Pop neuroscience promises to reveal the secrets of life. Too bad the brain is a gray area.
A RECENT article in Newsweek tided "This Is Your Brain on Alien Killer Pimps of Nazi Doom" reported on a study in which researchers scanned the brains of teenagers playing a violent video game and another group of teens playing a driving simulator. Kids who played the first-person shooter for 30 minutes "showed higher activity in the emotional centers of the brain, and less in the areas of concentration and inhibition" for an hour afterward. The study provided no direct link between badass games and badass behavior, but that didn't stop the mother of one 14-year-old research subject from taking away his gaming console and encouraging him to play Monopoly instead. After all, there's nothing wrong with a game that rewards you for ruthlessly driving your opponents into bankruptcy.
At least, not until neuroscientists tell us otherwise. Lately, brain science has been anointed the oracle we consult for the answers to life's nagging questions. A Nexis search of major newspapers and magazines shows a 33 percent increase in brain-related articles in the past 10 years, with pop neuroscience chiming in on issues that were once the realm of behaviorism, psychology, religion, and even marketing. Scientists are looking inside the brain for clues to why people prefer Coke to Pepsi and how the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reacts to Super Bowl ads. Having isolated the part of the brain that "predicts" what shoppers will buy, a Stanford researcher intoned, "It's likely that these mechanisms are there for reasons related perhaps to survival." The brain now shows up in articles in O magazine on dieting and in items about "earworms"-those songs that stick in your head-as well as in serious-sounding books about how religion is rooted in our "God gene" and how having kids makes women's brains smarter. The brain even does self-help. A series of "neurobics" books promises to keep your mind healthy using "exercises based on the latest scientific research from leading neurobiology labs," and a tide coming out this fall promises to show "how the new science of neuroeconomics can help make you rich."
It's comforting to think that our brains hold the key to everything from stock tips to teenage violence, but much of this feels like the 21st-century version of phrenology, with brain scans replacing skull palpation. Should research done on college kids looking for easy beer money influence what we think about motherhood, free will, or God? Considering how isolated and confounding the brain is, not to mention how young the field of neuroscience is, should we even look for answers there?
Brain science is an odd place to search for certainty, in part because it reveals just how mysterious the machinery of consciousness really is. In January, the New York Times blamed the brain for the futility of keeping New Year's resolutions, quoting a scientist who said that people are just "meat machines" who only think they're in control. A few days later, the Times wrote about the New Yorker who leapt in front of a subway train to rescue a man who'd fallen onto the tracks, speculating that special altruism-boosting "mirror neurons" made him save the day. In The Naked Brain, neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak offers up page after page of these kinds of tales of the brain's unnerving secret agenda. Subjects in one study he cites were flashed words like "impolite" and "considerate," then put into scenarios in which they acted out the words that had "primed" their behavior. In another study, white subjects were put inside a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) and subliminally shown a black face, causing the amygdala-the brain's threat detector-to light up in a pixelated shout of "Racist!"
Restak presents these examples to support his predictions about what he calls the "neurosociety," …