empathy and other ‘neuroscience’ flapdoodle

Download (3)Seamus O'Mahony at the Dublin Review of Books:

Empathy is the latest target of this neo-phrenology. As well as the obligatory fMRI-based neuroanatomy, all contemporary meditations on empathy contain earnest accounts of mirror neurons, described as “the most hyped concept in neuroscience”. These cells were first described in the 1990s by the Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, who studied macaque monkeys. He found that some motor cells (involved in the control of movement) are activated by the sight of the same movement in others (humans and monkeys). Since then, outlandish claims have been made for these neurons, particularly by the Indian-American neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, who believes these mirror neurons are responsible for empathy, language, even civilisation. A sobering review of mirror neurones written by British neuroscientists JM. Kilner and RN Lemon, published in Current Biology in 2013, concluded that we can’t extrapolate findings from monkey studies to humans, and furthermore, we’re not absolutely sure that these cells exist in humans, and even if they do, we’re not sure what their function is. These doubts haven’t remotely impeded the establishment of the new popular science orthodoxy that mirror neurons are what make us human and empathetic. Neurobollocks has escaped from the laboratory and is now the rickety foundation for popular, and populist, books by writers such as Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and many others. Writing in the New Statesman in 2012, Stephen Poole described this phenomenon as “an intellectual pestilence”, and observed how putting the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about gives a pseudo-scientific respectability to all sorts of meretricious rubbish.

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