Calling neuroscience pointless misses the point

Despite the adage, there actually is such a thing as bad publicity, a fact that brain scientists have lately discovered. A couple of high-profile opinion pieces in the New York Times have questioned the usefulness of neuroscience, claiming, as columnist David Brooks did in June, that studying brain activity will never reveal the mind. Or that neuroscience is a pesky distraction from solving real social problems, as scholar Benjamin Fong wrote on August 11.

Let’s start with Brooks. Some of his complaints about brain scans, with their colorful blobs lighting up active parts of the brain, are quite legitimate. Functional MRI studies are notoriously difficult to make sense of. In fact, this powerful technology has been used to find brain activity in a dead salmon. Dubious fMRI studies do trickle into the hands of sensationalistic journalists, medical hucksters and marketers, who twist the results into self-serving sound bites. All true.

But Brooks’ essay conflates the entire field of neuroscience with some bad seeds. Some studies should never have been done, others mislead people, waste resources and sensationalize their results. But for every one of those studies, countless others tell us something important about how the human brain works. Serious scientists use a huge variety of techniques — yes, even fMRI — responsibly, and interpret their results cautiously.

Judging the whole enterprise of neuroscience by its weakest studies is disingenuous. There is bad science, just like there’s bad food, bad music and bad TV. Trashing all brain research because a tiny bit of it stinks is like throwing your new flat screen off a balcony because you accidentally turned on Jersey Shore.

To that mentality, the reply is simple: Hey, why don’t you just change the channel? Instead of getting neuroscience news from sensational sound bites, go straight to the source. As a counterpoint to neurobashing, I offer a whirlwind tour through the Aug. 14 Journal of Neuroscience, a publication of the Society for Neuroscience that releases upwards of 30 articles a week.

The table of contents provides a sweeping vista of serious brain science, from studies on the tiny molecules that carry messages between neurons to the cognitive systems responsible for language. Near the top we have a paper that describes a surprising substance that piles up in people’s brains with age. Farther down we have studies that reveal some early brain signatures of dyslexia, wonky neuron communication in brains with depression and hitherto unknown details of how brain cancer develops. Still more research addresses how the brainstem and gut tell the body to stop eating.

This research isn’t just academic. These studies — which rely on a variety of rigorous methods — have the potential to attack problems like obesity, mental illness and cognitive decline. This buffet of neuroscience is constantly freshened up, a conveyer belt of brainy delights. From this rolling smorgasbord, Brooks plucks the worst examples of studies to arrive at his ultimate conclusion — the brain is so vastly complicated, and our ways of studying it so crummy, that it’ll be impossible to ever understand the mind.

With this dismal declaration, he takes us on a journey back to the dark days of dualism, when people believed that the mind floated above the brain, ethereal and unknowable. The mind is not rooted in messy, imperfect biology, the thinking went. So since we can never understand the mind — and according to Brooks, our hackneyed, juvenile attempts to understand the brain will always fall short of that lofty goal — we might as well just shut this whole operation down.

Fong gives neuroscience a little more credit: He believes that one day we probably will understand how the brain works. But knowledge about how the brain works, he argues, isn’t going to solve problems like mental illness, which he claims is largely a product of societal failures. The very existence of a brain research program, Fong claims, diverts people and money away from real solutions.

I reject those ideas, and most scientists do too. So does President Obama, as his new BRAIN Initiative reveals. This long-term program will fund neuroscientists’ efforts to develop better tools for studying the brain, techniques that could let scientists watch large groups of neurons working together, for instance. And despite what Fong says, this investment in brain science could very well pay off in better treatments for mental illness.

Science is a continual attempt to better understand the nature of the world. Methods for studying the brain will improve, theories will get more sophisticated and results will kick off countless more ideas to test. Each study on the brain — complete with its limitations, its caveats and yes, even its errors — brings us a little bit closer to understanding some small corner of ourselves. To stop trying just because some studies fall short of perfection is like forever cancelling your New York Times subscription because a few columns missed their mark. Accept that there will be some flops, yes, but those setbacks don’t mean the enterprise is useless.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.