Imagine There’s No More of This Crap

To anyone who plans to read Imagine, the new book of pop neuroscience by Jonah Lehrer; to anyone who gets excited by specious comparisons between lab experiments and Bob Dylan anecdotes; to anyone who didn’t catch the cautionary tale known as Malcolm Gladwell; to anyone who actually believes that brain activity is the root cause of human behavior; to anyone who can stifle a condescending snort at the mention of the word “neuroscience”; to anyone who thinks Imagine has any hope of fulfilling its stated purpose, which is to pick apart and illuminate the creative process using popular science and handy proverbs; to you I say good luck, suckers.

Here’s the neuroscience behind my distaste for this topic in science writing. When my optical nerve processes the words that Jonah Lehrer (in this case) writes, it sends a message to the left hemisphere of my brain—where language is processed—that triggers a release of chemicals that makes me want to puke. That’s the science behind it. See how I explained that, using science? Now you know. And you can apply it to your own life!

Yes, I’m testy about this. I’m testy because I take it personally. I take it personally because the notion that a journalist can summarize other people’s lab work and then announce that it finally answers the vexing question of why Arthur Fry invented the Post-it Note (which, I guess, is the Holy Grail of human creativity?) is horrifying to consider. Not that it deserves much consideration, since its approach is evidently simplistic and patronizing.

I want to be romanced! Let me keep believing, however falsely, that Bob Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” because he was smitten with some girl behind the counter at a savings bank in Baton Rouge, or whatever it was I believed before Lehrer came along and chalked it up to the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).

If a questionable branch of science is going to wag its pale, feeble index finger in the air and declare that creativity is a problem that has now been solved, then I hereby raise an even paler, even feebler finger to my keyboard in order to reveal that neuroscience is a sham invented by the late, great Jorge Luis Borges.

Here’s the beginning of his story “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”:

Under the notorious influence of Chesteron (inventor and embellisher of elegant mysteries) and the court counselor Leibniz (who invented preestablished harmony), in my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me. It needs details, rectifications, tinkering—there are many areas of the story that have never been revealed to me. Today, January 3, 1944, I see it in the following way:

The action takes place in an oppressed yet stubborn corner of the ivory tower—alchemy, perhaps, or brain sciences. There, a disconsolate scribbler with no hope of fathoming the depths of mankind in his mortal lifetime, and with a low opinion of the intelligence of his fellow tower-dwellers, seizes upon a doomed, infantile scheme to deceive his colleagues by alleging that the whole of the Library of the universe is revealed in the creases upon any man’s brain.

See that, neuroscience? Your whole endeavor was never anything more than a puckish glint in Borges’ eye.

- Brian Hurley

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Imagine There’s No More of This Crap

  1. brianhurley

    I faked the passage from Borges. But the argument still holds.

  2. brianhurley

    If you think I’m being harsh, check out the review at the New York Times, which faults Lehrer’s science reporting on just about every level.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/books/review/imagine-by-jonah-lehrer.html?ref=books&pagewanted=all

  3. Pingback: How Creativity Works (Too Well) |

  4. Anonymous

    Lehrer simplistically digests and over-sells the beliefs and results of hard-working and relatively unknown neuroscientists around the world for his own gain. The culprit is not this field of honest study.

  5. Karl Bunker

    I totally agree with you that oversimplifying drivel like Lehrer’s book is, well, oversimplifying drivel. But your counter-position appears to be that the mind will never be understood because it’s magic — period, end of story.

    Writers like Lehrer oversimplify the science to make it glib and marketable. People like you close your eyes and cover your ears and go “LA LA LA” and refuse to think because you don’t like the science.

    Lehrer’s type of stuff annoys me. Your type of stuff makes me want to puke.

  6. brianhurley

    Wow. Touché, Karl Bunker. I’m sorry you got the impression that I believe in magic and ear-plugging, because I didn’t say that, and I don’t. If you find any of those straw men you’re attacking, let me know and we’ll take them down together.

  7. Karl Bunker

    Hi Brian,
    Perhaps I am mistaken. I was referring to statements such as:
    “to anyone who actually believes that brain activity is the root cause of human behavior [...]”
    “to anyone who can stifle a condescending snort at the mention of the word ‘neuroscience, [...]”
    and the Borges excerpt, the purpose of which is unclear to me, but which is _apparently_ meant to mock neuroscience as a whole.

    From these statements I assumed that you’re advocating some brand of mind-brain dualism, which is inarguably* a belief in magic and a refusal to see or hear plain scientific facts.

    But perhaps I’m wrong, as I said. Perhaps you’re only guilty of unclear writing. (A theory that’s supported by your misuse of “touché” above.) If that’s the case, I apologize; unclear writing doesn’t make me want to puke at all.

    *”Inarguably” meaning “I’m certainly not going to waste my time arguing about it with you, so please don’t bother going there.

  8. brianhurley

    Well I appreciate being taken to task by someone who cares enough to read closely, so thank you for that, Karl. If you ever want to talk offline, I’m at fictionadvocate@gmail.com.

  9. Karl Bunker

    I don’t think I want to get into an offline discussion. But your latest response still leaves me unclear as to whether I’ve misunderstood your position with regard to mind-brain dualism, and I’m a little curious about that.

  10. brianhurley

    I haven’t articulated a position on mind-brain dualism. All I meant to say is that Lehrer’s work is misguided and frustrating. I invented a passage from Borges to suggest that A) literature is one of the frameworks missing from Lehrer’s narrow approach to these big questions, and B) if we’re just going to make stuff up, as Lehrer seems to do with his popular science writing, we might as well go all the way. This post appeared long before the allegations about his self-plagiarizing and false quotations.

  11. Karl Bunker

    “I haven’t articulated a position on mind-brain dualism.”
    Really? You really think that “I haven’t articulated a position on…” is a non-laughable response? To anything? Ever?

  12. Yes. I’m not here to resolve that particular debate for you, Karl. Lehrer took a position on it that is so simple and extreme it’s self-evidently wrong, which is why I mock him. The point is he’s a terrible writer. You seem determined to choose a different context for my remarks. Sort of like a concerned citizen who shows up at a local school board meeting and demands to know what the teachers are planning to do about North Korea’s nuclear program.

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