How Much Do We Know About the Brain?

Read this article in the Indiana Daily Student here….

Neuroscience is sexy – don’t believe the hype.

Neuroscience, the scientific study of the nervous system, has allowed us to understand how our brains work.

In addition, with our ever-increasing knowledge of social and behavioral sciences, we have gained a lot of insight into human behavior. And neuroscience gives us empirical evidence (verified through scientific experiments) for how the brain influences that behavior. But the brain isn’t simple, and neither is our behavior.

In 1993, scientists used brain science to claim listening to Mozart increased mental activity, and the public believed listening to classical music would turn us into Einsteins. Sales for classical music skyrocketed, but the conclusion was false, and the public was mislead us by what we wanted to believe. [1]

What about psychiatry and psychology? Surely those fields must offer bridges between the physical sciences and how we understand human behavior, right? Joe Herbert, Professor of Neuroscience, says we’ve already moved Alzheimer’s from psychiatry to neurology. Maybe we can do so with the rest of mental illness? We have “partial” ways of diagnosing depression that look at some sets of symptoms to give “somewhat” effective treatments, but, since the situation is much more confusing than a simple “depression gene”, we do have to revamp our psychiatric models and theories to keep up with both science and culture.

Speaking of culture, there are issues with a neuroscientific approach to what makes us human.  Most scholars of music, for example, oppose “universalist” approaches to using music as something that has universal values among peoples. Similarities between elements of music across time and space may indicate something of a “grand unified theory” of music. Some might say this search for “universals” stems from a neurobiological foundation that all human beings share, and, therefore, would be present in all of our cultures. Seen this way, all people in the world share, not only “brains”, but “minds. Perhaps this could help us understand the relationship between the human sciences and neuroscience?

While we may be moving closer, the limits prevent neuroscience from penetrating music culture. Aesthetics, language, philosophy, and similar fields follow suit.

But let’s not completely throw neuroscience away. The field of brain science will always give us beautiful findings of how things work, and, with the reductionist restraints that we must remember, the field is even more amazingly exciting than we could imagine. We’re still who we are, but we should remember how to put our findings and knowledge in context. Neuroscience should not hold onto outdated cognitive theories nor remain devoid of culture and philosophy. While neuroscientists may proclaim “cogito ergo something or other,” the misleading tendencies among neuroscientists are, indeed, mistakes scientists should be responsible for, and, non-scientists, as well, can understand neuroscience better through effort.

We like to think, “If it’s the brain, it must be science, and if it’s science, it must be true.”[3] Novelist Marilynne Robinson calls this scientific reductionism a form of “Prometheanism.” The “objectivity” of neuroscience is both dangerous and misleading. Even the amazing polyglot Raymond Tallis objects to “neurotrash” with regards to social policy. Let’s remember that we’re all more complicated than a bunch of neurons and genes.

As a student who has been involved in neuroscience research, I understand the science of the brain is exciting, rewarding and important. But, whether we’re scientists or not, we should take findings of neuroscience with a grain of salt.


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