Wednesday, July 16th, 2008...7:25 pm

“Neuro,” the New “Nano”?

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Is “neuro” the new “nano”?

Until recently “nano-” whatever (and before that, “geno-” whatever) was all the rage. In a nation as scientifically illiterate as it is historically illiterate and culturally illiterate as ours, perhaps at first blush it might seem contradictory that we would entertain one mania after another, like Toad of Toad Hall, with science. However, the contradiction can be explained easily: We believe in science, but don’t understand it, and like many of our religious beliefs, our science belief takes on the tinge of the supernatural, which in America entails either the millenarian(“Discoveries in [geno- , nano- , neuro- you fill in the blank] technology will save humankind”) or the apocalyptic (“Discoveries in [geno- , nano- , neuro- you fill in the blank] technology will destroy humankind”).  

And I’ve been seeing “neuro” everywhere. Physician Atul Gawande’s article “The Itch” in the June 30 issue of The New Yorker concerns the strange ways that our brains process sensations that don’t exist (which might give the Bush misadministration some interesting support for its war against the reality-based sector).

Gary Greenberg in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine reviews five books about the brain: Best of the Brain from Scientific American: Mind, Matter, and Tomorrow’s Brain, edited by Floyd E. Bloom; The Self and Its Brain, by philosopher Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles; The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, by David Linden; The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary; and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves, by Sharon Begley.

The New York Review of Books in its June 26 issue features a review by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff of two books by Jean-Pierre Changeux, “France’s most famous neuroscientist,” according to the first sentence of the review.

A new book by linguist George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics With and 18th-Century Brain, is reviewed by William Saletan in the New York Times Book Review section for Sunday, June 22.

But wait, there’s more. One of the two PBS stations carried by my cable provider, endlessly recycles (and frequently interrupts) during its interminable and now seemingly monthly fund-raising campaign a “documentary” hosted by Peter Coyote concerning “brain plasticity” that seems also to serve as a shill for something called the Brain Fitness Program, which, since it employs computer software and special headphones, must be effective.

I’m thinking it’s botox for brains. While there’s no question that functional MRIs in the past ten years have taught us more about the brain than we have learned in the past ten decades (or the past ten centuries), and while this research is now finding its way into popular publication (thus the flurry of books prompting a flurry of reviews), much of the consumer interest, I suspect, comes from Baby Boomers, who, having thwarted such signs of aging as vaginal dryness, reduced libido, and erectile dysfunction, are alarmed that what’s between their ears may not be firing on all eight cylinders.

2 Comments

  • As with all things, the hype often doesn’t correlate with the science (otherwise we’d be getting our power from Con Tesla rather than Con Edison!)

    But… if anyone hasn’t seen Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl’s study on Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008), you should check it out. Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s team recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% after 19 days of focused training with a dual n-back progressive method.

    I was so impressed that I contacted the research team and developed a software program using the same method so that anyone can achieve these improvements at home.
    http://www.iqtesttraining.com – The IQ Training Program

    Martin Walker
    mind evolve, llc

  • Thanks for your interest, MW.

    IQ is not a stable quantum; it represents aptitudes in a given moment (which can be developed over time).

    –TLL

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