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About this week’s eSkeptic

Neuroscience—one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science—often suffers from spasms of “premature extrapolation” due to oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains. In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. The SkepDoc), takes a look at the science of neuroscience in light of Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld’s book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is

Neuroscience and its Discontents

by Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. The SkepDoc)

Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have written a marvelous book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Its purpose is not to critique neuroscience, but to expose and protest its mindless oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains.

The brain is a wondrous thing: “the three pound universe between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Trying to understand how it works and how it generates conscious awareness and subjective feelings is a daunting task. Neuroimaging is one of the tools we are using to study it. Unfortunately, people get so enthusiastic about its possibilities that they are constantly tempted to read more into the images than is really there. This has given rise to a new phrenology that interprets our mental characteristics with pretty colored pictures. We are easily impressed by pictures; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Brain imaging can’t show us what is going on in the mind of the person. It shows areas that have increased oxygen consumption. A spot lights up when a person thinks or acts, but that doesn’t tell us much. Single blobs that light up in the brain have been interpreted as centers for things like love, rewards, hate, and belief in God. This is sometimes referred to as “blobology.” They found an area in one person that lit up when he thought about an actress he loved. That area was thought to be a “reward” center. But it also lit up when he thought of Ahmadinejad! So they did some fancy footwork and rationalized that he believed that the Jewish people would endure and therefore he derived pleasure from the idea that Ahmadinejad would fail. That’s pretty far-fetched. Occam’s razor would lead us to a more prudent explanation that maybe the area that lit up was reacting not to pleasure, but to something else. People tend to read what they want to see into ambiguous patterns, like the Rorschach test. Mental functions are rarely limited to a single spot in the brain; multiple areas are involved and interconnected. Researchers are increasingly moving away from blobology and towards pattern analysis where they look at the patterns of activation across the entire brain.

Neuroscience is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science, and it’s sad to see it perverted and hyped in spasms of “premature extrapolation.” The mind is a result of the actions of neurons, but one can’t use the physical rules of the cellular level to predict activity at the psychological level. Neurobiology deals with brains and physical causes; psychology deals with the mind, with thoughts and motives. This might sound superficially like dualism, but it isn’t; the mind is solely the product of a physical brain, but there is an explanatory ladder with many levels, and it can be counterproductive to put too much emphasis on the lower levels. A marriage counselor could try to improve his understanding of a couple’s problems by doing fMRI scans of their brains, but that would only draw attention away from their thoughts, feelings, and interactions with each other at a level where intervention could be helpful.

Neurodeterminism may replace Freudian determinism (unconscious conflicts and drives determine our thoughts and actions) and Skinnerian determinism (rewards and punishments determine our thoughts and actions) to become the next grand narrative of human behavior. The authors ask, “Can we ever fully comprehend the psychological by referring to the neural?” Some people (among them Sam Harris and Michael Gazzaniga) think we can, even hoping that knowledge of the brain will solve all our political and ethical problems, and that government bureaucrats might some day be replaced by neurocrats.

There is a tendency to grant brain-based explanations superiority over all other ways of accounting for human behavior. Understanding the biological basis of pleasure has led some addiction experts to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction. In the legal world, there is a temptation to shift from blame to biology, relieving the criminal of responsibility for his actions.

Whenever you see a headline “Brain Scans Show…” you should be skeptical. Scans don’t reveal causes, only correlations. In teenagers, there is increased activity in regions associated with aggression when they play violent video games. That doesn’t mean video games trigger violence. Maybe aggressive teenagers enjoy those games more. Maybe parental inattentiveness leads to both more video game playing and more aggressive tendencies. Maybe those areas also light up with excitement and competition. Or maybe there’s another explanation altogether.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures oxygen consumption as a proxy for increased neuronal activity. It uses a subtraction technique to compare oxygen consumption during a task to baseline consumption. The data are collected as voxels, a volume designation analogous to the pixels of a two-dimensional display. A computer filters out background noise and generates an image with color gradations to reflect the likelihood that the results of the subtraction process were not due to chance. The pictures we usually see of scans are not of a single person, but a composite averaging the results of everyone in a study. Defining the task is critical: having teenagers look at color pictures of people rather than black and white pictures completely reversed the findings of one experiment. There are other complications. There is a 2–5 second delay between the activation of neurons and the increase in blood flow. The amygdala lights up in situations of fear but it also lights up in situations of anger, happiness, and even sexual arousal. An area may light up because its neurons are stimulating other neurons, or it might light up because it is inhibiting the activity of other neurons. Sometimes the voxel is too large to register tiny clusters of neurons that have a critical function. There is also the practice factor, where brain circuits operate more efficiently and use less oxygen as the person becomes skilled at a task. Additional mischief comes from statistical errors, as in the famous fMRI scan of a dead salmon “thinking.” And researchers may home in on tiny areas of activation and inadvertently concentrate on chance fluctuations in the data, drawing conclusions that will not be replicable. Another problem is when researchers “learn” something from brain imaging that we already knew by other means; this might be called “neuroredundancy.”

Neuromarketing capitalizes on the fact that consumers are seldom consciously aware of the motives behind their own choices. The more brazen promoters of brain scanning to get insights into consumer behavior are pulling off a “brain scam” on the companies that hire them. Clinicians scan the brains of addicts with the good intention of putting addiction on an equal footing with diseases like Alzheimer’s. But they ignore the reality that quitting is the rule rather than the exception. A survey found that 77% of former drug addicts and 86% of former alcoholics reported no substance abuse problems during the year before the survey. Identifying addiction as a brain disease tends to remove personal responsibility and depicts addicts as helpless.

Neuroscience has made us question the very concept of free will: the unconscious processes of the brain register our decisions before we are conscious of deciding. It has raised questions about individual responsibility and about the morality of blaming or punishing people in a deterministic world. But those are moral and philosophical issues that neuroscience itself can’t resolve.

Satel and Lilienfeld briefly mention Dr. Daniel Amen and his Amen Clinic empire. He is a prime example of someone who reads far more into brain scans than is warranted. He thinks single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans are essential to diagnose and treat mental illnesses, addiction, ADHD, and other conditions (a claim not accepted by mainstream psychiatrists and psychologists). He charges patients thousands of dollars to inject them with radioactive compounds and show them pretty colored pictures of their brains, without any credible evidence that it adds to the diagnostic or treatment processes.

SPECT scan (

An example of Dr. Amen’s “evidence”

The image to the right is an example of his “proof.” Are you impressed?

Amen’s latest endeavor is a new book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. He reviewed 26,000 SPECT scans of men and women, and concluded that the female brain was more active in 112 of the 128 brain regions he looked at. From the differences in those regions, he concluded that women make better bosses and leaders, are better at memory, empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control, and “appropriate” worry. Men are only better in 9 areas associated with visual perception, form recognition and object representation; they are better at tracking objects in space. He thinks his findings explain why women have a lower incidence of ADHD, antisocial personality disorder, substance abuse, and incarceration. He offers advice to help women love their brain, overcome mood disorders, optimize brain function, and supercharge it for better health, energy, mood, and sex.

Being a woman, I’d love to believe women are superior to men in so many ways, but I won’t let my wishes interfere with my judgment. I have never found any of Amen’s work credible.

Neuroimaging is frequently misunderstood and overhyped. Satel and Lilienfeld’s book offers keen insights into what neuroscience can and can’t do, and much food for thought. END



  1. Bryan says:

    Hi. My name is an alias as we have a chiropractor in my extended family that has, for the past decade or two, begun following, with an almost religious fanaticism, the ideas of some seemingly-irrational people.

    He has tried magnetic trinkets on necklaces for health reasons, little plastic doo-dads that he claims have a chip to protect you from electromagnetic radiation, and most disturbing is his movement to what most of the family refer to as faith-based medicine. His chiropractic is hardly chiropractic at all anymore as he subscribes to the Koren Specific Technique (KST) started and brilliantly marketed by a Dr. Tedd Koren. Our family member has shown us brain scans of before and after a “treatment” as evidence for its efficacy.

    I was wondering if anyone has examined or written about KST and where I might find these critiques.


  2. Keith says:

    A ‘device’ you can use to mitigate any over arching enthusiasm for the narrative is to support your national neurological agency or it’s equivalent, mine being the Neurological Foundation Of NZ. It tends to keep your feet firmly on the ground.

  3. mark novak says:

    As a young teacher I remember left-brain right-brain, and a thing called Brain Gym. I knew they were nonsense but teachers and parents lapped it up. They still are.

  4. P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

    Mind Body Connection – Subjective Vs. Empirical

    The word ‘Mind’ according to the Dictionary also means ‘psychic’ experience or ‘spiritual’ being. The meaning sounds fascinating. During the prehistoric era when human thoughts started penetrating the unknown territories, the philosophers of the yore explained mind as an entity which belonged to the spirit world.
    The philosophy that prevailed in India during the period before CE 1500 when the invasive Aryans arrived, explained mind as consciousness generated by the process of human brain. However, with the arrival of the Aryans, all the materialistic thoughts that existed in ancient Bharat were replaced by a philosophy based on subjectivism. Concept of human mind was no exception. Their explanation was that mind belonged to the vast arena of spirit world which exists outside the human body. Mind enters body from the spirit world through an unknown and invisible thread that can be experienced by enlightened souls of the spiritualists. Mind traverses with unimaginable velocity. The enlightened spiritual gurus communicate through mind irrespective of distance and their locations. There thus came the concept of mind spread in the spirit world getting connected with the body.
    It took hundreds of years since the birth and growth of subjective imaginations about mind started before the concept of materialistic ideals attracted the thinkers. In the context, the most remembered name is that of Anaxagoras who was alive around BC 500. According to Anaxagoras the cosmos is made of divisible matter and every bit of the matter can become anything but no part of matter can become ‘mind’ because mind is soul which is separate from matter. It confirms that even Anaxagoras’ ideas were somewhere inside the subjective philosophy.
    The mind connection with spirit world continued almost up to AC 17th Century till Rene’ Descartes propounded the Cartesian theory of Dualism to resolve mind-body problem. Descartes proposed a host of theories. One of his thoughts was that there exists a distinction between the realms of mind and matter. Another proposal was that universe contains a single stuff. Mind and matter are both the aspects of that single stuff.
    Almost all the theories about mind are, in some way or the other, related to an invisible spirit that exists outside human body. Though some of the theories conceived the idea to connect mind to matter, the penultimate conclusion could not escape the mind-relation with soul and spirit.
    Science does not have space to accommodate any spirit world; mind does not exist in a non-existent spirit world to enter the human body. The phenomenon of Mind is a part of human physic and therefore mind need not require to be connected to human body.
    Mind is not a separate entity; separate from the physical body which is material. What is referred to as mind belongs to the physic. The sum total of different reactions of the physic, – reactions to stimuli emanating from both the internal and the external environs may be called ‘Mind’. In terms of science, the concept of mind getting connected to physical body is deceptive. The human body consists of body cells and nerve cells. Both the body cells and nerve cells form part of the body, the material physic.
    Feelings and emotions are felt as a result of excitation of the nerve cells. Excitation takes place when stimuli from the environs react with the nerve cells.
    The stimuli from environs reach central nervous system through various nerve connections in the sensory centers that represent vision, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. These sensory nerve centers are there in the body at the time of birth. The mental activity that enables cardiac pulsations, blood circulation, breathing and ingestion are ingrained in the nervous system at the time of birth and are made possible through permanent nerve connections controlled by unconditioned reflex actions. The mental activity governed by unconditioned reflex action just keeps the organism to meet bare subsistence needs of the body. These bare needs are supplemented by countless nerve connections which are formed after the organism is born. Such after-born nerve connections are activated and controlled by conditioned reflex actions. Human mind represents the combination of both the unconditioned and conditioned reflex actions that take place in the central nervous system.
    The organism survives in the environment; the organism grows and fulfills its biological calls through the nervous actions which are guided, controlled and executed by the unconditioned and the conditioned reflex actions. These then are supported and supplemented by inherent biochemical formulations of congenital origin. The entire process taken together is what constitutes ‘Mind’.
    If any one still persists to recognize the way mind is connected to the body, the only way to do that is by the neuroscience of the processes behind the working of the nervous system as explained above: Because the very concept of connecting mind to the spirit world which is outside to the body is a misconceived idea. The idea is obscurantism of the toughest order in the light of science; in the path of empirical evaluation.

  5. Don Crawford says:

    A Master of the wisdom has said: There is a TRUTH that exists and within humanity hides the potential for its discovery. Nothing new can be discovered by clinging to old outworn and inapplicable theories and ideas. An ancient wisdom concept is that” Spirit is Matter at the higher levels of our system and Matter is spirit at the lower levels. ALL IS SPIRIT IN MANIFESTATION. There is only ONE CONSCOIUSNESS, that of the solar Logos, the creator of all of it, and it is the responsibility of each human entity to discover and access for him or herself those levels or dimensions of consciousness which make up our solar system. (See, A Study In Consciousness, by Annie Besant, (one time President of the International Theosophical Society), TS Publishing House, Wheaton Illinois. ( The TS is the modern day embodiment of the Ancient Wisdom. And the literature of the ( is highly enlightening and revealing of the Truth of Life and the Purpose of our Existence.

  6. Dr. Jack L. Edwards says:

    What a delightful read! Your article is certainly the best popular account of the current excesses of neuroscience I have read. I look forward to reading Satel and Lilienfeld’s book.

    I liked your “blobology” and the actress and Ahmadinejad and further, you “brain scams.” Delightful items!

    There are a couple of points that were problems for me: First, when you say,
    “Neurobiology deals with brains and physical causes; psychology deals with the mind, with thoughts and motives. This might sound superficially like dualism, but it isn’t…”

    Once you move to a dimensional system that is not observable and measurable, you are engaged in classic dualism. Two dimensional systems that are observable are 1) environmental events and behavior and 2) the structure, states and actions of the nervous system as measured with special instruments. The mind is a dimensional system of a very different sort, and thus, a very different kettle of fish: neither observable nor measurable. It is supposedly inferred from behavior and events, however, many varieties of fictional accounts are “inferred.” For more than two thousand years, the ever-illusive mind has been the source for much of the snake oil sold to humanity. All of that is not to say that private experience is not real but that would require more time than I will take here.

    My second problem is with the comment: “Neurodeterminism may replace Freudian determinism…and Skinnerian determinism…to become the next grand narrative of human behavior.”

    Freudian determinism is couched in terms of an elaborate mental apparatus and is in the realm of the mind, which was just addressed. Skinnerian determinism, which is based on environmental events and observable behavior will remain a “grand narrative,” regardless of what physiology and neuroscience discover. A neuroscientist or physiologist can never develop a complete picture of why a person is behaving as he is behaving without telling us how he got to where he is (genetically and environmentally) and can never predict how he will behave without an adequate description at that level, which must also include a characterization of the current environment in which the person is behaving.

    All that said, again, this was a great article and, if the book is anything like it, it will be entertaining as well as informative.

  7. Fred says:

    Great article, but the below quote is very much inaccurate:

    “Neurobiology deals with brains and physical causes; psychology deals with the mind, with thoughts and motives.”

    Behavioral psychologists (e.g. BCBAs, members of APA division 25, ABAI members) typically reject the notion of the mind as unscientific. They would also be more likely to focus on physical processes.

  8. Ron says:

    A member of our family is struggling with addiction problems. I would love to have the source for your comment:

    “But they ignore the reality that quitting is the rule rather than the exception. A survey found that 77% of former drug addicts and 86% of former alcoholics reported no substance abuse problems during the year before the survey.”

    It would really help us to be somewhat more optimistic about his outcome.

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