Confronting “Neuroessentialism”: Why our brains are not all-powerful

Writer: George Williams
Editor: Gracie Enticknap
Artist: Lia Bote

Of all our organs, few would dispute the preeminence of the brain. For centuries, we have accepted its intimate connection to thought, perception, and emotion. Recent advances in technologies such as EEG, functional MRI, and genetic engineering have affirmed this knowledge and allowed us to view it at work, making neuroscience more relevant than ever. The importance of the field gives it weight in the public sphere: in the words of three UCL psychologists in 2014, “Brain-based information possesses rhetorical power: logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” But this rhetorical power carries the possibility of harm: overstating the role and relevance of the brain and insisting upon a dangerous form of biological determinism.

The study of mental health is especially prone to this. Addiction and depression are common conditions and profoundly damaging to sufferers and society. To the casual observer, neuroscientific study of these conditions appears to have been a great success. Human and animal experiments have revealed that changes in the mesolimbic dopamine signalling pathway in the brain, which normally contributes to decision making, are associated with addiction. Meanwhile, depression is often popularly described as a “chemical imbalance in the brain,” drawing upon a theory first developed in the 1960s. However, mechanistic biological accounts may obscure more than they illuminate. Aside from questionable clinical applicability, they crowd out understanding of social, economic, and psychological elements which also determine health. The simplistic narrative of cellular dysfunction requires no difficult psychological theorising, and the imprimatur of science renders the complex diagrams and annotated brain scans naturally convincing. Yet in reducing people to atomised individuals with unsettled brains rather than participants of a broader harmful socioeconomic order, we strip them of agency as well as obscure the causes of our society’s predicaments.

Brain characteristics are not merely used to explain mental illness. Essentialism–the idea that particular groups have certain innate and immutable characteristics which the social order reflects–has always used biology in its justification. As Stephen Jay Gould showed in his influential 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, data about brain size and anatomical features were used as far back as the nineteenth century to justify existing prejudices about intelligence, race, and gender. And though scientists today are rarely so brazen as their forebears, their underlying conclusion–that power and wealth differentials reflect inborn and unchanging differences in brain structure–is no less harmful.

Those who seek to explain away gender pay gaps wield a catalogue of brain differences between men and women as their argument, such as changes in size and connectivity of different anatomical areas. These supposedly leave women more oriented to “empathising” rather than “systematising,” and thus better suited to low-paid caring work than highly-paid jobs in STEM or finance–but there are several flaws in this explanation. For one, the huge complexity of analysis means that researchers must make numerous choices of how to interpret and analyse raw numbers which can all alter the eventual result. Even if the identified differences are real and not overlapping between sexes, they may be consequences–rather than causes–of gendered differences in social interactions. In any case, barely detectable differences in the sizes of anatomical regions are unlikely to explain variation in broad combinations of traits like empathy or analytical thinking. The appeal of an indisputable scientific explanation risks marginalising more informative social, cultural, and economic explanations.

Modern technologies have revealed more about the workings of the brain than thought possible even at the turn of this century. However, we will never find any neurological “essence” solely determining our lives as separate from our environments and experiences. Complex phenomena like addiction, depression, sexism or racism will never have simple explanations in the distribution of white matter or the spiking of neurons alone. Only once we appreciate that our brains exist within larger systems will we truly appreciate their role.

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