One look at the brain and it’s got to make you wonder. It’s nothing short of mind-boggling that from the ridged undulating pink walnut-shaped mass emerges the taste of a madeleine, the pain of a paper cut, or the happiness at the first day of spring. All from something that looks disturbingly like Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thankfully, it’s not everyday that we get a peek.
It’s no surprise that neuro is the buzzword of the moment. Neuromarketing. Neuroarchitecture. Neuroesthetics. Neurolinguistics. Neuroscience and the military is a whole battlefield in and of itself. There’s Neuromanagement and even a drink called Neuro. It is easy to be swept away by the promise of an answer to the questions that have plagued philosophers and scientists for centuries. There is magic in solving the mysteries and in the physiological complexity that underpins the everyday experiences.
At the Wellcome Collection’s Brains; The Mind as Matter exhibit we were intrigued by its focus on the brain as a physiological organ and nothing else. Implicit throughout is the realisation that however much we have desperately, painstakingly – and often painfully – attempted to understand how it works, we still can’t explain the genius of Einstein, what keeps a memory from disease, what really makes me me. Despite every surgical operation and every experiment, the brain is one of the few remaining parts of ourselves that is not quite fully within our reach.
When we go back to ‘neuro’ as a buzzword, this is why we worry. Popular science, whilst brilliant at talking to the layman and inspiring generations of budding scientists, can often fall into reductionism. As a culture, it makes it all too easy to design, dismiss, and decide on things purely from the results of a few EEG studies. In the not-so-distant future will advertising be solely based on firing cells in a few test subjects at the business lab? Will we choose future employees, friends or life partners based on compatible brainwaves? Will art and music be created to follow an optimal algorithm of neural creativity? Will we become immobile physical beings, experiencing the fullness of life through virtual interaction, active in our minds only?
Western culture’s obsession with control and logic pounces on any chance to drill down the complicated to a few simple truths, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves. The danger here is that tampering with, or tailoring directly for, the brain removes any chance for human error, spontaneity, or surprise. As homo sapiens we grow and learn by being exposed to novelty, it’s the exercise of our minds. It’s what creates culture; the result of subtle synergies and often chance. By pinning down, say, creativity, as Jonah Lehrer has not inelegantly achieved in his latest book Imagine, we worry that we put shackles to the freedom that lies at its very heart.
Of course, there is a flipside – in this case that the more we understand, the more we can treat disease, illness, even reassess the very definition of mental illness and make the most of what we have. The complexities, and ambiguities of the science need to be communicated and acknowledged, but not reduced, not simplified, and not confined to another buzzword.