A philosophical mythbuster
Cognitive neuroscience gives us a glimpse into our brain activity; it allows us to learn more about ourselves. Or do brain scans actually not say very much about who we are? Philosopher Annemarie van Stee examines four myths about neuroscience and self-understanding.
Annemarie van Stee is a philosopher who also did a research master's in cognitive neurosciences. Her PhD research in Leiden focused on the question of where philosophy and cognitive neurosciences meet. The question is, how much do we learn about ourselves from a glimpse into our brain? Van Stee explains, using four myths.
Myth 1: Brain research helps us understand ourselves
‘That's generally not the case. An important question is: What is it we want to know when we try to "understand ourselves"? In many cases, we're looking for insight into ourselves because of some practical situation. You're offered a really nice job abroad, for example, but far away from family and friends. To be able to make a decision, you start to look for some insight into yourself. Are you going to miss your loved ones enormously, or, when it comes down to it, will contact by Skype be enough? Are you the type of person who likes finding your way in other cultures, or does that make you feel uncomfortable? The reason we look for insight into our character is because it helps us in these kinds of practical situations.'
‘Cognitive neuroscience research is being carried out on the brain processes that make it possible for us to cherish our loved ones and reflect on ourselves. The results of this kind of research tell us about brain processes and give us insights like, "When looking at photos of our loved ones, there is activity in a dopamine network in the centre of the brain." That's interesting to know, but that kind of knowledge about brain activity doesn't help us make a decision about that job abroad.'
Myth 2: Cognitive neuroscience contributes nothing to our self-understanding
‘That's not true either. It does give us insight into the brain processes that enable us to do what we do and feel what we feel. This is particularly relevant when brain processes don't enable us to do particular things, for example, due to brain damage or neurological disease. Brain scans can then help us understand the causes of our incapacity, which will hopefully make it possible to improve medical treatment.'
‘And there's also a lot of "neuro-nonsense" going around; for example that left-handers are more creative because the right-hand part of their brain is more dominant. Neuroscience helps to debunk that kind of myth.'
Also, humans are embodied beings: our body - including our brain - plays a role in our behaviour. It's important to realise that we do a lot of things automatically, and that not everything we do is preceded by rational considerations and conscious decisions. We know that from psychological research, but neuroscience underlines it. Traditionally, that's something philosophers have tended to forget.'
Myth 3: Love is addictive for the brain
‘This myth came from an experiment where people's brain activity was measured while they were looking at a photo of someone they love. This activity was compared with brain activity when they looked at photos of a random person. When the test candidates looked at someone they love, a particular network in the centre of the brain was activated: the same network that is active in someone using cocaine. That's how the myth about love being addictive came about.'
‘A wrong conclusion is being drawn here. On the basis of this data you can conclude that love and cocaine correlate with activity in the same cerebral network - but not that activity in this network means that either love or cocaine is involved. Just because there is activity in the same area of the brain, it doesn't mean that love and cocaine use are the same. Not only that, there's also a whole series of other processes during which this network is active, even including aversion.'
‘At the end of a scientific article, neuroscientists interpret their results, and very often they make these kinds of inferences, as hypotheses about what the measured activity means. As long as you recognise that these are hypotheses and not research results, there's nothing terribly wrong in that. But not everyone does realise it. As a result, many sensationalist reports in the media about what brain research has shown are based on invalid reverse inferences.'
Myth 4 : Thanks to cognitive neuroscience, we no longer need philosophy
‘This, too, is a myth because philosophers and neuroscientists study completely different issues. Philosophy isn't about the brain processes involved in our experiences; what philosophers try to do is to explain these experiences themselves by uncovering their structural characteristics. For example, Harry Frankfurt analyses how it is possible for us to experience love as binding and at the same time liberating. He writes about the structural connection between love and volition. What we love doesn't leave us cold: we have to take it into account in our decisions. That's how love binds us. But the fact that it restricts our will can also be liberating, because if we didn't love, it would be very difficult to make choices. Just think back to that job abroad: if you have a partner whom you love, and who is entirely up for that kind of adventure, the choice is easy. That's liberating.'
‘Other philosophers study normativity, involving such questions as how we should live our lives. Neuroscientific experiments on the other hand are always about how things are, rather than about how things should be.'
‘Philosophy is also often about analysing assumptions that we make without realising we're doing it. That can advance neuroscientific research. Think again of looking at the photo of someone you love while you are in the scanner. The feeling of love is generally thought to arise automatically when you see a picture of your loved one. Yet, in other studies participants are instructed to induce loving feelings in themselves, as if they don't arise spontaneously. This matters when comparing experiments. We also have to bear in mind that not all research on love is about the same kind of love, which can be a reason why we get different results. By analysing these kinds of assumptions, philosophy can aid neuroscience.'