Saturday, April 21, 2012

Imagine that!

I was a bit tetchy about Steven Poole’s criticisms in his review of The Music Instinct in the Guardian, although subsequent discussions with him helped me to understand why he raised them. But now I see I escaped lightly. In today’s Guardian Review, Steve comprehensively demolishes Johan Lehrer’s new book Imagine, calling it a prime example of the sort of ‘neuroscientism’ which purports to explain everything about everyone with a few brightly coloured MRI scans. There is some seriously cruel stuff here: “‘For Shakespeare’, Lehrer affects to know, ‘the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection.’” I confess to a degree of guilty pleasure in reading this unrelenting dissection, though I’d feel bad for Jonah if it wasn’t evident that it would take much more than this to tarnish his growing reputation as the next Malcolm Gladwell. I suspect there is an element here of Steve’s contrarian nature rebelling against the way Lehrer has been otherwise universally hailed as a Wunderkind. But it’s not just that. I fully recognize Steve’s complaint about the current simplistic infatuation with neuroscientific jargon and imagery, as if saying that an activity activates the anterior superior temporal gyrus is equivalent to having explained it. I’ve not read Jonah’s book, and so have to reserve judgement about whether it really is a prime offender in this regard. But it’s certainly high time this tendency were put in its place. A couple of reviewers of The Music Instinct who are neuroscientists were a bit sniffy about how it didn’t make more of the wonderful advances in understanding of musical activity that brain imaging has yielded. Now, there certainly have been significant discoveries made using those technologies – I think in particular of, say, Robert Zatorre’s work on the activation of reward centres when people experience ‘musical chills’, or Petr Janata’s amazing demonstration of harmonic maps imprinted on the grey matter (both of which I mention). But Dan Levitin, while generally quite nice to the book, seemed to want more about how “listening to music activates reward and pleasure circuits in brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area and amygdala”. Ah, so that’s how music works! This was the kind of thing I intentionally omitted, rather than overlooked, because I think that at present it does little more than fool the easily impressed reader into thinking that we’ve really ‘got inside the brain’, while in truth we often have very little idea what these increases in blood flow signify about cognition. I have to add, though, that this is the second book review I’ve read recently (the first being Richard Evans’ review in the New Statesman of A. N. Wilson’s little book on Hitler, which triggered an entertaining spat) that makes me wonder whether the Hatchet Award has upped the ante. I’m sure I’m not alone in my anxiety. [By the way, how do you put paragraph breaks into this new-look blogger tool?]

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