Science Book a Day Interviews Sally Satel and Scott O Lilienfeld


scott-lilienfeldSpecial thanks to Sally Satel and Scott O Lilienfeld for answering 5 questions about their recently featured book – Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

Sally Satel, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, examines mental health policy as well as political trends in medicine. – From Sally’s AEI Profile

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Scott’s Mini-bio: Scott Lilienfeld is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. His principal areas of research are personality disorders, psychiatric classification and diagnosis, evidence-based practices in psychology, and the challenges posed by pseudoscience to clinical psychology. – Adapted from Psychology Today

#1 – What was the impetus for this book?

The primary impetus derived from our mutual observations that more and more of contemporary culture was being influenced by a brain-based view of human nature. We were witnessing the increasing use of neuro-language to describe concepts in the humanities, the arts, politics, marketing, lie detection, the law, and many other spheres, as well as the growing propensity to conceptualize many mental maladies, such as addictions, as “brain diseases” that lie largely or entirely out of individuals’ control. We were also noticing that brain-based approach to psychological phenomena, informed by exciting neuroimaging technologies, was beginning to shape scientific research priorities in important ways (for example, in psychological research, it is becoming increasing difficult to obtain government funding without brain-based measures). We wanted to explore the implications of this sea-change for our understanding of human nature, and to consider both their upsides and downsides. We also wanted to examine the implications of our recent understanding of neuroscience for our conceptions of free will and personal responsibility, both inside and outside of the courtroom. Finally, we wanted to address the problem of “neuro-hype”: the propensity to over-interpret human neuroscience data, especially brain imaging evidence, and to expect more of these data than is warranted. We viewed our book not as a critique of brain imaging (a set of technologies about which we are extremely enthusiastic), but rather as an effort to provide scientific balance in a field that, until relatively recently, had not been subjected to sufficient scrutiny.

#2 – Who have you written this book for?

Our book is geared toward educated laypersons in any field who are interested in neuroscience and its implications for understanding human nature.  We also hope that our book will be read by psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, philosophers, educators, attorneys, policy-makers, and others whose work is influenced by neuroscience.

#3 – How did we get to this ‘neurocentric’ view of the mind?

The brain is said to be the final scientific frontier, and rightly so. Yet in many quarters brain- based explanations appear to be granted a kind of inherent superiority over all other ways of accounting for human behavior. We call this assumption “neurocentrism”— the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain. From this popular vantage point, the study of the brain is somehow more “scientific” than the study of human motives, thoughts, feelings, and actions. By making the hidden visible, brain imaging has been a spectacular boon to neurocentrism.

Problems arise, however, when we ascribe too much importance to the brain- based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones. Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis. The key to this approach is recognizing that some levels of explanation are more informative for certain purposes than others.

This principle is profoundly important in therapeutic intervention. A scientist trying to develop a medication for Alzheimer’s disease will toil on the lower levels of the explanatory ladder, perhaps developing compounds aimed at preventing the formation of the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles endemic to the disease. By contrast, thinking about addiction as a problem that resides in the brain – and research circles and some clinical venues, the idea that addiction is a “brain disease” is the dominant conceptual framework – is deeply misleading. The mechanical simplicity of the neurocentric view carries a seductive appeal that obscures the myriad other factors that drive addiction. Focusing on the neural correlates of addiction, siphons attention away from the social, behavioral, and psychological levels where, despite the fact that addicts’ brains are altered in addiction, treatments have the most potent effects.

#4 – What are the ways that neuroscience is being used in the courtroom?

There have been some attempts to bring neuroscience into the courtroom in the form of lie detection. The basic idea is that the mental act of deceiving has reliable neural correlates. We devote a chapter to this in the book. In short, in the lab, under very contrived, low-stakes situations, some researchers have been able to distinguish truth tellers from liars with high accuracy. But it’s virtually impossible to imagine – at this time – how such conditions can be replicated in the real world. To date, fMRI-based lie detection has not been admitted into court.

However, brain images are routinely admitted in capital cases. True, state of mind figures prominently in determinations of guilt or innocence, but, to date, there are significant limitations about what we can learn about the criminal mind by examining the criminal’s brain.  Neuroscientists cannot yet forge tight causal links between brain data and behavior. Until they can shed light on the measurable attributes that the law regards as important for culpability— who is and who isn’t responsive to reason— the rhetorical value of brain images will greatly outstrip their legal relevance. Within the law, ascriptions of criminal and moral responsibility do not hinge on what caused the bad behavior, but on whether wrongdoers possessed sufficient rational capacity to have been influenced by foreseeable consequences and to alter their behavior accordingly. This is why it has been said that “actions speak louder than images” in today’s courtrooms, as well they ought to.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

Sally Satel is most interested in the politicization of brain science. Its great cultural authority renders it vulnerable to conscription in the service of one or another political or social agenda. Along these lines, the elaboration of biological explanations of behavior often confuse the public by making people think more mechanistically about others and by fueling pessimism about self-governance and even the very role of reason in our daily lives. She will be observing future trends to see what emerges.  Dr Lilienfeld hopes to author a popular book on confirmation bias and its implications for science and everyday life, and he also intend to continue his writings on the need for evidence-based practice – and more broadly, scientific thinking – in clinical psychology and allied disciplines.

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