November 29, 2012

"Neuroscience: Under Attack" in the New York Times

Alex Caring-Lobel

If you get the Sunday Times you probably saw Alissa Quart's clever op-ed on the backlash against the perfunctory extrapolations and sweeping claims made by popular neuroscience. The danger of false positives in neuroimaging has been brought to the attention of the public eye over the last several years (remember those neuroscientists that imaged brain activity in a dead salmon?). Quart's piece, however, doesn't just lay blame on shoddy science and premature conclusions drawn by neuroscientists, it also examines the culture that allows neuroscientific explanations to supplant other viable interpretations of experience.

As a journalist and cultural critic, I applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.

Quart points out that a number of neuro doubters—those writers and bloggers, sometimes themselves neuroscientists, who bring attention to the reductivist pitfalls and follies pervasive in mainstream neuroscientific discourse—have been joined humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, engendering new disciplines as far flung as neuroeconomics and neurolaw.

In the current issue of Tricycle, two such neuro doubters—Buddhist scholars Bernard Faure of Columbia University and Donald Lopez of the University of Michigan—take a critical look at the Buddhism and science dialogue. In their essays, both authors (especially Faure) give special attention to the popular obsession with the neurology of Buddhist meditation—a topic that's become so ubiquitous that David Brooks, for his own Times op-ed, created the neologism "Neural Buddhists." Since Buddhism has become yoked with neuroscience for many, what Buddhist cultural critics like Faure and Lopez have to say might well have significance not only within the Buddhist community but also in this larger discussion.

You can read Quart's New York Times op-ed here. And, if you haven't yet seen the features "A Gray Matter" by Bernard Faure and "The Scientific Buddha" by Donald Lopez in the current issue, be sure to check those out.

Read a follow up to this post here.

Image: "Crab Stomatagastric Ganglion," enamel on composition gold and copper, 18 x 24". Greg Dunn, 2009.

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sanghadass's picture

The Buddha spoke of six different kinds of sensory consciousness. Sensory input that is registered by the external senses is re-cognised and defined when it enters the 'mind-door' (the sixth sense). Five kinds of consciousness are dependent upon 'contact' between stimuli and the external senses. For instance, an awareness of sound - at any frequency - would be a form of 'hearing' consciousness. We may be conscious of mind-objects that don't 'rely' on immediate external input. Things/events that have ceased to exist may be remembered. We can have an awareness of mind-objects that are completely imaginary. In deep 'meditative absorption' (Samadhi) there are forms of awareness that have no input from the peripheral sense-doors. There is no subjective experience in deep states of tranquility.

The time it takes to process information tells me nothing about the consciousness - the conscious happening - in and of itself. If I visualise a pink elephant and it takes a few hundred milliseconds to arise, what does that tell me about what I am perceiving - directly - the mental event? If there is increased blood-flow somewhere in the brain when the pink-elephant manifests - does it tell me what I am experiencing? If you want to lose your mind then look for it where you will never find it - develop an interest in neuroscience. If your nervous system is damaged or malfunctioning neuroscience may help. If we want to fully awaken to the the noble truth of 'dukkha' (suffering) and finish with it - we need to discover the 'truth' which liberates - Nirvana.

If we have an interest in our suffering-minds we need to pay close attention to our immediate experience - how we live. If we are in pain we may need to see a doctor! Forget about those pretty pictures of the brain! Turn your attention inward and observe the mind - directly - our suffering arises here. When the mind is completely motionless it also switches off - no more input - the ending of the known. Awakening cannot be said - it is beyond any scientific or metaphysical theory. Discovered by the wise - each for themselves!

chan.sara234's picture

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roadrunner's picture

The brain in not the mind. The mind is not the Buddha. Only the Buddha is the Buddha.
Anybody who understands this, is enlightened. Too much science becomes a religion, too much religion makes you go blind. Easy.

celticpassage's picture

I believe the actual quote (from Einstein) is:
"Science without religion Is lame, religion without science Is blind"

Dominic Gomez's picture

Are you implying that you are "enlightened"? If so, perhaps you can easily tell the rest of us what the buddha is.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture
I've opened up this pertinent article from our Spring 2000 Issue by Brad Marston, a physics professor at Brown.

@celticpassage It seems that science has come to occupy the place of religion for a great number of people. There is, however, good science and bad science, and value in the cognizance of the limits of science—often sorely lacking when it comes to neuroscience.

The "science stamp" tendency seems to have already extended beyond the West. I've witnessed a number of Tibetan Buddhist monk-scholars (not just HHDL and his Mind & Life panelist contingent) reference scientific findings to corroborate Buddhist concepts while giving Buddhist teachings. The scientific stamp of authenticity has come to appeal to traditionally-trained Buddhist monastics as well. To quote Brad Marston in the article linked to above: "it is tempting for teachers to leverage the prestige and power of science to promote a particular religious view. Scientists used to quote scripture. Now religious leaders quote scientific theories!"

celticpassage's picture

Yes. It seems to me that many do accept, wholesale, whatever comes out of reporting media when it has a 'science' stamp on it. Probably because for many in the West, 'science' has replaced religion in their beliefs and to them has the status of a god. And like many, they do not question their god.

Graham Doke's picture

Should we not bear in mind that no matter what the neuroscientists are doing and how, they are dealing with the brain. That is fine... but are we not more interested in the mind?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism equates "mind" with life itself, which is bigger than the 3 lb. organ inside the skull.