December 03, 2012

Neuroscience Fiction in the New Yorker

Alex Caring-Lobel

Since Alissa Quart's "neuro-critical" Times op-ed, which we covered on the blog last week, The New Yorker has followed suit. On The New Yorker's News Desk blog, Gary Marcus reports on the recent history of the preponderence of neuroscientific explanations in the mainstream media despite several setbacks within the field and a number of overlooked books which seriously undermine neuroscience's most sensational claims. This brief history extends up to the publication of Quart's op-ed last week, which Marcus announces as the entry of these concerns into the mainstream.

In the article, Marcus focuses on the overblown expectations surrounding neuroscience and tempers these. The solution, he argues, is "to better understand what neuroscience can or cannot tell us, and why." He predicts that scientists will increasingly offer neuroscientific explanations for much of what we do, but as the precision of our instruments advance, these explanations will turn out to be incredibly complicated.

The most salient problem with the application of neuroscience, then, might be simply that neuroscientists have gotten way ahead of themselves. How can a scientist expound the neurological basis of meditative states of advanced practitioners if, as Marcus quotes former classmate and NYU professor of psychology and neural science David Poeppel, "we still don't understand how the brain recognizes something as basic as a straight line"? Such a statement is consonant with the purported findings of neuroscience on Buddhist meditation as reported in "A Gray Matter: Another Look at Buddhism and Neuroscience" by Columbia professor Bernard Faure in the most recent issue of Tricycle:

A careful and critical reading of the literature on Buddhism and neuroscience will lead, I think, to a far more sober assessment of their convergence than one generally hears from its advocates.

What we are looking at here is a far more sober assessment of neuroscientific findings and the capabilities of neuro-imaging in general. Marcus contends that the best neuroscientists today may be the least well known, like those studying the complex, likely unsexy, dynamics involved in understanding a single word.

When the tools of neuroscience become advanced enough to formulate explanations of the meditative brain beyond vague truisms rendered in the conditional tense and without relying on poorly understood concepts like increase in theta waves and cortical thickness (see Faure's article), the field might then eschew those simplistic explanations that make for good headlines, losing some of its seductive sway but perhaps regaining a new usefulness.

In order to fully explore—heeding Marcus' directive—precisely what neuroscience can or cannot tell us, we must evaluate how much it is really adding to the various disciplines to which the neuro- prefix is appended. This is exactly what Faure does with Buddhism in his Tricycle article, setting an important example.

Read Bernard Faure's "A Gray Matter: Another Look at Buddhism and Neuroscience" in our current issue here. You can find Gary Marcus' New Yorker blog post here.

Also, you can find the precursor to this post, a response to Alissa Quart's Times op-ed, here.

Image: "Developing Cerebral Cortex," gold, dye, and enamel on aluminized panel, 36" x 72". Greg Dunn, 2012.

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