Tag Archives: simplistic

Avoid the simplistic


Why is the popular notions of neuroscience so often simplistic? I am going to list here a few (8) of the many reasons. I am sure there are more.

  1. Neuroscience is very young and very active. That means there are new facts to be considered almost weekly. Even areas that you would think should be relatively firm are not: plain anatomy and biochemistry of the brain, for example. Also many new ‘facts’ evaporate with further investigation. In other works everything is in flux. This would not be a problem if there was not a great public interest in the subject, with reporters publishing new results whenever possible. But the public would actually like some firm answers that they can understand, remember and use in their lives. At the present time many popular ‘answers’ are bound to be simplistic for that very reason.

  1. We are used to simplistic explanations of the brain/mind. There is a saying that what you don’t understand is simple. There were millennia of no explanation at all. We want to move – we put one foot in front of another. We want to say something – we open our mouths and the words come out. We want to recall something – it pops into our heads. There was no effort, no feeling of complex happenings in the background. What’s to explain? When explanations were finally sought, they were simplistic because they were arrived at by looking at the behavior that comes out of a ‘black box’ and thinking of the simplest way that behavior could arise.

  1. The brain is actually not easy to study and the methods are complex. Quite often, with scans for example, more seems to be shown than actually is. It is naturally misleading and is presented in misleading ways in the popular press. The notion that this spot ‘lights up’ because it is the spot for recognizing sports cars is just not reasonable.

  1. Philosophers and other thinkers had thought about the mind (without the brain being actually involved) for a long time and had developed a number of concepts that together made a model of the mind. But when these long-standing concepts were looked for in the brain there was not an easy fit. Some would say no fit at all. So there were many very simplistic explanations of brain functions. ‘Self’ for example is about as unitary as things get in a mind model, but in a ‘brain’ model it is possible to find a number of self-like functions, but no unitary one. The application of these older mind concepts to brain functions leads to some very simplistic notions. What is more, many thinkers feel that these legacy concepts have more validity than the process they are describing. For example that ‘willpower’ is real and a process in the brain must conform to that specification.

  1. There have been brain descriptions prior to our current one that still leave metaphors often with simplistic explanations. We have had vapour systems, hydraulics, telephone exchanges, computers and I am sure others. Bits and pieces like ‘pressure’ are still used in explanations although they have not been shown to apply to our present picture of the brain and are not actually explaining anything. As well as these older mind and brain concepts, there is a current one that treats the brain (and the mind) as a calculating mechanism. Many explanations based on calculation are put forward without any evidence from neuro- or behavioral-science, but only that they work in an electronic network. Models based on a metaphor can be very simplistic.

  1. There are many theoretical models of how the brain works (or some parts sort of work) that have some evidence to back them but not enough to make them convincing to a consensus of neuroscientists. In fact it seems that no relatively deep explanation has yet emerged that is accepted by most of the science. Each of these theories have concepts and mechanisms associated with them and the followers of that theory use these words as if they described real obvious or proven things. Nothing is wrong with that – it is how science works – but it is confusing to those trying to make practical sense of all these words. They sometimes end up with bits from different models in a structure of their own making. That is everyone’s right but these simplistic hodge-podges should not be published in the popular press as science.

  1. Neuroscience has become a popular way to bolster an idea. Want to sell something? Make it good for your memory. Want to stop something? Make it bad for your child’s upbring. Some of the claims contain a grain of truth, some are maybe not untrue and some are just rubbish. But, they all tend to be simplistic because those simple, symetrical, catch-phrasy things work in salesmanship. They are not out there to enlighten you but to manipulate you.

  1. There are also ways that neuroscience is used by those that have an axe to grind rather than a product to sell. In legal, religious, and political arguments, neuroscience in a very simplistic form is being used. If the point is to win the argument rather than find the best result, anything that will work is OK.

The brain is extremely complex and is not yet fully (maybe not more than a fraction) known. It is not as it appears to us but has an illusionary quality. Anyone who gives a neat, comfortable, easy to grasp model is likely to be wrong so you need to develop your antennae for recognizing the simplistic. Here is an example, a graphic from Eric Braveman.








This is neat; it has a certain symmetry; it has words that you have encountered elsewhere used by knowledgeable people; it implies a completeness, there is no hedging. But if you notice these attributes, you will see that it is simplistic (rather than simple). If a car had this much solidity, you would not buy it from a used car salesman. If you are not put off by this chart, you might read a bit by him. You then might notice that the idea of balance without any idea of what and how balance is achieved is suspect. Or you may notice that a prominent idea, “the edge effect”, is credited to Llinas but used with an entirely different meaning. There are little statements that are factually wrong, and an unreasonable attachment to the number 4 (Greek elements, humours etc.). It will then not surprise you that this doctor makes a very huge amount of money in supplements, tests, books and consulting based on his theory. Nor will you be surprised that he has been criticized for his methods. All these things are there to notice and check up on but the important thing is to learn to be suspicious of the simplistic approach in the first place.