Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?

Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? (New Human Frontiers). Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016, 176 pp.

Two and a half decades after the launch of the Decade of the Brain, and in the midst of the new vogue about building friendlier bridges between neuroscience and the social sciences, humanities and industry, feminist sociologist Hilary Rose and neuroscientist Steven Rose’s concise and engaging narration of the state of all things neuro is a welcome addition. It speaks to neuroscientists, social scientists, and the interested public with a refreshing critical verve that has otherwise dissipated in the excitement over interdisciplinary “happy marriages” (p. 51). While they move quickly from the 1960s to the 2000s to describe the development of the neurosciences in the context of the Human Genome Project, the multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, and military research, Rose and Rose are not merely descriptive.

By inserting vivid political backstories and details of methodological quarrels, Rose and Rose complicate the story of the linear rise of the neuro, exposing major scientific controversies behind the glossy PR of megaprojects such as the EU Human Brain Project or the White House Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. They emphasize the entanglements between research programs and various funding bodies, each with their own agenda. In doing so, the Roses demonstrate the imbalance between grandiose ambitions and actual deliverables, and they underscore the economic goals of these mainstream programs. As such, the book begins with the premise that technosciences such as neuroscience are deeply interdependent with the political economy, and that science, society, and selves are co-produced.

More concerning to Rose and Rose than the shortcomings of the brain projects and “fashionable froth”-style neuro-opportunism is the individualizing effect of neurobiological accounts of social and behavioural phenomena and the ways in which a focus on the substrate of the brain diverts attention from structural inequalities (p. 99). Using public policy in child development and education as their key case studies, they ask: What kind of scientific account of humans and society can we expect in the context of a neoliberal economy? The Roses explore how neuroplasticity—a concept that has become a key linkage between science and policy—is deployed and interpreted by scientists and policy-makers through their analysis of the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing (MCW), a 2008 British policy report initiated by the Labour government. The report aimed to investigate the conditions required to maximize the population’s cognitive capacities over the whole lifespan.

Probing the language of the report and the conditions in which it was written, the authors show how neurobiological knowledge was leveraged to support the economic thrust of the initiative, and how, through the brain, the focus became the individual, rather than the social context of the child and her family. Early intervention programs targeted “poor parenting” of the at-risk children of disadvantaged families during sensitive periods of neurodevelopment, to avoid the loss of mental capital. The heavy stakes of the MCW are clearly illustrated by images of healthy versus shrunken brains next to gold bars representing costs to taxpayers, on the cover of a government report. The Roses demonstrate that much of the evidence and many of the interpretations of the brain data on which policy recommendations hang are at worst questionable, and at best simply rewrite existing psychology (of, e.g., attachment or stress). Despite policymakers’ use of the state-of-the-art language of synapses and brain activation, they press neuroscience into the service of a wider political agenda and end up perpetuating age-old tropes, placing the burden on disadvantaged individuals or blaming mothers while ignoring social contexts.

The final section of the book examines the claims of neuroeducation—a hetereogeneous field that comprises many interventions, from scientifically informed classroom design, to the timing of the school-day based on sleep patterns, to reading programs for dyslexic children and strategies for teachers to manage stress. The Roses highlight ways in which “neuromyths” about gendered brains, brain training, and learning styles persist despite lack of evidence for them, and they point to hierarchies of evidence (quantitative over qualitative) that skew policy and research agendas in certain directions. They repeatedly cast historical lenses onto taken-for-granted concepts in neuroscience (from hemispheric differences to the teenage brain) to reveal the many contingencies of what appear to educators and policy wonks as cutting-edge, unshakable science.

Importantly, as the Roses state, these programs are based on models from current cognitive neuroscience that do not explain child development in reductionistic terms; in fact, the degree of brain plasticity discovered during adolescence has led to increasing attention to environmental input during development. As the Roses imply, this logic leads “well-meaning neuroscientists” (p. 216) toward a self-understanding and agenda that are progressive. It’s not their fault, it’s their highly malleable and modifiable brains, they say, with obvious implications for mental health, education, and the law. However, through their readings of reports, the Roses show how simultaneously the language of neuroplasticity serves to promote values of adaptability, self-reliance, and therapeutic intervention, enabling adaptation to the future challenges and uncertainties of a globalized economy.

Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? is an accessible and absorbing read, and it provides a concise account of how neuroscience rose to become the ultimate science of human behavior and an arbiter of truth and decision-making to back up public policy concerning child development. While sociologists and anthropologists may not need reminders of how the process, interpretations, and applications of science are shot through with particular values, the Roses furnish these audiences with specific examples of experiments and policy papers that illustrate how, precisely, neuroscientific data are aligned with forms of political reasoning. The book will be of particular value to those involved in science communication and policy-making and a useful introductory text to students of neuroscience interested in the social and cultural contexts of the brain.

The authors critique neuroscientists and their advocates but given their disciplinary backgrounds and roles as public intellectuals I had hoped there would be more on how to successfully engage neuroscientists and wider audiences in critical debate, particularly in the current political climate in which the critical spirit has been taken up by unintended audiences. While the Roses briefly allude to “thin gruel” (p. 236) forms of public engagement in neuroscience and describe how such initiatives represent public relations rather than opportunities for contestation and debate, I was expecting more ideas on what a new kind of public engagement might look like, and, indeed, what new kinds of empiricism and experiment may look like if we are to redress existing imbalances between neuroscience, social sciences, and humanities. But the book is ultimately not a scientific critique; indeed, the Roses remind us that this is “a golden age” (p. 234) for neuroscientists. Theirs is primarily a critique of the applications of neuroscience, a claim about its alignment with a neoliberal political economy, and a reminder of what is at stake. The Roses’ final message underlines this: We need not, and should not, look to the “hard science” of the individual brain to know that economic inequality adversely affects children’s health and ability to learn. The malleable brain has come to stand for a biological mechanism of hope and change, but the Roses argue that no matter how much more challenging it might be, the only real way forward is social and political understanding and action.