It takes a lot to spoil the morning’s first cup of coffee on a sunny California Sunday, but Jonah Lehrer’s opinion piece, “Misreading the Mind,” which got the front page in the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed section, did it for me this week.
The article starts with a string of exaggerations (example: “The mind has been imaged as it thinks about itself, with every thought traced back to its cortical source”). These are designed to set up a straw man that the author then knocks down. Its point is to bash neuroscience, in the guise of helpfully suggesting that neuroscientists need a whole new way of looking at the brain. Say what?
Lehrer accuses neuroscience of being driven by “reductionism,” making the mind “just a particular trick of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.” Instead of trying to represent the mind “from the bottom up,” he writes, artists have a better idea. He quotes Virginia Woolf’s 1924 essay, “Modern Fiction,” on the task of the novelist being to “examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” Neuroscience must adopt some version of a novelist’s approach, he implies, to figure out “what transforms the water of the brain into the wine of the mind.”
I have news for Lehrer: artists don’t examine the mind to explain it or even to fully understand it. Artists want to express it as best they can, and that’s why they are among the most avid consumer of news from neuroscience. They know that in order to begin to grasp mind, it is an advantage to know what matter is doing.
Neuroscientists know that brain is not mind, any more than a car, a map and a driver is a road trip. And a reductionist philosophy, far from being the driving spirit of neuroscience, is generally viewed as unhelpful. No respectable scientist who focuses on examining, say, how synapses change in the creation of a memory would ever claim to be nailing down that feature of mind. To do so would be to claim that the synapse will explain why the mind chooses to remember one thing but ignore another, as well as the uses that memory will be put to in life.
If neuroscientists believed that, they would have announced that all minds are exactly alike, because they do proceed on the assumption that the biological workings of one process are pretty uniform for that organism—man or beast—and often across species. Instead, they are the first to point to the obvious—that every mind is unique—and to caution that despite demonstrable similarities in brain cell and circuit function, they doubt they will ever be able to explain the mind.
So why do neuroscientists pursue “holy grails” such as consciousness? And why are they looking at abstractions such as altruism and economic and moral decision-making? They are not trying to reduce the mind, as Lehrer would have it, to a “trick of matter.” Some care about malfunction in the mind-enabling machinery (it’s hard to take that road trip if the spark-plugs aren’t working); they just want to cure illnesses that devastate the mind such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury. Others are fascinated by how the brain’s matter relates to the mind—some asking how the biology of the brain can enable a mind to do more or to do less, some galvanized by discoveries about how mind can change brain.
All this has led to the exact opposite of the situation Lehrer asserts in egregious misrepresentation—that with the rise of neuroscience, “the study of experience was banished from the laboratory.” Neuroscientists are publishing thousands of journal articles every year on plasticity, developmental neuroscience, brain aging and how the brain is involved in, or can be recruited to treat, the myriad mental disorders that arise from experience.
I’ve met my share of scientists who get a kick out of telling scientific softies like me how things I ascribe to mind or faith are really just brain. Most know that whatever the brain biology is, the mind is more than the sum of its parts. And they like it that way.
Lehrer, of course, has a book to promote, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, to which our journal, Cerebrum, gave a mixed review a few months ago. I haven’t had a chance yet to read the book, but if this op-ed, with its calculated misstatements and its silly suggestion that neuroscience would do better exploring the mind without the science, is an example of how he treated his subject, I think I’ll take a pass.