Put Baby Back in the Corner. Why neuroscience needs to slow down

Essay 2013 10 Pages

Psychology - Methods


1990-2000 was declared by the US Congress to be the ‘Decade of the Brain’. With projects like the Human Brain Project and the American answer of the BRAIN Initiative recently in the news for the millions they received in funding, it appears evident that neuroscience has captured public attention. But those working within the field have begun to notice an alarming new trend. Every other day it appears that there is a new flavor of neuroscience. There is Neuroethology, Neurolinguistics, Paleoneurology, Cultural Neuroscience, Neuroeconomics, and the list goes on. Neuroscience is becoming full of these specialized niches of inquiry. The logic behind these specialties is that since everything comes from the brain, everything can be reduced to a neuroscientific argument eventually. In general, too much specification within in science can be bad. Scientists have the tendency to create categories in the world and put certain phenomena into boxes that are realms of study. Thus, there is chemistry, which is distinct from biology, which is distinct from psychology. It is easy to see that in reality there are no clear lines of what makes a problem a chemical, biological or psychological one and that to truly understand a problem it must be viewed from all levels. However, this fact is easily forgotten and scientists often find themselves trapped looking at a problem only through their personal science’s paradigm. This categorization can lead to scientists forgetting the context of a problem which can actually influence and determine the nature of an issue all together (Barrett, Mesquita, & Smith, 2010). But this tendency to essentialism is not the main issue why the number of neurosciences should be constrained. It is impossible to say how many are needed exactly, but at present the number is far too high. Neuroscience is a new science that few people truly understand which makes it easy to abuse and it does not have the tools or ability yet to branch out too far beyond the individual brain.

Neuroscience is a very young science, but already it has power over people. Telling people that neuroscience shows ‘something’ makes them believe it, no matter how absurd that claim is (McCabe & Castel, 2008). This power is why neuroscience must be restrained as of yet. There is much pseudoscience willing to take advantage of the neuro name and having an abundance of neurosciences gives these frauds legitimacy. Furthermore, neuroscience findings are still very incidental and the tools it uses are still quite low level. Neuroscience still has many problems understanding the basics, so it remains very unclear whether it can yet leave the realm of understanding individual behavior and make the jump to explaining complex more phenomenon like culture. In the words of retired clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis:

if we have serious problems understanding the relationship between the brain and even basic and perception, it's absurd to look to brain science to cast light on the other stories of human consciousness for example devising social policy or understand the nature of love and so on. (2011)

Pseudoscience is abundant. It has become a common practice to tack neuro* onto almost everything to gain credibility (Reiner, 2012). One example of this is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP was initially designed as ‘therapy’ but also has become a popular technique sold to companies that claims to provide business benefits (Yemm, 2006). Critical studies have shown that NLP is a non-effective and it has been called by neuroscientists a “cruel deception … that represents pseudoscientific rubbish” (Witkowski, 2010, p. 64). However, despite this criticism NLP has managed to hold on and is still taken seriously by some people. One of the factors that help it remain viable is the existence of a real science of neurolinguistics, which has its own Journal of Neurolinguistics. By association with a legitimate science NLP is able to grasp onto credibility. Neurolinguistics is a fancy name in itself, and it is a well-known that complicated terms can easily dazzle people who don’t know the field very well. There is danger in using such a term as ‘neurolinguistics’ then because it can be easily abused, but there does not seem to be much benefit to the actual scientific community. Why consider oneself a neurolinguist rather than a neuroscientist studying linguistics? The urge to define and ‘create’ a new subfield of science is understandable and exciting, but it does not serve much practical purpose to carve linguistics in the brain out as a separate entity. However, the creation of the term does allow for pseudoscientific abuse.



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Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
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Title: Put Baby Back in the Corner. Why neuroscience needs to slow down