Neuroscientism and Neurotrash

It’s a rare Saturday morning in which I get to flip doughtily through the Guardian Review, but thankfully this weekend my neighbour wasn’t trying to stab me, I wasn’t trying to flog a motorbike to pay the rent and I certainly wasn’t racing to patch on an anonymous tip-off; only to find the police cordon around a club were there not because the proprietor had met a grisly end, but because the wind was blowing tiles off the roof. It was, in short, a Saturday morning of croissants and the newspaper and as a result I stumbled across this gem of a review.

How did Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone”? The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn’t there, but he pretends to know anyway. Inspired by Dylan’s own description of “vomiting” forth the song’s lyrics, Lehrer peers inside the singer’s 1965 skull and announces confidently that the “right hemisphere” of Dylan’s brain was combining “scraps” or “fragments” of existing songs and poetry in a “mental blender”, before spitting out a set of “lyrics that make little literal sense”. Strange, because “How does it feel / To be without a home” and so forth makes a fair amount of literal sense to me. The amazing presumption of Lehrer’s description, the shattering banality of its explanation, and its mystifying stupidity are all entirely characteristic of a phenomenon best branded “neuroscientism”.

So begins Steven Poole‘s beautifully scathing review of Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works”. There’s nothing quite like watching a piece of pretentious pop-science eviscerated with all the disdain it deserves and Poole’s review is a masterclass in the genre.

“Throughout, the author intones the jargon names for many different brain structures that, he says, are all important for creativity (even as he occasionally mumbles a confession that their “precise function” is unknown): not just the right hemisphere but also the “anterior superior temporal gyrus”, the “medial prefrontal cortex”, the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex”, the “neural highway” of the dopamine system, and even “the primitive midbrain”. But this expansive catalogue of crucial parts merely invites us to conclude, by the end, that pretty much all of the brain has to be involved in any complex creative work. Which effectively leaves us back where we started.

Imagine also peddles a strain of peculiarly unhelpful self-help. Want to be more creative? Well, just “listen to” your prefrontal cortex, or direct your “attention” to your right hemisphere. (Can you concentrate on different parts of your own brain? Nice trick if so.) Sometimes it helps to take a warm shower or sit in a room with blue walls; at other times you should gulp coffee or scarf Benzedrine pills like Auden…

Reaching a self-adoring climax, Lehrer writes: “For the first time in human history, it’s possible to learn how the imagination actually works. Instead of relying on myth and superstition, we can think about dopamine and dissent, the right hemisphere and social networks.” We can indeed think about such things, but an explanation of “how the imagination actually works” does not magically fall out of them, and hasn’t done so here.

Good stuff. For more on “neurotrash” and such cheap determinism Raymond Tallis‘s 2009 article in The Humanist is well worth a read. 

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