Over the past two decades, neuroscience has become the new social explain-all, replacing previous behavioural Rosetta Stones that failed, from original sin to psychoanalysis as a hard science. (Burton, a physician, novelist and former chief of neurology at a San Francisco hospital, reminds readers of the days when schizophrenia was attributed to overbearing mothers.) Today, fuelled by advances in imaging techniques that light up brain areas associated with various human passions, from religion to sex, neuroscience is expected to tell us the real story about everything from stock market crashes to criminal behaviour to the workings of consciousness itself.
Except it won’t, Burton argues soberly, because it really can’t. Using our minds to study our minds is like using a second-hand, scratched and smudged microscope to examine bacteria. Amazing contraptions as our brains are, they are “hard-wired to experience unjustified feelings about ourselves, our thoughts and our actions”; our curiosity and desire to understand are so overwhelming, we are brilliant in detecting patterns in the data our senses provide, even when there is no pattern to perceive. When humans train their inquiring minds on the outer universe, we have ways of correcting for our biases that don’t work when we look inward, Burton says. Understanding the brain’s mechanics is a spectacular and useful achievement for medical science—this part controls speech, that part lights up when the object of desire comes into view—but tells us nothing of what is consciously experienced.
For readers comfortable with a neurological mind map that resembles a series of your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine Rorschach inkblots, the Skeptic’s Guide is a delight. Burton’s tour through the latest brain research demolishes certainty like a daisy-cutter bomb. By the time he points to a study indicating that brain images themselves are a potent factor in convincing people of neuroscience’s new claims—our brains are impressed by the elegant shapes and ethereal colours—he has us. We have seen the pattern, even if Burton keeps begging us to distrust it.
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