Neuroscience is making bold claims about human culture—but should we trust them?by Henrietta Moore / February 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Detail of Location 23.02.05 by Susan Aldworth, acrylic ink and graphite We often imagine the brain as a sort of high-powered, superbly engineered evolutionary computer. But it is actually a wonderfully baroque structure, made up of incompletely integrated units. And despite what we might assume about what we are born with, our brains are more shaped by interaction with the world than we think.
We have long tried to solve the mystery of what makes us human by looking at our heads. Franz Joseph Gall, the German physician who developed phrenology, argued that “brain organs” controlled everything from kindness, religion and the gift of music to an instinct for self-defence and the desire for reproduction. Victorian anthropologists measured the size and shape of human skulls—the unfortunate discipline of craniometry—seeking to make judgements about morals and intelligence, alongside descriptions of different races.
Today, such practices are discredited. Yet neuroscientists now also claim to have studied our skulls and uncovered brain areas responsible for love, happiness, morals, a belief in God, and so on. To the non-specialist, this seems like the Beano comic strip, the Numskulls—the tiny human-like creatures who live inside a boy’s head, controlling his actions. So is neuroscience really different to what has gone before?
A 2006 Oregon University study compared the brains of Chinese and English speakers undertaking maths puzzles. Simple arithmetic was easy for both, with brain imaging tools showing lights flashing in an area called the inferior parietal cortex. But, the researchers discovered, English speakers also had activity in an area associated with language, while the Chinese speakers used one linked to visual information. When published, these differences stood out as stark red dots on brain maps. The lead scientist, Yiyuan Tang, was sensibly cautious about the findings, suggesting that perhaps language has something to do with computation. Unfortunately others, like Richard E Nisbett at the University of Michigan, were less careful, pointing instead to “reasoning differences” between Asians and westerners.
The problem is that, as yet, neuroscience is weak on such subtle differences in character. Neuro-imaging technology has improved in recent years, allowing us to see how stimuli produce responses in the brain. But even on its own terms, brain research still tells us surprisingly little about what is actually going on in those areas. Where once it was thought that functions relating to emotions, for example, would be located in specific parts…