Raymond Tallis over at New Humanist:
Contemporary neuroscience is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. As a researcher for many years into new methods of rehabilitating people with neurological damage, in particular due to strokes, I have been thrilled by the promise of new technologies such as sophisticated brain scanning to help us to understand the processes of recovery and (more importantly) suggest treatments that would promote the kinds of reorganisation in the brain associated with return of function. In contrast, I am utterly dismayed by the claims made on behalf of neuroscience in areas outside those in which it has any kind of explanatory power; by the neuro-hype that is threatening to discredit its real achievements.
Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-”. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities.
Matt Grist of the Royal Society's social brain project responds:
The reason policy makers might be interested in brains and behaviour is that policy has to do (but not only to do) with aggregate level effects of individual actions. So if it can be shown that brains have certain shortcomings or potentialities not previously understood, then this is useful for informing policy direction. However, it is not clear that any policy yet has been informed by neuroscience. Even so-called “nudge” policies such as auto-enrollment in private pensions could have been devised from behavioural observations alone (observations attentive to the power of inertia in human decision-making). Part of the idea of our project is to have a conversation about what neuroscience does add to purely behavioural research.
Perhaps it adds nothing at all beyond what Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, speaking at the RSA, called, “the seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations”. Camilla Batmanghelidjh, after fourteen years experience of supporting neglected and abused children through her organisation the Kids Company, has come to believe vehemently that punishing and blaming such children is counterproductive. Such a punitive method is based on the mistake of thinking that the kids see before them an array of choices, one of them presenting itself as the morally correct one, yet which they choose to ignore. She argues that in fact what is needed is to get these kids into a position where they can see the full array of choices in the first place. This is done through structured activities that build-up the kids” capacity to see the world from the point of view of others, to gain control of their emotions, and to feel self-worth. The work Ms Batmanghelidjh has done has been highly successful. However, she has now embarked on research with neuroscientific partners so that she can present evidence of her success in terms of brain scans. We, as a society of empiricists, seem to need the neuroscientific level of explanation to convince us such a social policy is right. So the role of neuroscience in policy may simply sometimes be one of corroboration.