The proliferation of pop neuroscience in the media has encouraged the belief that here is a cornucopia of panaceas in the making, and a fresh source of science-based omniscience is not without its attractions to political theorists — or worse still, politicians. The potential in economics hardly bears thinking about, but some have, like the neuro-economist George Loewenstein:
Our emotions are like programmes that evolved to make important and recurring decisions in the distant past. They are not always well suited to the decisions we make in modern life. It's important to know how our emotions lead us astray so that we can design incentives and programmes to help compensate for our irrational biases.
Correcting human irrationality, like the pursuit of empathy, is a worthy project. So why does it give rise to instinctive suspicions? Maybe because a century ago utopian theories could hold a spring-like promise, whereas today they carry a whiff of the grave.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, 2002), another of my common reader texts, pleased me at first by its insistence that there is such a thing as human nature, and denial that our minds were virgin white. ("On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted," Mao claimed, and guess who would wield the brush?) But then Pinker seems to me to have nudged his account of the evolution of the brain towards his own political and philosophical preferences. Some we might support, but that is not the issue. Bestseller though he is, he is one in an increasingly crowded field, and others are free to invent a different human trajectory leading to a different politics, and to call it science.
Bryan Appleyard's book The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don't Work in a Complex World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) reminds us that there are sober folk in neuroscience who recognise the immaturity of their discipline, and while excited by its potential make no extravagant claims. Yet as the title suggests it is also about the dangers of reductionism, and the assault on the self. His most telling demonstration comes when he subjects himself to a scan, in the course of which he recalls his father's early death. His account of his own incarceration inside the fMRI machine, a physically stressful business during which he volunteered to recall painful memories, seems to me a vivid metaphor for its potential as a punitive form of parascience, as well as a means to enlighten humanity and promote cures for terrible diseases. At its worst it begins to feel as if the ultimate purpose of the giant machine were to crush the self out of us. The scientists Appleyard dealt with were people of great ability, integrity and considerateness, yet we feel that, in other hands, the potential for some new form of Inquisition is there.