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More in the Skull than Just a Brain

A book review in Science by Ricardo Basso Garcia brings some clarity to the issues behind the often reductionist field of neuroscience.

Neuromania.jpgGarcia reviewed a new book by Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umilt�, Neuromania: On the Limits of Brain Science. He considers this book "a welcome appraisal of brain research to a broad audience" whose authors "focus on the limitations of the field, covering methodological aspects and controversial assumptions that are commonly unknown to the general public."

One such controversial assumption, stemming from observable changes in brain states via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other imaging methods, is that the brain generates the mind, culture, and politics. This is not justifiable, as Garcia argues:

Legrenzi and Umilt� put brain science in a broader perspective and discuss its sociopolitical implications, something scientists often neglect when presenting their own fields. The advent of neuroimaging opened many new lines of research. Because the question "what happens in the brain when ...?" fits practically any aspect of human activity, fMRI has been applied to a wide range of issues -- from people's artistic or religious experiences to their preferences for specific products or political parties. As a consequence, many established concepts in the social sciences gained the prefix "neuro-" and a profusion of new disciplines emerged (neuroaesthetics, neurotheology, and neuropolitics, to mention a few). Putting these disciplines under scrutiny, Legrenzi and Umilt� highlight that old knowledge may have been presented as novel just by changing "mind" to "brain," without bringing actual scientific progress.
Perhaps readers can think of other scientific fields in which adding a prefix to words masquerades as understanding.

In a neo-Darwinian view, the brain is a product of millions of years of unguided mutation and selection. Naturally, then, Darwinists tend to focus on the physical brain, viewing the mind as an epiphenomenon of matter. Garcia, and the authors of Neuromania, do not invalidate brain-centric research, but argue that the mind matters as well as the matter behind the mind; neither can be understand in isolation. Garcia explains why the choice of perspective can have serious ethical consequences:

In the authors' reading, the brain has become the system of reference in explanations of human mind and behavior, relegating to the background an alternative approach that emphasized the social and cultural aspects of the human mind. A word of caution: The important issue is not a matter of which perspective should prevail but that many decisions regarding human life depend on how society defines the mind-body relationship. If only one aspect appears in the foreground, there may be drastic differences when dealing with thorny topics such as abortion and euthanasia. Answers to the complex questions raised by technological and scientific progress toward controlling life and death depend on ethical and ideological choices. To think about such issues from a strictly biological point of view may be misleading -- after all, inside our skull there is more than just a brain.

It's noteworthy that Science would publish a non-reductionist review like this.