Monday, March 17, 2014

The need to use findings from neuroscience with caution

Three books on why recent neuroscience discoveries need to be treated with caution.

First up, Kluge: the haphazard construction of the humanmind. An accessible 2008 book for laypeople by G. Marcus published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kluge promotes the idea that the development of the human brain through the process of natural evolution has produced a kluge. In engineering speak a kluge is a put together, sometimes inelegant, solution to a problem that works. So our brains have many quirks, making things like our memory system suspect (i.e. eyewitnesses cannot be relied on), our decision making systems fraught with bias and even the way we use language is filled with inconsistencies. The human body has several kluges arising from the evolutionary pathway from four legged mammal to two legged homo. So the brain is no exception.

The book is a short read of just over 150 pages. There are 8 chapters, with the first chapter providing a thought provoking overview of why the brain can be viewed as a kluge. The next 6 chapters cover a myriad of examples in support of the thesis including memory, belief systems, how we make choices, language development, our need to put pleasure before all else and the existence of ‘brain breakdowns’ in the form of mental illnesses and susceptibility to addictions.
Last chapter brings concepts together and recommends 13 ways to become better thinkers:
Whenever possible, consider alternative hypothesis; 
Reframe the question;
Remember always that correlation does not also equate to causation;
Check the size of the sample;
Anticipate own impulsiveness and precommit;
Don’t just set goals, make contingency plans;
Try not to make decisions when tired or stressed;
Weigh benefits against costs;
Imagine your decisions will be spot-checked;
Distance yourself;
Be aware of the vivid, personal and anecdotal;
Pick your spots;
Try to be rational.

Warns of the generalisation of neuroscience research, especially in politics, marketing and psychology / psychiatry (from studies of addition and brain diseases). In particular, explains how fMRI works. The images look very pretty but the colours refer to oxygen activity in a brain not actual ways in which neurones form connect or form connections. So, one needs to be very cautious about applying information from any form of brain imaging or brain activity measurement. We know too little about how the brain actually works but only have  guidelines to areas related to certain physical and cognitive activity. The role of neurotransmitters also not quantifiable through present means. As the brain works not only through neuro-activity but also through a whole host of bio-chemical triggers, dampeners etc. it is premature to use studies of the brain, to predict how someone reacts to stimuli through recording images of the brain.

The third book, The future of the brain: The promise and perils of tomorrow’s neuroscience (2006) by S. Rose. Covers the evolutionary development of the brain. Balances the emerging understandings we are deriving from recent neuroscience discoveries and cautions of how our learnings are still relatively new. This book melds some of the understandings I have gleaned from previous readings. The evolutionary development of the brain is summarised succinctly. Then aspects of neurophilosophy are discussed through chapters on becoming human, becoming a person and having a brain, being a mind. The prose is pitched at the level of a layperson with some understanding of neuroscience. The last chapters discuss the implications of current understandings are the need to be continually aware of the implications on social order and ethical and legal complications.

No comments: