Creeping virus of neurononsense

More than the usual number of distractions well up today, just as I was hoping to concentrate my cognitive resources on compiling a proposal for a pharmaceutical company. A happier diversion is my wife’s birthday today; less exalted is the mess our cat has made in her box. A variety of weekend resolutions remain sullenly unresolved and, even as I type these words, the morning routine is further upset by the cat’s vomiting on the carpet behind me.

And now I see from this morning’s Financial Times that somebody who has written a book called Neuroscience for Leadership is claiming that clever thinking requires fewer choices and that “a morning routine helps conserve your creative powers”. The author of this brazen and unsubstantiated puff is clearly of the view that serious decision-making is a zero-sum game and that this now “turns out to be backed up by neuroscience”.

Perhaps it’s because the day is young and the distractions imposed by thoughts of birthdays, business proposals and feline excretions are not being allowed to intrude that I remain able to spot two problems where mortals with less focused “cognitive resources” might see only the bullshit. Because, critically in the context of all this nonsense spotting, this bullshit is apparently backed up by neuroscience.

Er, actually, not.

Now, it may be that the book under review is packed with the neuroscientific evidence that somehow, inexplicably, totally escapes mention in the review. But the author is indirectly quoted as saying that cognitive resources are depleted as important and/or creative decisions are made – a claim that can only sensibly be understood in the very general sense that one tires from mental exertion, as with physical exertion, over time. But to equate this declaration with the careful calibrations of focused scientific measurement, as if truly creative thinking were not far more about the nuances of qualitative considerations, is impossible to quantify, if not downright risible.

How likely is it that President Obama’s determination to keep his wardrobe choices to grey or blue minimise his chances of a later, less-than-optimal decision about invading somewhere? Might it be more likely that a little early decision-making about something less substantial might serve as a kind of cognitive bending and stretching: a neural warm-up for the tasks ahead?

Instead of deploying the putative powers of neuroscience to every claim we wish to make about any and everything, might it make more sense to think something through a bit more carefully before engaging mouths or keyboards? Might that business proposal be better served by sharpening one’s wits ahead of time on some lazy thinking in the morning newspaper?

Yes, I would submit, but without the evidence of neuroscience to back up my view. The only sure thing is that the proposal will be delayed by an hour.

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