Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? Book review

Review by Hans Peter Peters

Hilary Rose & Steven Rose
 Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016
Neuroscientist Steven Rose and social scientist Hilary Rose have written a critique of the relationship of neuroscience and society and, more specifically, of the links between neuroscience and policy. They tell the story of neuroscientists selling and overselling their science to society, making promises they cannot keep and claims that lack caution and are misused as semi-scientific motivation for neoliberal-inspired initiatives in social policy and educational reform.

The introduction presents the concept of technosciences and the authors' basic assumption of a co-production of neuroscience, society and the self, i.e. of close interdependencies between neuroscience, the social context, and the image we have of ourselves and other human beings. Two main theses are introduced. The first thesis claims a strong connection between the neuroscientific focus on individual brains and cultural individualism and – more specifically – a relation between the neuroscientific framing of problems and the political ideology of neoliberalism. The second thesis states that neuroscience tends to reduce human beings to brains, implying that the well-functioning of brains takes precedence over the well-being of people, and that explanations and interventions other than those targeting the brain and brain development disappear from one's field of vision.

The first line of argument deals with the rise of the neurosciences and their success in proliferating their perspective and raising public support. The authors describe the development from early brain research to modern "neurotechnoscience", spicing their sketch with generous doses of criticism. For example, they refer to collaborations with the military, criticize "ruthless reductionism", and point to the limited conclusiveness of animal experiments and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The Human Brain Project (HBP) aims at "decoding the human brain" and developing a computer simulation of it. Besides joining the widespread criticism of the project's scientific goals, methodology and governance, the authors use the HBP as a case to support their thesis of a close affinity between neoliberal ideology and neuroscience. They argue that the HBP with its rather special focus on the connection between brain and computer was selected as one of two flagship projects in the in the EU Future and Emerging Technologies Programme in 2013 mainly because of its potential for technological innovation in the computer sector and thus its relevance for economic competitiveness and growth.

The book’s second line of argument looks at how neuroscientific findings are implemented in public policy initiatives and in schools. The authors describe how the issue of poverty in British society was reframed in neoliberal perspective as a problem of underdeveloped cognitive resources for economic growth, and how the solution of that problem was sought by "early intervention" aimed at developing the mental capacities of disadvantaged children. The authors then focus on the Allen Report to the British government, which argued on the basis of premature neuroscientific claims that early intervention would be effective in terms of raising mental capital (as neuroplasticity is highest in the first months) as well as cost-effective (saving money that otherwise would be needed later to cope with the consequences of child neglect).

Particularly relevant for the science communication community are the authors' comments on "public engagement" with which they open the final part of the book. In reference to the Human Brain Project they had already commented critically on the failure of the European Citizens' Deliberation on Brain Science consultation project to influence the design of the HBP, mocking the "hyperdrive" mode of the "EU publicity machine" which called this consultation "a breakthrough in participatory government". In the conclusions the authors generalize their critical view of the consultation project on brain research to a critique of the common implementation of public engagement. While acknowledging a need and demand for engaging the public, they observe – correctly, in my view – that the "concept of 'engagement' has been diluted beyond recognition and often appropriated by what should be more accurately called 'public relations'".

I was initially inclined to dismiss this book as just another culture-pessimistic pamphlet about the irrationalities of the scientific-technical innovation process. We all know that scientists tend to oversell their research, that it takes a while to separate wheat and chaff in a new field of innovation, and that social structure and culture have to assimilate new technologies. We hope that civil society and public discourse will scrutinize innovations and prevent the biggest mistakes of over-hasty implementation. However, after further reading I became convinced that the authors have a real case that deserves attention. Reading the description of the Allen Report and its plan for a neoliberal social policy based on dubious neuroscientific findings outright unsettled me.

However, this is also one of the parts of the book where questions arise that the book does not answer in sufficient detail. As a reader not familiar with the details of British policy I would have liked to read more about the fate of the Allen Report and its actual impact on British policy. Another question regards the role of neuroscientists in the neoliberal contextualization of their knowledge. Did they actively encourage such use of their findings, did they oppose or did they not care?

With respect to the central thesis of the book, one may ask whether individualistic neuroscientific perspectives "naturally" promote neoliberal thinking or whether political advocates of neoliberalism just selectively exploit the findings of neuroscience to support their position. Individualism indeed points to individual agency and responsibility which may be one of the roots of neoliberal thought. But it also emphasizes that individual dignity, suffering and happiness matter – the basis for the modern concept of individual human rights. In my view, the relationship between neuroscientific perspectives and neoliberal ideology is contingent rather than inevitable. Thus, I read this stimulating and provoking book as a warning against the neoliberal exploitation of neuroscience, not as an attack on neuroscience itself.

Hilary Rose & Steven Rose: Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016, 170 pages; €14 (paperback), €54 (hardback)

Hans Peter Peters is a communications researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine, Ethics in the Neurosciences, at Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany, and Adjunct Professor of Science Journalism at the Free University of Berlin. He is the author of ‘Gap between science and media revisited: Scientists as public communicators’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3), 14102-14109 (2013).