Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

Basic Books, June 2013

By Sally Satel

Available at Amazon.com
Available at Amazon

By Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld

What can’t neuroscience tell us about ourselves? Since fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging— was introduced in the early 1990s, brain scans have been used to help politicians understand and manipulate voters, determine guilt in court cases, and make sense of everything from musical aptitude to romantic love. Although brain scans and other neurotechnologies have provided groundbreaking insights into the workings of the human brain, the increasingly fashionable idea that they are the most important means of answering the enduring mysteries of psychology is misguided—and potentially dangerous.

In Brainwashed, psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring—rather than clarifying—the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.

A provocative account of our obsession with neuroscience, Brainwashed brilliantly illuminates what contemporary neuroscience and brain imaging can and cannot tell us about ourselves, providing a much-needed reminder about the many factors that make us who we are.

Brainwashed was a finalist for the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science.

Advance Praise:

“Modern brain science is an exhilarating frontier of human knowledge, but many of its champions have gotten carried away. This book shows how attempts to explain the human condition by pointing to crude blotches of brain activity may be superficially appealing, but they are ultimately unsatisfying. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld are not dualists, romantics, mystics, or luddites. Their case for understanding human affairs at multiple levels of analysis will resonate with many thoughtful psychologists and biologists, and they make that case lucidly, expertly, and entertainingly. Anyone who is interested in the brain—and who isn’t?—will be enlightened by this lively yet judicious critique.

—Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University

“In this smart, provocative and very accessible book, Satel and Lilienfeld are not out to bury neuroscience; they are here to save it—to rescue it from those who have wildly exaggerated its practical and theoretical benefits. Some of this book is very funny, as when they review the dubious history of neuromarketing and neuropolitics, and some of it is dead serious, as in their discussion of how the abuse of neuroscience distorts criminal law and the treatment of addicts. Brainwashed is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the use and abuse of one of the most important scientific developments of our time.”

—Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works

“Satel and Lilienfeld have produced a remarkably clear and important discussion of what today’s brain science can and cannot deliver for society. As a neuroscientist, I confess that I also enjoyed their persuasive skewering of hucksters whose misuse of technology in the courtroom and elsewhere is potentially damaging not only to justice but also to the public understanding of science.”

—Dr. Steven E. Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health

“An authoritative, fascinating argument for the centrality of mind in what, doubtless prematurely, has been called the era of the brain.”

—Peter D. Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac

“There is a widespread belief that brain science is the key to understanding humanity and that imaging will X-ray our minds, revealing why we buy things and whether we are telling the truth and answering questions about addiction, criminal responsibility, and free will. Brainwashed is a beautifully written, lucid dissection of these exaggerated claims, informed by a profound knowledge of current neuroscience. It is essential reading for anyone who wants a balanced assessment of what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about ourselves.”

—Raymond Tallis, author of Aping Mankind: Neuromania

“Brainwashed provides an engaging and wonderfully lucid tour of the many areas in which the progress and applications of neuroscience are currently being overstated and oversold. Some of the hyping of neuroscience appears fairly harmless, but more than a little of it carries potential for real damage—especially when it promotes erroneous ideas about addiction and criminal behavior. The book combines clearheaded analysis with telling examples and anecdotes, making it a pleasure to read.”

—Hal Pashler, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego