Friday, May 10, 2013

The Collateral Damage of the Neuro-explosion


I tell my philosophy students that if they want a secure job future they should degree in the neurosciences, or neuro-something. Neurostudies are exploding.

Like any explosion, the neuro-explosion has produced collateral damage. For this see Alissa Quart's "Adventures in Neurohumanities." "While much was gained as “the brain” replaced “individual psychology” or social class readings, much has also been lost." 

Neuroscience is useful for understanding behavior. For example: "Ten people were shown 300 paintings while their heads were in an fMRI machine. They were asked to label the paintings as neutral, beautiful or ugly. The paintings they thought were beautiful led to increased activity in their frontal cortex, while the ugly paintings led to a similar increase in their motor cortex."

OK. But how is this significantly different from studies that show how facial expressions differ when subjects view the same? One difference, in terms of practice, might be that we could manipulate the frontal cortex to produce "beautiful" paintings. Or, with such knowledge, we could engage in "neuromarketing" to produce "beautiful" objects that would appeal broadly and therefore sell.

But some are suspicious of neuro-reductionsim (the reduction of the human sciences to neurophysiology). Rutgers professor Johnathan Kramnik writes that “there’s an attention to the fine grain of a text that neuroscience can’t get at.” Jennifer Ashton of the University of Illinois writes: “How your brain is firing won’t tell you if something is ironic, metaphorical or meaningful or if it is not.” How long is a metaphor? 

Quart asks: "Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000? Will artists, and advertisers who use artists, employ the lessons of neuroaestheticism to sharpen their neuromarketing techniques?" When neuroaesthetics is used this way then people will be reduced to ends that are to be manipulated or made marketable.

Quart is correct when she writes that "neurohumanities is not just a change in how we see paintings or read nineteenth-century novels. It’s a small part of the change in what we think it means to be human."

(A very good and recent book on what it means to be human is: Christian Smith, What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.)