The New York Times article, “Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind” is a perfect example of the popular fascination with superficial brain research. “Consumer neuroscience,” as the field is at least honestly called, aims to apply neuroscience methodologies in order to help companies sell products and people communicate their messages. The article talks about embattled Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, among other politicians, who have employed consultants to this effect. “We warned well in advance of the high rejection level towards the three main Mexican parties,” Dr. Jaime Romano Micha, of the firm Neuropolitika, said. “Through our neuronal studies, we saw how voter sympathy levels, approach/withdraw and voting intention variables were shifting.” This could be a bad translation, but, as even the New York Times, notoriously seducible by imaging results, will note, “the phenomenon probably would not have required a scientist to point out.”
Powerhouse intellect Arne Dietrich, of the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, has published a new book, How Creativity Works in the Brain (Palgrave Macmillan) that will be sure to shake up your ideas about the mind and brain. A dedicated mechanist, Dietrich devotes himself to dispelling bogus ideas in psychology, such as right brains, divergent thinking, defocused attention, low arousal, alpha enhancement, dream states, or unconscious processes. “Current experimental work on the neural basis of creativity satisfies the criteria of phrenology,” Dietrich damningly writes, with characteristic wit and flare. He argues that, like political orientation or religious conviction, creativity does not exist as a cohesive entity on the neural level. Culture, he says, evolves from the coupling of variation and selection. Unfortunately, according to Dietrich, no one in neuroscience has investigated this idea, and so the field has failed to progress for decades. Popular scientists had better take note; Arne Dietrich may be the smartest guy in the room, and he means business.
When I was in Spain, last spring, I visited the National Library in Madrid, where original manuscripts of Don Quixote and other classics are preserved. I searched for every single book about Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Throughout my research, I had already seen most of them. But I hadn’t seen Los Sueños de Santiago Ramón y Cajal, published earlier that year. I took the book to the central reading room and could not believe my eyes. The father of modern neuroscience kept a dream diary from 1918 until 1934, when he died. He wanted to disprove the theories of Freud. I had known about his work as an experimental psychologist, studying hypnotism and suggestion out of his own home. I knew that his ultimate goal was to understand the human mind by examining the anatomical substrate of the brain. But I had no idea that he would have kept such a personal account of his own unconscious. Perhaps this is why he chose not to publish his findings, in the end. I was deeply moved by some of the dreams. Here was a side of the great genius that no one knew. The story of the book was stuff of legend; thought lost during the Spanish Civil War, it was guarded by a Spanish psychiatrist during his travels throughout Europe and uncovered just recently by Spanish scholars. Read more about it all in Nautilus Magazine, which published some of my translated excerpts along with an introduction.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has a terrific short review of the new Pixar film Inside Out by Yale Professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock. Dimock points out that although the film employs the “greatest hits of mind theory,” according to the producer, it leaves thinking out. Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner, who was consulted on the film, argues that emotions are important for our evolution. The film tries to leave us with empathy for the confusion and anxiety within our own heads and the heads of others, that which thought can never seem to penetrate.
Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review offers wisdom, meditation, and practices from an ancient tradition for contemporary life. In Spring 2014, it featured an interview with the cultural critic Curtis White, whose book The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, a follow-up to his 2003 international bestseller The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves, attacks the ideology of scientism, or “the claim that science has got the world nailed down (or soon will, anyway), that the answer to all of our human problems lies in the discovery of natural laws, or that submitting to a scientific perspective is a choiceless imperative dictated by impersonal facts.” A response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, The Science Delusion argues that STEM disciplines have taken over our narrative of what it means to be human, reducing us to functions within systems. “Neuroscience’s claim to be able to understand meditation in terms of the mechanics of neurons and chemicals is another example of ideological storytelling,” White says. “You can have Buddhism, this story goes, as long as you are willing to acknowledge that it can be best understood through neuroscience.” He warns agains the appropriation of scientific ideas for the benefit of corporate culture, such as the Search Inside Yourself program at Google, making people believe that their prisons are pleasure domes.
Over at Nautilus, there is a long piece by Jonathon Keats titled “When Photographers are Neuroscientists.” Keats, the experimental philosopher and conceptual artist, author of the book Forged: Why the Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, tells the story of the photographers Elena Dorfman, David Hockney, and Weegee, whose work illustrates contradiction and uncertainty in how the brain handles visual information. Citing an influential 2004 neuroaesthetics paper by Semir Zeki, which defines the experience of ambiguity in the brain as the “certainty of many, equally plausible interpretations,” Keats goes on to celebrate photography as an expressive medium. The name of the author is meaningful; the poet John Keats coined the term negative capability, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The photographers highlighted in the essay each manipulated their negatives, creating innovative visions of the world that opened up the minds of their viewers to the possibility of different realities.