the media to 'prove' some new part of the brain is why Bill met Sally or some people steal. It just isn't so.

The problem they identify has real consequence. Slavish reliance on wisps of premature, misreported neuroscience is creating misunderstanding as to how to help the most seriously ill. Neurocriticism is itself an emerging field led by people like Neurocritic, James Coyne, Neuroskeptic and other scientists who object to real neuroscience being diluted with false claims in the pursuit of pop-psychology headlines. For example:

Poor mental health has been reported as caused by spanking according to ABC, LA Times, CNN, and Medical News Today, owing money (Royal College of Psychiatrists), perceiving racism (St. Louis American), the Internet (Newsweek), illiteracy ( and back problems (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). Wanting to be rich? That doesn't just cause mental illness, it is a mental illness.

And in this uncritical world, treatments for poor mental health are now as easy to find as causes. Just add the word "therapy" to anything. There's Dog Therapy, Horse Therapy, Art Therapy, Group Therapy, Shopping Therapy, Yoga Therapy, Dance Therapy and its subset, Tango Therapy. There's Tai-Chi Therapy, Surfing Therapy, Meatloaf and Mashed Potato Therapy, Cleaning Therapy, Remarriage Therapy (Daily Mail, UK 2011), Induced After Death Communication Therapy, Paintball Therapy (Tomcat 2011) and every kind of talk, meditation, massage, acupressure, counseling and introspection therapy.

And now with the invention of fMRI, all of these interventions will soon be accompanied by psychedelically colored amalgamated photos of lit up brains 'proving' they're true.

No one -- especially the authors -- are denying that brain scans, neuroscience, and the focus on the sub-molecular functioning of the brain is an important, critical, perhaps eventually game-changing development. The authors do question whether claiming we are there already is helping or hurting.

Disclosure: In 1998, I co-authored an article on mental illness and violence with Sally Satel, one of the authors above. Learn more about serious mental illness at Mental Illness Policy Org.

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