The Brain: A Mindless Obsession: Despite Stunning Advances in Neuroscience and Bold Claims of Revelations from New Brain-Scan Technologies, Our Knowledge about the Brain's Role in Human Behavior Is Still Primitive

By Barber, Charles | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Brain: A Mindless Obsession: Despite Stunning Advances in Neuroscience and Bold Claims of Revelations from New Brain-Scan Technologies, Our Knowledge about the Brain's Role in Human Behavior Is Still Primitive


Barber, Charles, The Wilson Quarterly


A TEAM OF AMERICAN RESEARCHERS ATTRACTED national attention last year when they announced results of a study that, they said, reveal key factors that will influence how swing voters cast their ballots in the upcoming presidential election. The researchers didn't gain these miraculous insights by polling their subjects. They scanned their brains. Theirs was just the latest in a lengthening skein of studies that use new brain-scan technology to plumb the mysteries of the American political mind. But politics is just the beginning. It's hard to pick up a newspaper without reading some newly minted neuroscientific explanation for complex human phenomena, from schizophrenia to substance abuse to homosexuality.

The new neuroscience has emerged from the last two decades of formidable progress in brain science, psychopharmacology, and brain imaging, bringing together research related to the human nervous system in fields as diverse as genetics and computer science. It has flowered into one of the hottest fields in academia, where almost anything "neuro" now generates excitement, along with neologisms--neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuromarketing. The torrent of money flowing into the field can only be described in superlatives--hundreds of millions of dollars for efforts such as Princeton's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind, and Behavior and MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Psychiatrists have been in the forefront of the transformation, eagerly shrugging off the vestiges of "talk therapy" for the bold new paradigms of neuroscience. By the late 1980s, academic psychiatrists were beginning literally to reinvent parts of the discipline, hanging out new signs saying Department of Neuropsychiatry in some medical schools. A similar transformation has occurred in academic psychology.

A layperson leafing through a mainstream psychiatric journal today might easily conclude that biologists had taken over the profession. "Acute Stress and Nicotine Cues Interact to Unveil Locomotor Arousal and Activity-Dependent Gene Expression in the Prefrontal Cortex" is the title of a typical offering. The field has so thoroughly east its lot with biology, and with the biology induced by psychoactive drugs, that psychiatrists can hardly hope to publish in one of the mainstream journals if their article tells the story of an individual patient, or includes any personal thoughts or feelings about the people or the work that patient was engaged with, or fails to include a large dose of statistical data. Psychiatry used to be all theories, urges, and ids. Now it's all genes, receptors, and neurotransmitters.

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As a result of these changes, the field, once seen as the province of woolly-headed eccentrics, has gained a new public image. Psychiatry is now seen as a solid branch of medicine, a bona fide science built on white-coated certitude. It has joined Big Science. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 contributed to the growing popular belief that psychiatric disorders proceed in neat Mendelian inheritable patterns, and that psychiatrists are starting to methodically unlock these patterns' mysteries. But if anything has been gleaned from the last two decades of work in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, it is that the origins of these maladies are terribly complex. No individual gene for a psychiatric disorder has been found, and none likely will ever be. Psychiatric disorders are almost certainly the product of an infinitely complex dialogue between genes and the environment.

Nevertheless, earlier paradigms in academic psychology and psychiatry--"soft" disciplines such as old-fashioned psychoanalysis and behaviorism and psychotherapy--have been chucked aside like so many rotting vegetables. Ironically, this shift--which is terribly premature--is occurring even as psychotherapy is rapidly improving. Psychiatry used to be brainless, it's said by some in the field, and now it's mindless. …

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The Brain: A Mindless Obsession: Despite Stunning Advances in Neuroscience and Bold Claims of Revelations from New Brain-Scan Technologies, Our Knowledge about the Brain's Role in Human Behavior Is Still Primitive
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