This is a clever response to a prevalent error: a classic case of scientists being poor philosophers. Thank heavens I have doctoral supervisors who cover all bases!

This article is from the March 17 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit THE ESSAY


It’s not always clever to use brain science as an explanation for the most complex human problems.

To reduce poetic sensibility to animal instincts seems a travesty.

In the vast literature documenting the possible causes of the financial crises, from tepid governments to loose monetary policy to greedy bankers, there was the more lucid theme of a belief in the infallible nature of modern economic models, those mathematical pieces of wonder that tried to incorporate everything from the weather to political power-plays into the allencompassing term that is risk.

At the heart of this flawed worldview was the idea that economics had become a science much like physics and biochemistry – quantifiable , measurable and able to be modelled. In the wreckage thereafter , the reductionism inherent in such hubris was there for all to see.

But the scientism that had inebriated the world of economics is part of a broader trend of viewing our very natures in a stripped back to the biological bones caricature. It is best epitomised by the ubiquity of musings about the brain from those attempting to bolster their authority , which includes everyone from leadership gurus to astrologers.

The word is out that human consciousness – from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self – is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. The republic of letters is in thrall to the idea of neuroplasticity , imagining in wonder their brains modifying cells in parallel with their daily meanderings.

This trend reduces the intricacies of human consciousness and society to the workings of genes and brain cells. It would once have seemed incredible, obviously wrong, not to say blasphemous. To reduce religious wonder, poetic sensibility and the richness of social life to mere animal instincts seems a travesty. Yet this is the dominant account of what it is to be human in the early 21st century.

Thus newspapers are filled with stories of genes for this and neurons for that. Recent examples range from ‘‘ The love-cheat gene: one in four born to be unfaithful’ ’ to ‘‘ Scientists reveal brain cells devoted to Jennifer Aniston’’ .

Partly, the reductionist worldview is gaining in prevalence because many of its claims are true: evolutionary theory is now firmly established, our genome is being deciphered and there are indisputable correlations between consciousness and brain activity. But a problem arises when scientists, policymakers or the media adopt this biological perspective in the search for simple solutions to complex problems.

In the past two or three decades, the study of the brain and how it regulates behaviour has become one the most anticipated fields of discovery. We now know there are more than 100 billion nerve cells and each of them has many thousands of synaptic connections – channels of chemical communication – with its neighbours. We know an increasing amount about the anatomy of the different functional centres that make up the brain, their varying responsibilities, how they execute their duties and even how they evolved. We are beginning to understand how memory, which lies at the core of the subjective self, is dependent on the strength of the cell networks formed by our experience , thoughts and feelings.

But barely a week goes by without a declaration of the relevance of neuro-scientific findings to everyday life, often connected to announcements from new disciplines with the prefix ‘‘ neuro’’ .

Neuro-marketing allows advertisers to pinpoint the parts of the brain that light up in response to particular products or tailored messages. Neuro-economics looks at how we make economic decisions and their relation to brain functioning. Even some philosophers have embraced ‘‘ neuro-ethics’’ , in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on classic dilemmas.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan in pixel-busting technicolour, described by the British writer Matt Crawford as a ‘‘ fastacting solvent of critical faculties’’ .

France has become the first country in the world to devote a governmental department looking at the policy implications of our burgeoning knowledge of neuro-science , led by Professor Olivier Oullier. One of the first things David Cameron did as British Prime Minister was to establish the Behavioural Insight Unit, a strategy team dedicated to coming up with policy based on neuro-evolutionary thought. Even Barack Obama was on to the trend, appointing Cass Sunstein – the coauthor of Nudge, the blockbuster bestseller about behavioural economics – as his regulation chief.

My own field, psychiatry, has benefited enormously. While the specialty was once the bastard child of medicine, growing interest in mental health and the way brain chemistry affects our emotions has lifted it into the mainstream. It has acquired significantly more attention in policy debates but also penetrated the cultural sphere, as more people rely on its classification systems to communicate their distress and make sense of their lives.

Having acquired an elevated prestige through a greater perceived basis on brain science, psychiatry has applied a similar reductionism to its classification of illness, as encapsulated in DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The coming update of the fabled manual, DSM V, is likely to extend the tick-abox method of ascribing mental illness , rendering all manner of slightly deviant behaviour as pathological . Much like the world of finance , what began as an admirable and necessary attempt to better standardise the grey, subjective world that was the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders has the potential to be transformed into virtual farce.

Satisfying a checklist of symptoms does not correlate with a need for treatment, as the very architect of the diagnostic system within psychiatry’s DSM, Robert Spitzer, has said. In one of the most heralded critiques of modern psychiatric diagnosis, Professors Jerome Wakefield and Allan Horwitz, in their 2008 book The Loss of Sadness, describe how context has been removed from what is called illness within mental health.

It is context that is lost most in discussions about neuroscience, best illustrated by the presentation of MRI scans that can mislead one into facile ‘‘ localisationism’ ’ and exaggerated claims, such as the role of mirror neurons in empathy, brain scans in criminal responsibility, the temporal lobe in spirituality, and so on. References to such brain geography are regularly employed by social scientists who have taken up neuro-talk .

Even the great Berkeley neuroscientist V.S.Ramachandran is prepared to claim that we enjoy Picasso’s paintings for the same reason gull chicks prefer fake maternal beaks with an excess of markings to the real thing: they are ‘‘ superstimuli’’ .

Yet when I get angry, for example, I generally do so for a reason; typically I judge myself or another wronged. To cleanly separate emotion from reason-giving makes a hash of human experience, and seems to be attractive mainly as a way of rendering the mind methodologically tractable , even if at the cost of realism.

In Aping Mankind, the British medical philosopher and former neuroscientist Raymond Tallis coins the terms ‘‘ neuromania’ ’ – reducing all aspects of mind and behaviour to the firings of microscopic brain cells – and ‘‘ Darwinitis’ ’ – the other strand of biological reductionism in which all aspects of our behaviour are explained in terms of our evolutionary history or the genes that encode it.

Many writers and thinkers have celebrated their perceived belief that we are on the verge of a new Enlightenment through our understanding of brain science, that the concept of the individual autonomously making rational decisions is on the verge of being usurped by a new paradigm of human nature. Matthew Taylor, a former strategy adviser to Tony Blair, has urged that we look to neuroscience to guide social policy – not the old ideologies of right and left but the right and the left hemispheres of the brain.

But even Oullier says brain studies should be seen as merely another contributor to the multidisciplinary study of human behaviour , and sensibly advocates significant limits to how much we can apply neuroscience to policy. For example, the most sophisticated neural imaging cannot differentiate between physical pain and the pain of social rejection. Even in the simplest of tasks the brain functions as an integrated unit, with many parts seemingly working together. The weight of a particular part of a brain lighting up in the isolated, controlled environment of a lab should be taken with a grain of salt.

While attempts to have more nuanced insights into our natures is to be applauded, it is premature to appeal to neuroscience and evolutionary theory to advance our understanding of human life or drive social policy. The New York Times columnist David Brooks said last year that ‘‘ brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy’ ’ and trumpeted the development as something to celebrate. But maybe it should be more of a concern.

Those who would use science to solve real human problems often must first translate those human problems into narrowly technical problems, framed in terms of some theoretically tractable model and a corresponding method. Such tractability offers a collateral benefit: the intellectual pleasure that comes with constructing and tinkering with the model. But there can be an almost irresistible temptation to turn one’s method into a metaphysics – that is, to suppose the world such that one’s method is appropriate to it.

When this procedure is applied to human beings, be it in economics, mental health or fashionable applications of neuroscience, the inevitable result is that the human is defined downward.

Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald