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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.

Ghosts, faith and the presence of mind

One of many glorious lines in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” occurs in the early visit to our hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, by the ghost of his ex-business partner. Old Jacob Marley, “dead these seven years this very night” struggles to convince his old chum that he has actually managed to return from beyond the grave to begin the process of Scrooge’s redemption.

“Why do you doubt your senses,” Marley asks the understandably sceptical Scrooge.

He scoffs in reply that “…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Scrooge is onto something here. As the novel unfolds, he will discover that his following the evidence of his senses can be an unsteady guide to living a good life when there is a far wider spectrum of phenomena and stimuli from which to determine what is actually sensible. But he is right to begin with a sceptical line.

However much he might be naturally disposed to considering the desirability of being redeemed by this spirit who has just pitched up unannounced, looking passably like someone he hasn’t seen for all these years for the very plain reason that the guy had died way back then, his brain has to process in a very short time a literally frightening array of discomfiting data: what we know about death and dying, about wishful thinking and coincidence, about the efficacy of locked doors and indeed, even the power of adulterated food to cause hallucinations.

To digest all of that data as the ghost clanks into your sitting room and then have the wit to pun on grave and gravy shows a quite considerable presence of mind. And while we all might hope – should hope – that we do not lose our sense of what defines love and human goodness as Scrooge so famously did (until the world of Christmas ghosts appeared to facilitate his redemption), we should celebrate this distinction of mind from brain, and bear in mind that so much of what makes us human, and gives us hope, is the power to take what the brain processes and then reflect, and balance, and judge, and reflect: and apply this simple distinguishing test to any question that puzzles us about the way the world appears to be.

Can we imagine how something might have evolved into a seeming to be, and then having imagined it, should we then believe that the mere seeming makes it so? Or do the tests of evidence and reason demand that we progress – as individual minds, and as a collective culture – beyond believing in things simply because we can imagine them?

For example: for how long can the modern mind allow itself to be imprisoned by an embarrassingly pre-medieval imagining of how the world was created and then allow itself to be bullied by the neo-medievalists into professing belief in this ancient imagining as an act of . . . faith?

What sort of blossoming of neurological evolution is that?

Safety and children’s brains: who has to prove what?

If a report comes out suggesting that toxic chemicals can cause damage to young children’s brains: should the burden of proof be on the researchers who say so, or upon the chemical manufacturers to prove that they’re wrong?

A CNN report this last Friday highlighted the work of two research clinicians from New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Boston’s School of Public Health at Harvard, suggesting that the number of chemicals that are toxic to children’s brains has doubled over the last seven years. A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council – the name sounds worthy and dispassionate but describes a trade association for companies engaged in the business of chemistry – accuses the researchers of overstating their case and re-hashing old work.

The essence of the “old work” that is allegedly being overstated reflects the life’s work of two researchers who published data eight years ago suggesting links between “neurotoxicants” and issues with brain function such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia. They are now so worried that they are calling for a worldwide review of regulation expressly to protect children’s brains.

What’s to overstate here? If they are reinforcing something genuinely alarming, are we to be deflected by an industrial vested interest rubbishing their efforts as “re-hashing”? Really? Must the burden of proof be on the researchers worried that the brains of our future might be adversely affected by lead, arsenic and methylmercury (amongst others)?

We need to stand up to Big Chemistry as much as need to stand up to Big Food. The message? Think of our children not just as our future but starting from Zero on the Pollution Scale. If you wish to do anything that could alter their brain or body chemistry, the burden is upon you to prove that it won’t.