If a thought happens in a forest of neural dendrites, and no one is there to measure it, did you really think it? That's the premise of neurorealism—the bias towards believing that psychological phenomena aren't really real unless we have neuroscientific data to prove it. Further, the data can be used to make false claims appear real too—especially using the most seductive kind of brain data, neuroimages.
You can read more about it here in my story for the New York Times Magazine's 2007 Year in Ideas issue, published today.
The timing couldn't have been better. As I was writing it, a group of scientists published an op-ed in the Times titled "This Is Your Brain on Politics" that drew a scathing letter to the editor three days later co-signed by 17 eminent researchers in the field (including Anthony Wagner, in whose neuroimaging lab I worked from 2000-2002), as well as plenty of other bad press.
And last week, the neuropsychologist Daniel Amen, who makes commercial use of SPECT, published an op-ed in the LA Times arguing that we should scan the brains of all potential presidents so we can spot the types of "brain pathology" that would make one forget like Reagan, philander like Clinton, or flub words like Bush. He advocates the technique (and practically demands that the People employ his clinics) essentially as a form of Lite-Brite phrenology. His hyping of a reductionistic approach and of its political application embodies three related terms that Racine articulates in his paper: neurorealim (see above), combined with neuroessentialism* (the belief that your brain defines you as a person), deployed together to push policy changes (neuropolicy.)
On a lighter note, I considered titling the piece Crockusology, after the elusive Dr. Alfred Crockus. The tale, in brief: Since 2003, a man named Dan Hodgins has been claiming in lectures to educators and parents that a part of the brain called the crockus is four times larger in boys, supposedly explaining why "Girls see the details of experiences... Boys see the whole but not the details." In response to some questioning by prominent linguist and blogger Mark Liberman in September after one incredulous woman brought the apocryphal lump of grey matter to Liberman's attention, Hodgins further explained that "The Crockus was actually just recently named by Dr. Alfred Crockus. It is the detailed section of the brain [sic], a part of the frontal lope [sic]." The doctor and the brain area are all a big crock, but Hodgins has responded to various email inquiries with laughably vague and incorrect elaborations. This presenter's use of PowerPoint slides with pretty pictures to pilot pedagogy perhaps profiles all of Racine's terms even more prominently that the president-pestering psychologist in the newspaper piece. You can follow the gripping case history in full at Language Log.
Of course adding schematics and jargon can make any type of scientific explanation appear more valid, but they may be most potent in studies of the mind, as people have more confidence in tangible reality than in subjective accounts of experience.
Sources for the NYTM article:
-Dave McCabe et al.'s in press Cognition paper "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning" (pdf)
-Deena Weisberg et al.'s 2008 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" (pdf)
-Eric Racine et al.'s 2005 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper "fMRI in the public eye" (html, pdf)
-Joe Dumit (whose course "Brains and Culture" I took at MIT) was cut from the piece for space reasons, but he has a book titled Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity and participated in a 2005 AAAS meeting session titled "Brain Imaging and the 'Cognitive Paparazzi': Viewing Snapshots of Mental Life Out of Context."
*Adina Roskies may have been the first to use the term "neuroessentialism," in a 2002 Neuron paper, "Neuroethics for the New Millenium." (pdf). At least a third independent coining popped up last year on Mind Hacks.