Nonfiction book on brain research: what would the bat think?

An excellent new polemic makes it clear: neuroscience knows less about our brains than it does about the desires of the pharmaceutical industry.

Even if you knew everything about your brain, you probably wouldn’t know what it feels like to be a bat. Image: dpa

For quite some time now, neuroscience has been coming increasingly to the fore in science, the public and the media. In keeping with a certain zeitgeist, they are stepping up with the claim to transform previously only vaguely speculated or even unknowable things into hard knowledge. What distinguishes men and women or who is a congenital perpetrator of violence suddenly wants to be able to be clearly identified on the basis of imaging analysis procedures.

To trim back this claim to a much more modest level by means of a comprehensive critique of brain research is the aim of Felix Hasler’s new book on "Neuromythology". The author, himself a distinguished neuroscientist, succeeds in this in a very remarkable and sophisticated way. He shows that the brain, like genes, is determined by an overly complex interaction of different areas.

That’s why you can’t locate a supposedly typical female way of thinking and behaving or even a "drive to commit crimes" just anywhere in the brain – not even with today’s imaging techniques. Moreover, most brain areas are activated for completely different drives to act. On top of that, imaging that measures brain activity via blood flow is quite inaccurate. According to Hasler, all of this leads to wide margins of interpretation. And it makes brain research a rather laborious affair to advance.

Hasler also aptly shows that the results of brain research, which are widely presented in the media, often only pop up old familiar facts or even suggest sub-complexities, such as supposedly clearly measurable desires of consumers. This then even falls short of what has been found out in the past with sociological or economic methods. Using the example of psychiatric diagnoses and drug prescriptions, which have been increasing many times over for two to three decades, Hasler looks at why brain research is nevertheless so on the offensive.

Good for the pharmaceutical industry

It’s not just a matter of career-minded scientists and some sensationalist media. Rather, the supposed findings about the brain also serve to facilitate the mass sales of new psychotropic drugs. Because if every depression is reinterpreted as a new kind of psycho-disease, such as burnout or anxiety disorder, which is then infallibly traced back to a certain brain structure, then long psychoanalysis sessions are no longer helpful. Then the brain has to be physically affected with – by chance very profitable – drugs.

Many pharmaceutical companies are happy to award very lucrative research contracts for this purpose. And then they also prescribe how the scientists in supposedly neutral journals have to present the test results of new psychotropic drugs in such a way that the massive side effects remain unmentioned. Hasler could have mentioned here that similar problems are likely to occur in other areas of medicine. This prospect is not encouraging for any of us.

Hasler portrays just as sharply as he does aptly what he sees as the fascistoid tendency to identify inborn criminals and then ultimately eliminate them by acting on the brain, or at least by locking them away for life. Hasler also sees very clearly that the human mind cannot be reduced to its physical representation in the brain, but rather that there is likely to be a complex interaction of brain matter and mind. Moreover, the nature of the mind’s representation in matter cannot be clearly grasped.

In 1974, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his famous essay "What is it like to be a bat", paraphrased the millennia-old philosophical mind-body problem thus: Even if one knew everything about the brain of a bat, one would probably still not know how it feels to be a bat from the inner perspective. To have brought all this together and thought it through further cannot be credited highly enough to Felix Hasler’s very readable book.

Felix Hasler: Neuromythologie. A polemic against the interpretive power of brain research". Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2012, 260 pages, 22.80 euros.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *