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Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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What can't neuroscience tell us about ourselves? Since fMRI—functional magnetic resonance imaging—was introduced in the early 1990s, brain scans have been used to help politicians understand and manipulate voters, determine guilt in court cases, and make sense of everything from musical aptitude to romantic love. But although brain scans and other neurotechnologies have provided groundbreaking insights into the workings of the human brain, the increasingly fashionable idea that they are the most important means of answering the enduring mysteries of psychology is misguided—and potentially dangerous.

In Brainwashed , psychiatrist and AEI scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld reveal how many of the real-world applications of human neuroscience gloss over its limitations and intricacies, at times obscuring—rather than clarifying—the myriad factors that shape our behavior and identities. Brain scans, Satel and Lilienfeld show, are useful but often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system. Each region of the brain participates in a host of experiences and interacts with other regions, so seeing one area light up on an fMRI in response to a stimulus doesn't automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions. The narrow focus on the brain's physical processes also assumes that our subjective experiences can be explained away by biology alone. As Satel and Lilienfeld explain, this “neurocentric” view of the mind risks undermining our most deeply held ideas about selfhood, free will, and personal responsibility, putting us at risk of making harmful mistakes, whether in the courtroom, interrogation room, or addiction treatment clinic.

A provocative account of our obsession with neuroscience, Brainwashed brilliantly illuminates what contemporary neuroscience and brain imaging can and cannot tell us about ourselves, providing a much-needed reminder about the many factors that make us who we are.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published May 16, 2013

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About the author

Sally L. Satel

5 books22 followers
Satel is a psychologist, lecturer at Yale School of Medicine, and the W. H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Cornell University, a master's degree from the University of Chicago and an MD degree from Brown University. She completed her residency in psychiatry at Yale University. In 1993 and 1994, she was a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 87 reviews
Profile Image for Jafar.
728 reviews234 followers
August 11, 2013
"A new study suggests feeling powerful dampens a part of the brain that helps us connect with others," is what I read in an article on NPR yesterday. You read something like this almost every day. The authors of this book have a valid point in that these days every emotion and thought and act is being wrongly associated with a brain activity pattern in an fMRI scan. The irony is that any pop neuroscience book that you pick up boasts about the complexity of the human brain — that it's the most complex known object in the entire universe, that it has some 100 billion neurons, each with one to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons, that the number of possible configurations of the human brain is greater than the number of elementary particles in the entire universe. And yet, among all this complexity, they can tell from a brain scan what you think about a political candidate, if you believe what's being published as science journalism.
Profile Image for Corina Anghel.
69 reviews18 followers
April 6, 2020
I had my first real job at an HR consulting company where I was privileged to work with a doctor in psychology with studies in neuroscience - the ones that teach you how to read complicated scientific articles. I learned from him how interesting this new field is and how promising the findings, yet I also learned to be cautious about how I read, interpret and promote them as we are far from certainties. That is what ”Brainwashed” is all about. Satel, a psychologist very preoccupied with how medical discourse influences public policies and Lilienfeld a psychologist who took on the mission to debunk the myths surrounding his field, try “an exposé of mindless neuroscience: the oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application of brain science in the legal, commercial, clinical and philosophical domains”.

Recognised as a science in itself around the ’60s, gaining traction especially with the discovery of the fMRI, neuroscience became more and more popular and with its seductive photos of our brains it was easy to become news. Unfortunately, to be interesting news, findings and conclusions are, more often than not, over simplified or exaggerated.

Studies are made on very isolated scenarios and looking at just one study one might be under the impression that we found the area of the brain that deals with love or anger or lying. In fact, the same area gets activated in so many other cases that scientists know we are far from understanding how the brain actually works. Not to mention that what fMRI does is just to show what areas of the brain receive more oxygen when we are thinking/doing certain tasks and that in itself has a lot of limitations.

Yet the neuroscience is the new buzzword, entering all types of fields from leadership training to the courtroom. In some being more harmless than what it might do in others.

Take neuroscience based trainings. A deontologist might find them shady, but a person with a more relaxed consequentialist view might consider it is for the greater good. If adding neuroscience can offer more credibility to some lessons that were anyway proved to be useful and gets people to listen then why not do it? Under the condition that it is still paired with psychological and social explanation and not completely decontextualised, all neuroscience does is to explain things that we already knew. Personally, I find it amusing how learning professionals now use “neuroscience” in all their training titles.

The same with neuromarketing, a field that, as the authors argue, have yet to prove some actual results. Neuroscience can’t influence our behaviour so the (expensive) attempt to try to explain it using fMRI doesn’t do much for now.

But there are fields in which a discourse around what we know about the brain can have major influence in public policy and law making, the book arguing that the potential for functional brain imagining to mislead currently exceeds its capacity to inform and that brain science could threaten the notion that people possess the freedom to act. If that were to be true then addiction can’t be cured, criminals are not responsible for their crimes and if the belief in “free will” is harder to retain then “blame” itself is a concept that should not exist.

Although the book has around 60 pages of references and notes, the authors managed to capture a clear essence and to raise very interesting, intriguing and compelling arguments combining psychology, anthropology and philosophy to raise awareness on the dangers of getting too enamoured too soon of a very young science.

To those who want to practice an open yet critical mind this is a book I highly recommend.

Some interesting concepts to remember:

* ”the survival advantage of vision gave rise to our reflexive bias for believing that the world as we perceive it to be, an error that psychologists and philosophers call naive realism.”

* "neurocentrism - the view that human experience and behaviour can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain. "

* "a first cousin of naive realism, neurorealism denotes the misbegotten propensity to regard brain images as inherently more ”real” than other types of behavioural data."

* cognitive liberty - (the "right to mental self-determination”) - the freedom of an individual to control his or her own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness.
Profile Image for John Martindale.
750 reviews81 followers
June 30, 2013
Wow, this was an excellent read. Sally Satel wrote a book, that was quite the counterbalance to the pop-neuroscience audiobooks I've listened to over the years.

Satel, isn't by any means against the huge steps-forward in brain imaging and neuroscience, but she is opposed to the overeager popularizes who jump to hasty conclusions, and the media swallowing up the hype and spreading nonsense. She knows that this all could later discredit what is an important science. Neuroscience is very young, and many scientist seem all to eager to get rid of the whole psychological part of the picture, neglecting the fact that humans have a mind. Satel seemed against to the religious and platonic notion of the non-physical soul, but believes instead, that the mind comes forth from the brain. Yet still mental states are not identical to the physical brain states. Both need to be considered important, to better understand human behavior and how we change.

Concerning brain imaging, just because a part of the brain lights up, when we look at a picture of Bill Clinton for example, doesn't conclusively show how we feel about him. Lets say the amygdala shows more activity, then the researcher may say that Clinton stirs fear in us. The problem is though the amygdala does indeed light up when one is afraid, it also lights up in several other occasions, it could mean a number of things. It doesn't just serve one function, but many, so a speculative interpretation is required. Also, several part of the brain will light up in any given moment, all of which can indicate different things, muddying up the water further.

Satel, shows some of the many problems in the attempts the show the signature of a lie in the brain, and why lie detector test often fail.
She shows the how dangerous David Eaglemen's ideas are in "Incognito" concerning how the whole justice system should be changed, since all crime is caused by malfunctioning brains.
She challenges the new wave of scientist who negate our having the freedom to do otherwise than we do, showing how there is just not enough evidence to be dogmatic determinist.
She argued against those who say teens aren't to be held responsible for murder, because their brain were still developing. Yeah, she had some excellent reflections on all of these things.

Concerning all the claims that addiction is a disease, Sally Satel, shared an interesting study done during the 1970s, when opium and high grade heroine flooded southern Asia. It was estimated that at least 50% of all the men serving in the army, ending up trying one of these drugs during the Vietnam war. It was believed that between 10-25% became addicted and deaths from overdoses begun to sore. The GI Addiction epidemic became a big deal and there was lots of fear that once the soldiers returned home, the the addiction would continue (for once an addict, always an addict). So Richard Nixon demanded drug testing to be done and made it so no one could return to the States unless they passed. If they failed the test, they would have to enter an army sponsored rehab until clean. Once this was announced, almost everyone just stopped using the drugs. And a 3 year study done on them only 12% relapsed briefly by the end of the 3 year follow up. This study undercuts the "once an addict, always an addict" mantra and the belief that addiction is a chronic brain disease. If it is, then how is it that 88% of the veterans who were strongly addicted to a hard drug, managed to just stop cold turkey and never relapse again? There were lots of motivating factors, for one in Asia the drugs were cheap and helped them deal with the stress of war and once they learned they couldn't come back home unless they were clean, they found the motivation to stop. Once back in the states, the fear of arrest, the high price of heroine and the shady drug culture didn't seem worth the risk, so most just transitioned back into ordinary life. This shows that in many ways the disease model ultimately fails. Lets says 50 percent of the solders got terminal cancer while in Vietnam, and the insensitive president said "You can't return back home until you are cancer free" then guess what, none of those with cancer would have come home, they couldn't have just made the decision not to have cancer. See how there is a difference? See how addiction being a disease is not quite accurate? Drugs do alter the brain, causing intense cravings, but there are other psychological factors involved. The Disease model has been pushed to far, one needs a holistic approach.

Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 20 books272 followers
January 4, 2014
Technology for studying the operation of the brain has been widely discussed in the media--as have those slides from f MRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that show certain parts of the brain "lighting up" in response to stimuli. Does this methods (and others as well) show us how the brain affects our political choices? Our feelings on race? And so on?

Much media attention has focused on the neurosciences and the associated technology. The authors speak of the danger of "neurodeterminism" and neurocentrism (page xiv), "the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain." The focus of their book is to bring some perspective to what they see as the overhyped findings from neuroimaging and the sense that to understand the brain is to understand why humans do as they do.

Chapters explore neuroimaging--what we can and cannot infer from the results, addictions as explainable by brain functioning, the implications derived from the research for law. They raise questions about the variety of linkages proposed and urge caution.

In the brief final chapter, they summarize their concerns about neurodeterminism and argue for a more balanced view.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,377 reviews466 followers
February 16, 2017
Good content debunking "neurobollocks" but not really enough for a book.
Profile Image for Mehtap exotiquetv.
383 reviews242 followers
May 25, 2021
Sally Satel beschäftigt sich auf 150 Seiten mit Neurowissenschaften und inwiefern funktionelle Magnetresonanztomografie Aussagen über die Eigenschaften des Gehirns wiedergeben können. Sehr kritisch setzt sich die Autorin über den tatsächlichen Wahrheitsgehalt. Kann man anhand von Interview Fragen und den fmrt Bildern Aussagen darüber treffen, wie jemand politisch eingestellt ist. Kann man damit die Kaufentscheidungen beeinflussen.
Das alles verneint Sally.
Ich persönlich fand die Darstellung der kritischen Punkte zu vereinfacht und lief eher nachdem Schema: "Ich suche mir Argumente raus, die meine These stützen". Dementsprechend war hier viel kognitive Dissonanz am Spiel. Schade weil in einigen Punkten hat sie natürlich recht. Neuromarketing ist wirklich zu versimplifiziert und in vielen Bereichen der Neurowissenschaften gibt es Antworten auf das Offensichtliche. Das bedeutet aber nicht, dass Neurowissenschaften redundant sind.
Das alles so pauschal abzuwerten ist einfach nicht glaubwürdig.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kaitlin.
177 reviews
November 24, 2016
This was alright, not the best book. I've always been curious about the brainwashing system in cults, politics, religion, etc...but while reading although it was interesting read but they went all over the place and would bring up things like mental health and all that which they decided to jump over after talking about brainwashing and how it effective and all that.
Profile Image for Miles.
464 reviews151 followers
April 12, 2015
As an amateur neuroscience enthusiast, I’m obligated not only to seek out the best and most recent neuroscientific findings, but also to be wary of how these findings might be abused. Any scientific discipline that can be easily monetized and/or misinterpreted by the popular media will spawn its share of hacks, prophets, and snake oil salesmen, and neuroscience is no exception.

Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience is a clever, concise, and balanced analysis of how certain individuals and groups misrepresent the discoveries and practical applications of modern neuroscience. Satel and Lilienfeld’s approach is not to assault neuroscience with a polemic from outside the discipline, but to critique it from within, carefully sorting out supportable claims from insupportable ones. As they see it, the problem with “mindless neuroscience is not neuroscience itself,” but rather how neuroscience is “oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants” (xiv).

Comfortably situated in the tradition of responsible skepticism, Brainwashed is a terrific example of scientific self-correction. Satel and Lilienfeld take on a host of arenas in which unwarranted transgressions threaten to give neuroscience a bad name: brain imaging, neuromarketing, models of addiction, lie detection, neurolaw, and the problem of moral responsibility. The authors handle each topic adroitly, delimiting the areas where neuroscientific evidence is strong and exposing the ways it can be misunderstood or willfully misused. The text is accessible and brief, but not at the expense of clarity and nuance.

Brainwashed contains a thorough explanation of exactly why the results of brain imaging studies can be so easily misconstrued: “Scientists cannot ‘read’ specific thoughts with fMRI; they can only tell that brain regions already known to be associated with certain thoughts or feelings have demonstrated an increase in activity” (3). This means not only that collectors of fMRI data could be working with potentially flawed or incomplete assumptions about what kinds of thoughts and feelings are generated by activity in certain brain regions, but also that using fMRI results to make conclusions about subjective experience is an act of interpretation, not direct mind reading.

This does not discredit the validity of fMRI studies, which are hugely informative in many medical and research contexts, but it does place fairly strict limits on our ability to unambiguously link pictures of the brain with their correlating modes of phenomenal experience. “Mental activities do not map neatly onto discrete brain regions,” Satel and Lilienfeld write. “Most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development” (11-2). So the problem is not that we are looking at unreliable data when we view a brain scan, but rather that the chances of the image correlating with mental experience that’s at least slightly (or significantly) different than what we think we’re looking at are often high. These facts, which are well known in neuroliterate circles but not always grasped by the general public, are too often glossed over or ignored entirely when funding or consumer wallets hang in the balance.

Satel and Lilienfeld’s most effective general strategy for debunking the modern neurocraze is simply to put it in historical context. Science’s history of genuine discovery and technological progress is matched by an equally robust tradition of overreach:

"Some experts talk of neuroscience as if it is the new genetics, that is, just the latest overarching narrative commandeered to explain and predict virtually all human behavior. And before genetic determinism there was the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, who sought to explain human behavior in terms of rewards and punishments. Earlier in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freudianism posited that people were the products of unconscious conflicts and drives. Each of these movements suggested that the causes of our actions are not what we think they are. Is neurodeterminism poised to become the next grand narrative of human behavior?" (xviii-xix)

The hard version of “neurodeterminism” is a tough pill for most to swallow, but the broader neuroscientific perspective––along with the “evolutionary epic” within which it is situated––seems a likely candidate for “the next grand narrative of human behavior.” We have been here before, and likely will be again when the next big scientific breakthrough arrives. This background knowledge indicates that we ought to cultivate the promise of neuroscience while also avoiding the fallacies of the past. Hailing neuroscience as a “final” or “complete” method of analysis will create more confusion than enlightenment. (I won’t deny that it might one day be possible for neuroscience to yield highly reliable or even comprehensive predictions of human behavior, but that assertion is neither currently testable nor relevant when addressing contemporary issues that require immediate attention.)

In many ways, I think neuroscience’s recent popularity is a very positive development. Neuroscience has conferred on humanity many tools for both practical and imaginative forms of self-understanding. My discovery of neuroscience played no small part in reshaping my identity during the latter part of my undergraduate education, and the field continues to influence my ideas about who I am and how I should interact with the world. It’s certainly a more efficacious and empirically responsible narrative than most religious, mythological, or metaphysical explanations of human behavior. I do not suspect Satel and Lilienfeld would disagree with any of this; they want to save neuroscience from itself, to preserve its respectability by taking measured accounts of precisely when and how it can be useful. Every grand human story needs informed curmudgeons to poke holes and sniff out misapplications.

The final chapter of Brainwashed, “The Future of Blame,” provides a useful overview of the current research regarding free will and moral responsibility taking place in the field of moral psychology. Having recently read Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Psychology, Vol. 4, which takes up these issues in great detail, I was pleased to find that Satel and Lilienfeld’s summary of the literature is accurate and even-handed. They understand well the fundamental tension between the assertion that neurodeterminism obviates blame and our “intuitions about fairness and justice [that] are so deeply rooted in evolution, psychology, and culture that new neuroscientific revelations are unlikely to dislodge them easily” (146). While they admit that neuroscience is a useful tool for understanding deliberation and possibly reshaping the justice system, they rightfully point out that it is only one filter among others through which we should funnel our theories of justice and our conclusions about how to best mete it out.

Satel and Lilienfeld’s final message is a call for improved neuroliteracy moving forward:

"Crucial lessons in neuroliteracy must also inculcate the importance of distinguishing the questions that neuroscience is equipped to answer from those that it is not. The job of neuroscience is to elucidate the brain mechanisms associated with mental phenomena, and when technical prowess is applied to the questions it can usefully address, the prospects for conceptual breakthroughs and clinical advances are bountiful. Asking the wrong questions of the brain, however, is at best a dead end and at worst a misappropriation of the mantle of science." (152)

I couldn’t agree more.

This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.
Profile Image for Carolyn Kost.
Author 3 books105 followers
June 4, 2014
The authors present exhaustive evidence to demonstrate that brain science is being applied inappropriately for all sorts of purposes, to name but a few: in law, to determine guilt or innocence in crime; in business, to discern emotional preferences to market to consumers more effectively; and in education, to create educational environments that improve students' learning.

The Enlightenment has left a wonderful legacy in the scientific method, but scientists do a grave disservice when they overreach their boundaries, and this is a prime example. Lacking humility before the mystery, we have neuroscientists engaging in a "21st century phrenology," a reductionist and dogmatic aspiration to a “brain-based philosophy of life” as a panacea that will eliminate "suffering, war, and conflict." It is wisdom, not failure, to accept that there is an ineffable quality to human nature and behavior, as well as spiritual, psychological, and social dimensions. MRI brain imaging cannot and will never completely explain why some overcome addiction or behave kindly or violently. We need to proceed skeptically and understand that there is an astonishing complexity to the function of genes, the brain, and so much in our world, and that premature assertions of "decoding" merely reveal human hubris and do not necessitate that we apply them in such far-reaching ways.

If the reader remains unconvinced after the first chapters, by all means, they should read on. For most of us, it's overkill.
Profile Image for AJ.
1,450 reviews113 followers
June 6, 2015
I really like that this book debunks a lot of the crap "science" out there relating to fMRI. However I dislike that the authors use crap sociological "science" experiments to bolster their arguments.
Profile Image for Dovilė Stonė.
141 reviews71 followers
November 18, 2020
Apie beprotį neuromokslą arba neurocentrizmą* - kodėl nesąžininga ir pavojinga nagrinėjant sudėtingus psichinius procesus (pvz., priklausomybes, delinkventinį elgesį, pirkimus etc.) prioritetą teikti neuro-duomenims.

Taikliai įvardijama, kokios šiuo metu neuromokslo galimybės, ir kaip jos skiriasi nuo to, ką matom medijose. Kuo etiškai prieštaringas ir logiškai nenuoseklus yra neuro-argumentų naudojimas teisiniuose ginčuose, t. y. "čia jo smegenys padarė taip, kad jis prievartautų".

Daug pavyzdžių, sustiprinančių autorių poziciją. Pagrindinius savo teiginius ir svarbias sąvokas jie nemažai kartoja (ir patys tai pastebi), tai dėmesingai skaitant gali užknisti, bet jei tuo pat metu skaitoma 15 knygų, toks pasikartojimas visai vertingas... :D

The problem with such mindless neuroscience is not neuroscience itself. The field is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science. Its instruments are remarkable. The goal of brain imaging is enormously important and fascinating: to bridge the explanatory gap between the intangible mind and the corporeal brain. But that relationship is extremely complex and incompletely understood. Therefore, it is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants — fits of “premature extrapolation,” as British neuroskeptic Steven Poole calls them. When it comes to brain scans, seeing may be believing, but it isn’t necessarily understanding.

Level of analysis:

...one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological level. By way of analogy, if you wanted to understand the text on this page, you could analyze the words by submitting their contents to an inorganic chemist, who could ascertain the precise molecular composition of the ink. Yet no amount of chemical analysis could help you understand what these words mean, let alone what they mean in the context of other words on the page.

Reverse inference:

The difficulty with reverse inference is that specific brain structures rarely perform single tasks, so one-to-one mapping between a given region and a particular mental state is nearly impossible. In short, we can’t glibly reason backward from brain activations to mental functions.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with the reverse-inference approach as long as the investigative buck doesn’t stop there. Indeed, the approach frequently offers a valuable starting point for generating fruitful hypotheses that can later be tested in systematic experiments.


Many aspects of Vul’s critique are technical, but his basic point is easy to grasp: If you search a huge set of data— in this case, tens of thousands of voxels— for associations that are statistically significant and then do more analyses on only those associations, you are almost guaranteed to find something “good.” (To avoid this mistake, the second analysis must be truly independent of the first one.) This error is known variously as the “circular analysis problem,” the “nonindependence problem,” or, more colloquially, “double-dipping.”

Scientific modesty:

As Insel observed in a sobering 2009 article, there is no evidence that the past two decades of advances in neuroscience have born witness to decreases in mental disorders’ prevalence or to any impact on patient life span. The failure of brain-imaging techniques to have yet made major inroads into the causes and treatment of mental illness offers a necessary reminder for modesty in our expectations.

* neurocentrizmas, pagal autorius - požiūris, kad žmogaus patirtį ir elgesį geriausia aiškinti iš smegenų veiklos perspektyvos. T. y. kad smegenų tyrinėjimas yra labiau 'moksliškas' nei kokia psichologija.
Profile Image for Mikhail.
55 reviews10 followers
August 15, 2016
I've always had a feeling that a lot of much-advertised neurological articles were somehow biased - but I couldn't explain what kind of bias it was. Happily, the authors of this book did all the work for me. Frankly speaking, they are not the best narrators in the world, but the issue in question is important enough so that I can forgive them. Their well-argumented resentment towards determinism and cartesian materialism in neuroscience (which I share) is also very appealing.

However, I didn't like how it slipped towards a poorly written law essay at the end.
Profile Image for Jitse.
199 reviews29 followers
February 26, 2017
Excellent popular scientific book which explains the limitations of neuroscience in a number of domains where our imagination and popular representation got ahead of the science. If you read anything on neuroscience, read this.
Profile Image for Ogi Ogas.
Author 12 books87 followers
September 15, 2021
My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
978 reviews580 followers
July 22, 2014
The authors would have told a much more interesting story if they would have considered all perspectives instead of just their narrow biases. They argued that neuroscience has some bad science and charlatans and makes wrong conclusions. I get that, all things with humans have flaws, but there is another side to the equation, neuroscience research is a real science and really incredible things are currently being done in the field. Look, read a book before the year 2000 on consciousness and all you'll get is some incoherent philosophical speculations on it's real nature, but read a recent book on consciousness that includes neuroscience you'll get a useful understanding.

They're right, a fMRI makes a lousy lie detector for all the reasons they say. They could have just quoted George Costanza from Seinfield who said, "It's not a lie, if you don't think it's a lie", and that would have been sufficient, but they went on as it was a big thing that fMRIs are a lousy lie detector.

The authors would have made a much better book if they would have provided the other perspective. Sure, we're responsible for what we do, but there is a genetic component. The authors seemed to completely ignore the factor that genetics play.

Audible has way better books on the topics covered in this book. I've listened and rated them. I would recommend one of those instead of this book.

The nicest thing I can say about this book is the narrator did a fantastic job and she was the only reason I finished listening to the whole book. If I had been reading the book, I would never have finished it all, because the authors biases would have been too much to suffer through.

Save your credit and get another one of audible's fine books on this subject.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,007 reviews219 followers
August 13, 2016
There is a surprising and seemingly paradoxical trend right now that is making the old free will/determinism question fraught and dangerous. The progressive thinkers are now the determinists. Moral agency can be understood without free will. (See Heidi Ravven's The Self Beyond Itself) The authors of Brainwashed have a political reason to reify free will and they're afraid the new brain sciences are a threat.

One chapter in this book provided me with some information I needed about what exactly an fMRI measures and how it works (hence the 2nd star). And obviously neuroscience is being misapplied and misunderstood. They do a good job of illustrating some of that problem. After that, though, the authors' political positions shine through - particularly in a chapter on drug addiction and the brain. And though their delineation of how popular thinkers have misused neuroscience seemed by and large accurate and necessary, I'm still waiting for a book that can put it all into perspective without the libertarian agenda.
Profile Image for Pandit.
181 reviews10 followers
November 21, 2018
Sally Satel's assault on 'neurobollocks' - the over-optimistic and ultimately deceptive use of neuro-language in modern science and arts. Pretty much every field is guilty of this - using spurious brain imaging to back up entrenched positions.
Satel agrees that neurology is great, and there have been strides. But when it is used to sell things like lie detection services, criminal convictions, marketing, drug rehab etc... then it has been vastly over applied.
Great work. I've been very dubious of brain imaging - or at least the claims people make while providing fMRI scans as 'proof'. This book puts it all together. The final chapter was the only part where the message gets a bit confused - where Satel tries to deal with criminality and whether people have free will to commit crime. It ventured too far into speculative philosophy. But otherwise, a good read.
NB; over half the book is references and notes.
Profile Image for Alison Raman.
11 reviews
January 11, 2016
Easy read on how neuroscience (particularly brain imaging) is not necessarily the panacea the media and some professionals purport it to be. While acknowledging the immensely positive impact neuroscience has made in the last 50 years, this book talks about not discounting the complex cultural, personal, and social influences that also drive behavior. With all they hype about the brain being the key to understanding so many problems, this book brings a realistic view of the current state of brain imaging and what it may and may not be able to explain.
Profile Image for Sophia.
223 reviews74 followers
February 28, 2018
This is an excellent book for anyone even vaguely interested in all the recent breakthroughs in brain science but is at best self taught in the subject. It explains quite clearly the pitfalls of recent misuse of brain data, and reading this will help you avoid them in the future, and separate the good from the bad.
The chapters on neuroscience and law were particularly interesting and well developed.
Profile Image for Andrea.
880 reviews70 followers
August 5, 2013
This is a pretty low level explanation of current neuroscience. However, it demonstrates, much to my delight, that elementary logic and understanding of simple statistical and scientific principles allows any well-educated person to understand the misuse of scientific research and the overgeneralization the popular press often applies to scientific results.
Profile Image for Matt Gosney.
145 reviews1 follower
June 26, 2018
It was a refreshing read about how we accept to much of conventional wisdom of neuroscience and how we have been deceived by science. Everything from crime to general cognition, we think the fMRI can do anything and it can't. Science has a long way to go to reaching its social reputation.
Author 1 book19 followers
July 8, 2022
‘Seeing maybe believing, but it isn’t necessarily understanding.’ (p.xv). This observation sets the scene for a critique of the naïve optimism which over-simplifies neuroscience, vastly inflating what it can accurately be thought to do, and tell us.

For example, neuro-polsters sometimes use the fact that activity in the human amygdala is associated with fear, so brain scanning people when they look at pictures of politicians can tell who they really like and dislike. Right? Wrong. The amygdala can also be active in cases of sexual attraction. So, a response to a picture of a politician could be hate… or love. This kind of nuance is critical to accurately interpreting brain scans, but it is missing in many of the simplistic versions which are rolled out for commercial usage.

The authors note that the hype around neuro-science is not dissimilar to some of the hype which surrounded the discovery of X-rays. For example, Parisian doctor Hippolyte Ferdinand Baraduc tried to use X-rays to record his own ideas and feelings as ‘psychicons.’ It is not unexpected, or unusual for a new science like neuroscience to be over-hyped and potentially over-sold. So the author’s reminder of the need for caution is a point well made.

To be clear, the authors think that neuroscience can give us valuable information, but they think we need to be far clearer about our limitations when it comes to interpreting what we are seeing. This is because there is not a 1:1 mapping of brain states to mental functions, so ‘reverse inference’ is not straight forward. Just because language usage is associated with Broca’s area, that does not mean that activity in Broca’s area can be reduced to linguistic action. To do so is to commit a very basic fallacy: cars can be associated with road accidents, but it doesn’t mean that a report of a road accident must have involved a car.

The book is full of examples of neuroscience being pressed beyond its limitations. It looks at advertisers use and also its misuse in claims about addiction as a (brain) illness which neuroscience can monitor and diagnose. One of the problems which emerges from reducing everything to neuroscience is that it starts to take away the concept of agency and personal responsibility. The authors note that soldiers who had been addicted to drugs in Vietnam only showed a relapse rate of 12%, three years after their return to the US (p50). This astonishingly low figure is completely different to ‘normal’ patterns of addiction evidence, and is inexplicable if addiction is converted into a brain disease over which people have no control. Neuroscience can show aspects of what is going on in an addicts brain, but there needs to be significant caution in turning that into an interpretation of addiction itself.

Overall, this is an easy to read book which is accessible to readers regardless of their background in neuroscience. It felt as if it drifted unnecessarily into an overly philosophical account of issues around free will at the end, but the rest of the book provided an interesting and informative account of commercial legal and medical issues surrounding neuroscience.
Profile Image for Kate.
426 reviews1 follower
September 2, 2019
To sum up the book in one sentence: neuroscience is not as powerful as it is commonly thought.

Currently, thanks to the fMRI technique many aspects of life are being examined from the perspective of neuroscience. Undoubtedly, the human brain is a masterwork of nature, but the level on which it is examined has to be appropriate for the purpose (so, for example, to find cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the structure of neutrons is examined while for high-level behavioural problems, help of a psychologists is required).

The appearance of new techniques to study the brain contributed to the popularity of neuroscience. Unfortunately, standardisation of experimental protocols is still lacking. The overview of techniques is as follows:
- fMRI - a strong magnet detects the different magnetic properties of oxygenated versus not oxygenated blood, which helps to detect more active regions of the brain
- PET scan - uses radioactively-tagged glucose, which gets consumed in the active regions of the brain and the resulting radiation can be detected
- EEG - detects electric activity on the surface of the brain; in addition there is no delay of obtaining the activity information as opposed to the aforementioned techniques

Furthermore, on examples of neuro-marketing, mechanisms of addiction, and court cases, conclusions were reached regarding applicability of neuroscience. Even though the inborn properties of the brain can predispose certain people to addictive or criminal behaviour, the decision is still there to be made by a person. Science is new religion nowadays, so perhaps unsurprisingly, neurological evidence affected the jury to greater extent than psychological or environmental evidence in order decrease the sentence of the accused person. Furthermore, somehow philosophical discussion about the free will on the background of neuroscience was presented, but there were no clear conclusions drawn.

Fun fact of bad neuroscience: brain patterns of Apple products users resemble closely those of devoted Christians.
8 reviews
July 30, 2022
A nice dissection of the hype behind neuroscience. The book provides warnings on taking the neuroscientific field's "findings" as cutting edge or valid. The field itself is still in rudimentary shape, though is making strides toward more solid findings, for better or worse.

This brings a critique of the point of view of the authors, which feels a bit dystopian. The text alludes to the privacy of the mind and how the code is still trying to be cracked, where lies can be detected, or behavior is easily understood. Mix in the book's stance on the justice system, and you kind of get the feeling that the authors are slipping into the "belief in a just world", they talk about in chapter 6. They make some solid arguments for why the system is needed, but seem to skirt some of the underlying issues in the justice system that raise questions about how, if these areas of neuroscience make astounding breakthroughs, the justice system or marketing, might amplify many of the problems that have existed and arisen years after the publication of this book. It might be just too much to tackle in an already short read, or, perhaps given their overall analysis, the authors do not see it as urgent an issue as the failings of the neuroscientific field. Which is fair.
Profile Image for EMMANUEL.
505 reviews
August 6, 2021
I had a very strong belief that the current circulating literature in regards to neuroscience in the market were accounts of what is considered the best literature that exemplifies the ideological understanding of where the current capabilities of the neuroscience industry is currently facilitating in academic research. That is what I believed. And. What I learned. And. What I realized. Is that. The circulating literature is very much a scam to accumulate a professional pay scale wage. I have only found one book that was adequate in neuroscience. And. It was the first neuroscience book that I read. That book was, "Buddhas Brain". All other books about neuroscience I have read were very disappointing. And. Very fraudulently academic literature. To the extent, of wondering how was it that these persons were able to obtain the ability to write on such significant and sensitive topic so casually and so unprofessionally.
12 reviews1 follower
March 6, 2017
It seems like nearly every day I read a new headline claiming “Brain Scans Show [insert erroneous conclusion].” Typically, I look at the information with some degree of skepticism then leave the article thinking “well something doesn't seem right, but the people who wrote this are professionals and probably a lot smarter than I am.” After reading this book, I'm going to trust my initial skepticism and try to be more “neuroliterate” when evaluating claims. I first began to suspect foul play in anything with the prefix “neuro-” when I heard about how brain-training games do nothing to actually train skills beyond gameplay.

This book isn't meant to be a party-pooper; it's not here to quell anyone's enthusiasm for neuroscience and the authors make this clear. This book intends to deepen the public's understanding and appreciation of neuroscientific studies rather than teach people to dismiss new science outright. This book is similar to many other books I've read. In fact, one chapter is named The Tell-Tale Brain, which is the title of a book by V.S. Ramachandran which likely contributed to some of the “neuro-hype” that Brainwashed attempts to mitigate. V.S. Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks, and Robert Sapolsky have all written to varying degrees about how people are too impressed by pointless brain pictures and not impressed enough by psychological research. As I read, I could almost hear Sapolsky saying things like “of course there's a biological component to mental illness, just measure the glucocorticoids in a depressive patient. You don't need an MRI, duh.”

I don't quite understand why people think brain scans suddenly make psychological conditions more real. This isn't really answered in the book, it's simply presented as a thing we accept. Of course mental illness is in a person's head, your entire experience of reality is just in your head, how does that help people to overcome it? It's not like your brain is locked into certain response patterns and there's no changing connections. I believe plasticity was mentioned in the first chapter though not really expanded upon and I feel that going into more particular detail about how the brain can remap processes would have contributed more to the book, particularly in the chapter about addiction. However, the man who became a pedophile when he had a tumor was certainly a good story to outline the effects of physical illness on the brain and our power to heal. Many of the book's conclusions weren't new to me, but I found it well-organized with fascinating studies and examples. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on morality and blame in a deterministic universe in chapter 6.

Overall, I thought this was an enjoyable read. I recommend it to anyone interested in “neuro-” anything.
Profile Image for Clayton.
8 reviews
October 24, 2017
A decent introduction to the dangers of using neuroscientific evidence for a reader who has little or no background in psychology or neuroscience. Although the authors provide good critiques, they still focus too much on people's morale when trying to overcome afflictions. It is not to say the authors are incorrect, but they oversimplify the idea that people can "just decide" not to commit a crime, stop abusing a drug, or not be influenced by an advertisement. I believe this is a great book for an introductory course in behavioral neuroscience TAS a tool to help engage students in tricky philosophical and ethical issues that involve neuroscience and psychology.
Profile Image for Anthony Cleveland.
Author 1 book30 followers
May 26, 2018
A well written book based upon the premise the application of fMRI neurological testing has significant limitations regarding suspected correlations between brain function and mental process. The authors raise a cautionary flag about the use of fMRI data in education, forensics, and commerce. Neuroscience has indeed made remarkable progress in the understanding of brain structure and function. However, according to the authors, we are still years perhaps decades away from truly clarifying the mind-brain issue. A very thought provoking work.
228 reviews
June 7, 2018
Neuroscience heeft veel nieuwe inzichten opgeleverd over de werking van onbewuste denkprocessen en invloeden op gedrag. Dit boek brengt nuance in de hype rondom neuroscience.
Veel fysiologische bevindingen blijken samen te hangen met gedrag, maar dat is nog niet genoeg om gedrag juist te voorspellen. Activiteit in specifieke hersengebieden kunnen meerdere oorzaken hebben en op verschillende dingen duiden. Harde bewijzen voor effectief gebruik van neuroscience toepassingen zijn nog niet geleverd.

Profile Image for Omar M. Khateeb.
121 reviews14 followers
December 31, 2017
A good book that exposes the pseudoscience that can be found in neuroscience. The book is primarily full of cases studies and does a nice job of laying out the history of neuroscientific studies. Big take away is that neuroscience can dangerously oversimplify complex decisions and behavior of human beings. Be sure not to fall into the trap of dumbing-down these complex processes.
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