Neuromania and why we need to re-humanise research

If you’ve been to the ARFconference  in New York recently, and attended any of the ‘company presentations’  you’ve probably heard a pitch along these lines:

“More has been learned about the brain in the last 10 years than in the previous thousand. Neuroscience proves that our brains are in control of our behaviour and that asking people questions misleads us about our true nature. That’s why we, at XYZ Research Inc, have pioneered BrainZap™ – a unique technique for finding out what your customers think, BEFORE THEY EVEN THINK IT. ”

I exaggerate (ever so slightly) to make the point that there are those in neuromarketing (usually not neuroscientists) who get carried away with the notion that all (consumer) behaviour can be explained by reference to the brain. It’s what philosopher/neuroscientist Raymond Tallis calls neuromania.

Of course it’s true that everything we do has a neural correlate – because mental activity has to happen somewhere- but it doesn’t follow that by observing that correlation (via fMRI, EEG or indirectly via biometrics), you explain the behaviour. It’s a type of crude reductionism that seeks to ‘explain’ human behaviour mainly in terms of neuronal response and unconscious emotional drives – drives which, it is argued, can only be accessed by expensive and invasive  methods that reduce our feelings to a squiggle on an EEG trace or similar.

It’s bizarre that we humanise animals (often by attributing to them feelings they don’t have) yet animalise humans. . For example, we use ‘memory’ to describe both the process by which an dog locates his buried bone and the infinitely more complex one by which we weave together our past experiences into a self-narrative. Consciousness and a sense of self are the two faculties that most differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, yet each remains strangely impervious to adequate explanation via neuroscience.

Neuroscience is a necessary rather than a sufficient explanation of consumer behaviour  because our brains constantly interact with the culture in which they live.  What results is a kind of shared human consciousness – a community of minds. The evidence is all around us, in the wonderful stuff we produce: in literature, in art, and in brands and advertising too.  We create this stuff through a combination of conscious reflection and imaginative intuition; though the application of reason and emotion; through neurons firing and through social influences.

The point is, we can learn as much from analysing the cultural/linguistic outputs of the brain as from an EEG trace or fMRI scan. For example, metaphors are a uniquely human linguistic construct that link emotion with the conscious mind – making them a wonderful and powerful tool for accessing and understanding emotion. Looking at neurons alone will never give us the answer. Treating people as humans might.

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