Neuroessentialism: The 'Dark Side' of Focus on Brain Plasticity?


by Dirk Hanson

January 23, 2014

A recent analysis of the coverage of neuroscience in the popular press showed a 31-fold increase in the number of news articles using the terms "neuroscience" or "neuroscientist" between 1985 and 2009. Moreover, the NIH's massive Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is designed to speed up our understanding of the neural workings of the human brain in the years ahead. So perhaps it is not surprising that lately there has been a "pushback against neuroscience," in the words of Nancy Campbell, associate professor in the Science and Technology Studies Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Campbell, who specializes in the history of psychology, was one of the speakers at a recent conference, Neuroplasticity in Substance Addiction and Recovery: From Genes to Culture and Back Again, held at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) on the campus of Bielefeld University, Germany. The conference drew neuroscientists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists from around the world to discuss theories of how changes in the brain affect memory and learning during addiction, and what that says about "brains in the wild," as one anthropologist put it.

 At the conference, Campbell gave neuroscience a pushback by declaring: "Addiction has historically been hard to 'neuroscientize,' despite a venerable legacy of attempts to do so."

Even though the burgeoning field of epigenetics is opening up new avenues for the social sciences, a concern with the "medicalization of addiction" is one of the flashpoints that separates neuroscientists, on the one hand, from psychologists, philosophers, historians, and anthropologists, on the other.  Focus on the "mesolimbic dopamine reward hypothesis," Campbell asserted, has made it hard to "see beyond the brain." In fact, she noted that when the modern brain reward system was identified and so named, it wasn't immediately seen as applicable to the matter of addiction.

For critics like Campbell, neuroplasticity is too often used as a sort of covering fire for neuropharmacological interventions of dubious efficacy and potentially huge profitability for the drug industry. We are prone to bouts of "recurrent pharmacological optimism," she said, and remain relentlessly optimistic about finding a fight-fire-with-fire medication for withdrawal and craving.

Campbell's argument at the conference had to do with "neuroessentialism," defined as the tactic of using the terms of neuroscience as evidence for claims made in psychological or sociological frameworks.  Critics of neuroessentialism do not believe the brain can be profitably studied in isolation. To quote Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield: "Many claims about human psychology are adequately and entirely addressed at the level of behavior with no need to invoke neuroscientific evidence." This tendency can be seen in some of the wild speculation about human behavior based on early-generation scanning systems like fMRI and PET, critics say. And it pervades a great deal of discourse on mind and health.

To cut the cake more finely, Cliodhna O'Connor and her colleagues at University College London, writing in Neuron, parse the distinctions among "neurorealism," or the use of neuroimages to make behaviors seem objective; "neuroessentialism," or the depiction of the brain as the essence of personhood; and "neuropolicy," defined as "the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas." The researchers write that "neuroscience is now firmly rooted as a basic reference point within the public sphere, drawn into discussion of diverse issues such as antisocial behavior, economic decisions, substance abuse, and education…. Brain based information possesses rhetorical power. Logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility."

In the field of addiction, behavioral studies of drugs as classic reinforcers were subsumed by neuroscience, with its misplaced concentration on "euphoria and hedonic reward," Campbell argued at the conference. "A succession of theories in the addiction arena moved from behavioral and pharmacological ideas of drugs as reinforcers, as evidenced by animal models, to neuroscience-without anything like a revolution." No shots were fired, but behaviorist models fell over dead, nonetheless.

Is neuroscience a media fad?

When a Dartmouth neuroscientist took fMRI scans of a dead salmon in 2009, and fooled people into thinking they were looking at the recorded thought patterns of an active brain, it was intended to serve as a warning about the dangers of false positives in fMRI data. Ultimately, it had a much greater cultural resonance. Many critics of neuroscience began to insist that the emperor has no clothes.

 Psychiatry professor Peter B. Reiner of the University of British Columbia thinks that neuroscientists have an obligation to "consider the ramifications of neuroessentialist thought becoming a cultural meme." Writing in the 2011 Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, Reiner contends that the idea of brain disease and altered brain chemistry is likely to result in "increased social distance, inscribing individuals suffering from mental illness and addiction with the mark of being neurobiologically other, yielding the unintended consequence of fostering discrimination."

Yale psychiatrist Sally Satel, co-author of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, also thinks that the explanatory power of neuroscience is overrated. In a recent article for Frontiers in Psychiatry, Satel writes of addiction: "The brain disease model implies erroneously that the brain is necessarily the most important and useful level of analysis for understanding and treating addiction," thus training the spotlight "too intently on the workings of the addicted brain," and "distracting clinicians, policy makers, and sometimes patients themselves from other powerful psychological and environmental forces that exert strong influence on them…. The neurocentric perspective encourages unwarranted optimism regarding pharmaceutical cures and oversells the need for professional help."

"Much work remains to be done in bioscience, and in neurocellular research," Campbell acknowledged at the conference.  "We are asking for more neuroscience, not less-but a kind of neuroscience that recognizes that vulnerabilities are social, economic, and political," as well as neurobiological.

Neuroscience plays out in real-world social contexts, and neuroscientists neglect this at their peril. The brain, as Campbell says, "has an exquisite openness to the world it is situated in."