I’m as intrigued as anyone with science and technology that seems to open us up to understand the mysteries of our bodies, our brains, our genes. I was listening to an interview recently about the pros and cons of women of Jewish heritage learning about their genetic propensity for breast cancer and, in the funny way the brain works, that lead me to think about brain scans and two books this year on the subject.
Brainwashed, very aptly named, raised some serious questions about our fascination with this new technology, our new neurocentrist way of looking at ourselves and others. The authors, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, worry that our love of brain scans and overconfidence in their meaning have crept into commerce, law, sociology, and even science. In science, it’s part of an ages-old debate about hard science (neurology) and soft science (psychology).
Will those bright and colorful splotches on our brain scans predetermine our lives and cause the doctors and technicians who view them to jump to conclusions about us?
Brainwashed somewhat counterbalances Adrian Raines’ The Anatomy of Violence, in which the author wonders whether we put so much emphasis on sociology and psychology that we tend to ignore the facts that brain scans show. That some people’s brains are so damaged—by physical, environment, and emotional factors—that they are more prone than others to violence and crime.
Both books had me thinking about The Protest Psychosis, by Jonathan Metzl, that raised issues regarding psychology (the soft science), so influenced by negative social attitudes toward black men in the 1960s that schizophrenia morphed from being a mental illness of the delicate white upper class to a mental disorder of those from the other end of the racial and socioeconomic scale.
To their credit, all of the authors worried about the troublesome past of science and social attitudes, particularly racism. Phrenology rears its ugly head (pun intended) with its claim on scientific basis. So, the debate continues, the research is endlessly fascinating; but it all bears cautious reading.