Neuroscience roundtable: is anybody in there?

AC Grayling, Susie Orbach, Matthew Taylor, Steven Rose and many more experts debate what brain scans can reveal about who we are and how to live
February 24, 2010
Hinged crucifix and two plinths by Susan Aldworth

THE PROSPECT PANEL James Crabtree (chair) is managing editor of Prospect Tim Bliss is a neurophysiologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL Zoe Drayson works in the philosophy department at Bristol University, where she researches consciousness Catherine Fieschi is director of Counterpoint, the British Council’s think tank, and a contributing editor of Prospect Daniel Glaser is an imaging neuroscientist and head of special projects at the Wellcome Trust AC Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a member of Prospect’s advisory board Eva Hoffman is a writer and academic, and the author of “Time” (Profile) Henrietta Moore is a social anthropologist and director of the LSE’s culture and globalisation programme Susie Orbach is a psychotherapist and the author of “Bodies” (Profile) Steven Rose is emeritus professor of biology at the Open University Barbara Sahakian is a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts

James crabtree: Over the last two decades neuroscience has become one of the most exciting and controversial areas of scientific endeavour, offering tantalising insights into how human beings think and behave. But how much can it tell us about wider questions of how we should live, and how to run our politics?

Matthew Taylor: The metaphor I like to use when thinking about neuroscience and human behaviour is of the rider of an elephant in a cultivated forest—the rider is our conscious brain, the elephant is our automatic brain (which is not just about genetic inheritance, it’s also about socialisation), and the cultivated forest is the rules and norms of the society in which we live. Public policy has only tended to think about the rider. Moreover, both public policy and the academic world have tended to work with completely different models of human behaviour, depending on which faculty of the university you happen to work in—the human being in the economics faculty is completely different from the human being in the sociology faculty, and the human being in the psychology faculty is different again. I think that this new conversation, which is based in neuroscience but also strays into other areas like evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics, is overcoming some of those boundaries. And it is good that there is a space where people from different disciplines can play together with contesting accounts of human behaviour. That said, we must be wary of neurological determinism: the idea that our consciousness doesn’t matter, that we’re completely hard-wired. After all, one of the amazing things about human beings is our capacity to think about thinking.

Looking at this politically, the right has always been conflicted by the tension between neoliberalism and social conservatism. Margaret Thatcher tried to resolve that through the free market and the strong state. But it wasn’t really resolved and it is still an uneasy alliance in Conservatism. The interesting thing about new Labour is that it took the neoliberal free-market half of Conservative thought, but it wasn’t at all interested in the social conservative side, apart from a certain amount of populist kowtowing to public opinion like Asbos and on-the-spot fines for drunkenness. This prevented Labour from recognising richer elements of social conservative thinking, and I suppose—maybe I’m just getting old—I’m now looking for a new politics that combines a progressive commitment to social justice with both a social conservative modesty about what the state can achieve and a more traditional conservative respect for the fact that the way things are reflects who we are.

Steven Rose: Dialogue between different disciplines will be crucial if we are to understand ourselves. We need a “consilience,” to use EO Wilson’s word—meaning bringing together ideas from different disciplines, but not the sort that collapses everything into the language of neuroscience.

I’m not too keen on your elephant metaphor, but would like to explore what neuroscience can say about the broader social and political world. Is there, for example, anything to be said for the claims of evolutionary psychology for innate, evolved moral properties and moral decision-making structures: that we have an inherited propensity within our brains to make moral decisions? [See “No End of the Affair,” Prospect, February 2010]. I’m sceptical about such claims; it’s clear that our moral judgements are culturally, socially and historically bounded. They are not the same from generation to generation, and culture to culture. More importantly, such neurobiological, evolutionary or psychological claims about the existence of these fundamental moral propensities are irrelevant to political life, where decisions must be made on the basis of politics, economics and society, not brain science.

I suspect it is brain images that make neurological explanations so powerful: the claims that you can see a spot in the brain that lights up when you ask people about X or Y or Z. Take, for instance, a now infamous paper originally called Voodoo Correlations [2009] in Perspectives on Psychological Science, which demonstrates the extent to which data that comes out of neuro-imaging is consistently massaged and misinterpreted to suggest a strong neurological determinism that the evidence does not sustain.

So where do we go from there? My discipline, neurobiology, must show more humility. The claim that neuroscientists can interpret and understand consciousness or locate free will makes social scientists and psychologists turn to us with a mixture of awe and contempt. The contempt is right, the awe is not.

Neuroscience does, of course, interact with political and social processes. Just look at how new neuro-technology can provide weaponry for an increasingly interventionist state, with developments in psycho-pharmacology, neuro-imaging surveillance techniques, and the use of neuro stimulation in the military. My concern is that we’re missing this particular elephant in the room.

AC Grayling: I have sympathy with Steven’s point about extrapolating too much from what’s happening in neuroscience. In 2008, two people in India were found guilty of murder partly because of a brain scan—their brains lit up in the bits that are allegedly associated with lying [see “No Kidding,” Prospect October 2009]. This should alarm everyone. But we have to bear in mind that we’re animals, and animals do complicated things on the basis of instinct. So it wouldn’t seem surprising to me to find that some of the things we do, such as love our children and want to feed and nurture them, are biologically determined. One shouldn’t ignore that, nor should one ignore the fact that psychotropic drugs can alter natural states and attitudes profoundly, which suggests that brain chemistry has something to do with how we think and behave, too.

That said, to characterise what it is to think and feel and have ideas is difficult unless you place the individual brain into an environment with other brains, and a more general environment. So for that reason alone, reductionism never works.

Susie Orbach: Why is it that we find brain science so compelling? My field, psychoanalysis, which is about understanding human agency and subjectivity and how we think about human feelings, is suddenly collapsing itself into neuro-study of the very stupidest kind. All the complex ways we had of understanding human beings are in danger of in turn collapsing into this type of right brain/left brain nonsense. So I’m really perplexed about why we are seeking legitimacy in this area. What is it that we’re looking for here?

Tim Bliss: We’re not, surely, saying that the neuroscience project is an invalid one. Yet I absolutely agree with Steven that we are just at the beginning of understanding how the brain works: it’s the most complex thing in the universe and we understand hardly anything about it that’s useful. We must keep the experimental work going.

Daniel Glaser: There’s a kind of species-level narcissism, it seems to me, that drives a lot of our interest in neuroscience, especially around consciousness. I think we have to find ways of learning from the approaches that non-neuroscientists have used in order to do our neuroscience right.

Henrietta Moore: From an anthropological point of view, it’s interesting how much culture is involved in this debate. A recent experiment looked at whether or not Americans and east Asians use different parts of the brain when they’re doing bits of computation. The computations involved were not difficult, things like 2+2=4. A cultural anthropologist like me would expect there to be differences in people’s brains because of the fact that the brain interacts with the environment. Yet overlaid on that is a whole set of cultural assumptions, about how south Asian and southeast Asian societies are collectivist while western society is individualist.

Another study recently tried to prove that humans are hard-wired for social inequality. This made a nice headline. But the experiment involved people being given a position in a computer game, and while they were playing their brains were looked at to see their reactions. To me, the deep-seated nature of social inequality in British society is not akin to a computer game.

Taylor: OK, I agree we all think it’s ridiculous to explain human behaviour through silly experiments which show colours lighting up in bits of our brains. But the problem is that, whether we like it or not, the conversation about how we should be politically, and the conversation about who it is we are as human beings, overlap. Both are central to political discourse. So we can’t just stand back: we have to enter this fray, and we have to enter often with explanations that are not perfect.

Barbara Sahakian: I work with neuro-psychiatric disorders and brain injuries at Cambridge, often using cognitive enhancing drugs. Here, neuroscientists have produced a lot of useful work. More generally we know that things like poverty have massive effects on brain development and cognition. So neuroscience may help us understand what we can do to mitigate that, and show us how we can make things better for the impoverished and improve their quality of life and wellbeing. We’re beginning to learn a lot about the brain. My own work is on “response inhibition,” or how you develop self control, and how that is regulated in the brain. So how do we stop people’s impulsive behaviours, and involvement in substance abuse? These are social problems, but they are also neuroscientific problems. And through this approach we are beginning to develop new tools and understandings. But social scientists and neuroscientists could still work much more closely on these things.

Crabtree: Tim, you’re probably Britain’s leading expert on neural plasticity. Does this concept, which shows us that the brain is moulded by social environments throughout life, not just as children, offer new political insights?

Bliss: One of the things we know now that we didn’t 50 years ago is how brains can store information. But we don’t really know how it works at a neural level, at the level of the connection between those cells, the synapses, that are actually doing the storing. Experiments give us a good model of how memories might be stored, but that’s less useful when it comes to broader questions, like “How can I improve my memory?” Memory, like much else we’re talking about today, is an emergent property of an inconceivably vast network of brain cells, and we’re really only at the absolute beginning of investigating this.

Glaser: But we know that there are periods of development which happen in children that don’t happen for adults. Can we not see a connection between this and, for example, the rules which might govern child protection, or the age at which you might allow a child to stand trial?

Sahakian: There has been remarkable work done in Sweden about cognitive training, or brain training (see Tom Chatfield, p73). Think of a simple memory task, like memorising digits in your head. You look up a number in a phone book, dial it and don’t get through. Then suddenly you can’t remember the number any more. If you make people train at such a task, not only do you get enhancement within that part of the neuro-circuitry, you also get effects on D1 [dopamine] receptors, which are important for a number of broader neurological processes. Such things can become a non-pharmacological way to improve brain function, which I think is very exciting.

Zoe Drayson: Getting back to the issue of why we think neuroscience is so compelling, there have been studies done that show if you give people explanations of behaviour on a purely psychological level, and then you add a bogus additional neurological explanation which is logically irrelevant, people still think that explanation is better. That’s not to say that there are no good neuroscientific explanations, but it does mean we must be careful.

Eva Hoffman: One of the things that interests me here is the extent to which neuroscience seems to confirm insights from other discourses—such as psycho-analysis—and other ways of understanding human nature. For me, the intermediary term between the brain and society is still culture. We are deeply formed by culture. This might be changing: today we have globalisation, and fewer differences between cultures. But nevertheless we are all initiated into a culture. The foundation of the self must happen through culture. The transmission of language is the most obvious—a baby born in Hungary will speak Hungarian, the same baby born in China will speak Chinese. If we start thinking about ourselves in purely neurological terms, then we lose our sense of ourselves.

Crabtree: What about the possible policy applications of neuroscience? There is a range of issues, from neurological justifications for investment in early years education to improve cognitive development in children, to similar justifications for investing in criminal rehabilitation, given that Tim Bliss’s arguments about “plasticity” suggest our brains can be shaped and developed as adults too.

Grayling: Many people are rightly sceptical about what neuroscience tells us about policymaking. To think that we can infer something from brain imaging for public policy is a kind of madness. With great respect to all the imagists, it’s just high-tech phrenology at the moment. There is important work being done in neuroscience on structures like synapses, and a great deal is now known about the anatomy and physiology of the psycho-nervous system. But, for now, the neurosciences are only suggesting things about psychology to people who aren’t neuroscientists.

Sahakian: I’m more positive. For years we changed our education system again and again, but these changes weren’t based on evidence about how we learned. Instead, wouldn’t it be useful if we thought about how the brain really works, and how children learn best, and in turn formulated educational policy informed by that? We can use neuroscience a lot more effectively than we are doing at the moment.

Orbach: But why not call it cognition? Why does it have to be neuroscience?

Sahakian: Well, it’s all in the brain ultimately. There’s even now a discipline called neuro-education.

Rose: The problem with anything we know from experimental studies, either with humans or animals, is that people and animals learn in different ways depending on the task, and depending on their environment. And surely there are more basic issues to address first: our schools are impoverished, class sizes are too large, teachers are often inadequate. It doesn’t seem impossible to me to provide an educational system that improves on that, without worrying about the different cognitive strategies that people use to teach and learn. If we want to know the reasons why Blair followed Bush into Iraq, we don’t need to know about Blair’s serotonin levels. So the question is: where is the right level to make an intervention? Lifting people out of poverty seems to me a desirable strategy, and we do not need to know about their cognition.

Taylor: Fine, but any explanation of poverty is, at some level, about what poverty does to brains. But what is the transmission mechanism? If it is deprivation in our early years that damages us, what is the thing which is leading to that damage replicating itself over time? David Cameron made a very interesting speech on “character” in January, saying that what matters in the development of children’s character is parenting, not social class. Here he is hinting at other research suggesting that the management of social boundaries is increasingly a problem for families. I know someone who has spent years dealing with children from difficult backgrounds. They used to deal with children who were neglected in the sense of not having things, and being over-disciplined. Now they deal with people who have plenty of stuff, but who have few boundaries and limits. The first group, he says, is much easier to deal with: it was simply a case of giving them the things they hadn’t had. With the second, the problem was they were all over the place. So part of the answer to the question about how social circumstances impact on individual children is, inevitably, about what is happening at critical moments of their brain development. And again, if we say that we’re not going to have this type of conversation about the neurological impact of upbringing because it’s just too dangerous, or too reductive, then other people will have it for us.

Catherine Fieschi: A number of people around this table have noted the willingness of social scientists to venture into the so-called “hard” sciences, like neuroscience. But I’m struck by the humility of the latter and the rather bombastic claims made by the former. One of the fundamental things about neuroscience is that it changes the way we understand our terms. For example, there’s been a shift in the past few years in how people talk about emotions. They are now seen to be a complex interplay of neurological activity interacting with conditioning. It used to be quite easy to dismiss the “emotional,” and it isn’t any more. But such research, for instance into the neurological basis for empathy, can easily be misinterpreted. Now we all too easily collapse empathy, ethics, morality and pro-social behaviour. If we look closely at the debate in neuroscience around empathy, however, it shows that it is very difficult to determine whether empathetic behaviour is “other-directed” or “self-directed.” This, in turn, has big implications for how we might encourage people towards more pro-social behaviour.

Glaser: It’s important to understand that there are questions where neuroscience is interesting, and others where it won’t be. So there are some questions around the critical period of plasticity, which might suggest banning adverts for children, thinking about regulations around gambling machines in pubs. But for many things it’s like the difference between Google Docs or Word. Google Docs works over the internet, so there is nothing going on in your computer—through its hardware, or, in this analogy, the brain—that tells you much that is interesting about how Google Docs works.

Moore: Just to return to this question of poverty. It’s not so much how we might see it represented in the brain. All the research shows that one of the most important things when you’re poor is not the lack of food or employment, but self-respect. This is true all around the world, be it Africa, Bangladesh or Britain. So we can’t allow politicians to get away with an argument that it’s not social class that matters, it’s parenting; particularly if you then start to stigmatise certain kinds of parenting. And the only way one can avoid that is by keeping up a dialogue over what the evidence shows. Otherwise, we trip over that old-fashioned nature/culture debate and get back to where we were decades ago.

Crabtree: What about other areas apart from poverty and parenting?

Rose: Quite a few neuro-technologies are in development, although some may simply be snake oil. For instance, can you use brain scans to tell if people are telling the truth in court? My son is a lawyer, and he is sceptical that such things will be valid in a British court. That said, the concept of “mens rea,” or the fact that a criminal must have a guilty mind, is brought into a considerable quandary by the neuroscience.

Glaser: That said, if you want to get information out of people, brain scanning is more humane than waterboarding.

Rose: Perhaps. Always the weather vane for what’s going on is what the American military are funding. They are extremely interested in the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), or ways to use machines to excite our neurons to try and change thoughts, or control our responses to thoughts. This might get us to where we were in the early years of this Labour government, when David Blunkett was calling for research into the possibility that you could actually prospectively diagnose psychopaths. This idea, no matter how wrong, is compatible with the more robust views on punishment and prevention that have done the rounds of new Labour, and likely in the Conservatives too.

Drayson: I wonder to what extent there is a difference between changing somebody’s thoughts with transcranial magnetic stimulation and similar invasive neuroscientific techniques or subtler methods like subliminal advertising?

Bliss: We’ve got to be careful, because we’re miles away from planting or amending memories in our brains. TMS is still a very crude technology.

Orbach: I want to come back to Barbara, and ask a bit more about how neuroscience can help us develop pharmacologically positive interventions?

Sahakian: We do this already. Ritalin is a good example. I’m not advocating it for healthy people, but we use it all the time for people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]. And why not? If a child has severe ADHD, their school experience can be completely ruined. They don’t have a good education, they end up in prison and so on. Why not give them Ritalin and let them stay in school? These drugs can be a useful way of helping people enjoy a better quality of life.

Rose: ADHD is what we might have called minimal brain dysfunction in the 1980s. If you asked a British paediatrician about it then, they would have said that the incidence was about 1 in 500 or 1 in 1,000. Now we are talking about an incidence of ADHD diagnosis of somewhere between 3 and 10 per cent in this country, and much more in the US. So are we changing the ways in which we categorise certain kinds of behaviour as acceptable or unacceptable? Is there an epidemic of this disease that didn’t exist before? Or are we renaming what were once naughty children? Unless we ask those questions before we ask questions about brain science, I don’t think we can understand it.

Taylor: I do think that learning is important here. In truth, there has been virtually no progress in the argument between educational progressives and educational traditionalists in recent decades. In medicine, or policing techniques, imagine if you went back 40 years and found exactly the same arguments happening, utterly unchanged. It would be bizarre. Yet the argument now about what happens in the classroom is the same as in the 1970s. Now, I would rather be taught by a good traditionalist teacher than a bad progressive teacher. But as a progressive, I am interested in insights into how learning takes place. And I am confident that, as we find out more about our brains, it will strengthen the progressive case, in the sense that children learn best when they are actively involved, not being passive.

Bliss: What neuroscience can say about learning in the classroom is not rocket science, is it? We know that if you are interested, if you have got a good teacher, if you are involved, you are paying attention, you’re going to learn better. But this also links to the whole question of to what extent is it valid, reasonable even, to use cognitive enhancing drugs? These are coming along, they do work: we know that Ritalin works. Who hasn’t taken Ritalin to pass exams?

Glaser: There’s a lot of over-claiming even within neuroscience. But part of this flows from the pressure put on scientists to make their research relevant and talked about. We’re now required by research councils to demonstrate the social impact of our ideas, and this will only get worse. That said, I’m quite excited by what we’re beginning to understand about our movement control system and our perception system generally. There is now evidence about links between these systems and social cognition—in other words, how we learn what others are thinking. But there’s also an interesting political issue in all this. Evidence from science tells us whether any intervention is likely to take us closer, or less close, to an outcome which we think ought to exist. But the notion that science can tell us what the state should actually be is problematic.

Sahakian: The 21st century will be brilliant for neuroscience—we’ve got lots of new techniques, and lots of knowledge that we are able to apply to some of the problems we have talked about today. I have always wanted to believe in the ontological unity of the world: that if we managed to put together all the social scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, we could get a unified explanation of how the world is. I still want to believe in this in theory but the way that neuroscientists talk about consciousness has nothing at all to do with the way that psychoanalysts use the term. So we still have epistemological diversities, a premature insistence on convergence may do a great deal of damage. Maybe we just need to live in a world of such diversities, just as we live in a world of waves and particles, of quantums, Einstein and Newtonian physics.

Taylor: What interests me is the possibility of having the argument about who we need to be alongside the argument about who it is we are. When I was at school, I had this argument with my mates. I’d argue that we’re basically nice people, and it was just the depredations of the system that screwed us up. My right-wing friends would say we were basically self-interested, but give us the right financial incentives and we’ll do the right thing. And if we don’t, then lock us up.

This is still the most interesting question in politics: who, really, are we? And what should we do about it? Look at the argument Anthony Giddens used to make about how politics had changed: we have a politics not of class but of life stories, we recognise the importance of individualism, and social democracy needs to respond to this by finding new spaces for collective decision-making. Research in behavioural economics and social psychology, much of it underlined by neuroscience, demonstrates that individual judgement is not a sufficient basis for making collective decisions. So this brings us to a stark conclusion: we don’t get together democratically and collectively just because we’re idealists—we do it because we have to.