Here's a kind of pre-edit of my latest column for the Prospect blog.
As Prospect has already alluded, neuroscience is going to be an ever fiercer battleground for how we should organize our societies. Gender differences, criminal law, political persuasions – we had better be prepared to grasp some thorny questions about whether or not “our brains make us do it.” To judge from some commentaries, the older psychological frameworks we have used to understand behaviour, dysfunction, trauma, intelligence and ethics - whether that is Freudianism, Kleinianism, object relations, transference or whatever – are about to be replaced with the MRI scanner.
Inevitably, one of the bloodiest fields of combat is going to be education. I say inevitably not only because we know the levels of panic and anxiety schooling already invokes in parents but because few areas of social policy have been so susceptible to ideology, fads and dogma. You can be sure that supporters of every educational strategy will be combing the neuroscience literature for “evidence” of their claims.
That’s why a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) looking at the supposed neurological evidence for 18 teaching techniques is so timely. The report distinguishes those that have rather sound neurological support, such as the cognitive value of minimising stress, engaging in physical exercise and pacing out the school day with plenty of breaks, from those for which the evidence or understanding remains a long way from offering benefits in the classroom, such as genetics or personalized teaching approaches.
The report is also ready to acknowledge that some techniques, such as learning games or using physical actions to “embody cognition” (enacting “action verbs” rather than just reading them, say), warrant serious consideration even though they may not yet be understood well enough to know how best to translate to the classroom. (Seasoned Prospect readers might like to know that claims about the supposed cognitive benefits of cursive writing were apparently not even deemed worthy of consideration.)
These findings, along with earlier studies by specialists of the “neuromyths” that propagate in classrooms, are nicely rounded up in a commentary by Sense About Science, a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide people with the necessary facts to make informed choices about scientific issues.
Sense About Science has already done a great service in debunking the pseudoscientific programme called Brain Gym, which has convinced many schools that it can make children’s brains “work better” through a series of movements and massage exercises. Brain Gym has also run foul of the scourge of “bad science” Ben Goldacre. The EEF report is more politely, but no less firmly, dismissive: “a review of the theoretical foundations of Brain Gym and the associated peer-reviewed research studies fails to support the contentions of its promoters.”
All this is important and useful for cutting through the hype and fuzzy thinking. The EEF report will be valuable reading for teachers, who are often given little opportunity or encouragement to investigate the basis of the methods they are required to use. But we need to be awfully careful about setting up neuroscience as the arbiter of our understanding of the brain and cognition.
It is, after all, still a young science, and we still have a sometimes rudimentary understanding of how those colourful MRI brain scans translate into human experience. As the EEF report acknowledges, neuroscience has in some instances been able to add little so far to what has already been established by well conducted psychological tests. It is a relief to see brain science now undermining simplistic folk beliefs about, for example, “left brain” and “right brain” personalities. But as Raymond Tallis has elegantly explained, neuroscience is sometimes in danger of spawning a spurious dogma of its own.
It’s not just that the science itself might be poorly interpreted or over-extrapolated. The problem is deeper: whether there exists, or can exist, a firm and reliable link between the objective functioning of neural circuits and the subjective experience of people. Psychology is as much about providing a framework for thinking and talking about the latter as it is about pursuing a reductive explanation in terms of the superior frontal gyrus.
It is currently fashionable, for example, to claim that neuroscience has debunked Freudianism. It’s not even clear what this can mean. Freud’s claims that his ideas were scientific are apt to irritate scientists today partly because they don’t recognize how differently that word was used in the late nineteenth century, when novelists like Emile Zola could claim that they were applying the scientific method to literature. More to the point, Freud’s identification of an unconscious world where primitive impulses raged was really of cultural rather than scientific import. One could argue, if one feels inclined, that the identification of “primitive” instinctive areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia, as well as the modern understanding of how childhood experiences affect the brain’s architecture, in fact offer some scientific validation of Freud. But the broader point is that there was never going to be any real meaning in seeking a neuro-anatomical correlate of the ego or the id. As (admittedly somewhat crude) metaphors for our conflicting impulses and inclinations, they still make sense – as much sense as concepts like love, jealousy and disgust (which are sure to have complex and variable neural mappings).
This consideration arises in the matter of “multiple intelligences”, a concept promoted in the 1980s by the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner and which now underpins the widespread view that education should cater to different “learning styles” such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. The Sense About Science commentary suggests that neuroscience now contradicts the idea, since different brain functions all seem to stem from the same anatomical apparatus. But like many ideas in psychology, the multiple-intelligences theory runs into problems only when it hardens along doctrinaire lines – if it insists for example that every child must be classified with a particular learning style, or that different styles have wholly distinct neurological pathways. No one who has any experience on the football pitch (a relatively rare situation for academics) will have the slightest doubt that it makes sense to suggest Wayne Rooney possesses a kind of intelligence quite indifferent to his ability to read beyond the Harry Potter books. To think in those terms is a useful tool for considering human capacities, regardless of whether fledgling neuroscience seems to “permit” it.
In case you think this sounds like special pleading from a particularly flaky corner of science, bear in mind that the so-called hard sciences are perfectly accustomed to heuristic concepts that lack a rigorous foundation but which help to make sense of the behaviour scientists actually observe – witness, for example, the notions of electronegativity and oxidation state in chemistry. These concepts are not arbitrary but have proved their worth over decades of careful study. The task of psychology is surely to distinguish between baby and bathwater, rather than policing its ideas for consistency with the diktats of MRI scans.