Bringing Back the (Other) B Word

If neuro-obsession dies down, can we rediscover the importance of behavior?
by Amy Yeager

It’s time to give the brain a break. We’ve been asking it to take all the responsibility for answering the big questions of psychology, and that’s just not realistic. Fortunately, there is another place we can look for answers, a source of insight that fell out of favor decades ago and never quite regained its footing: the study of behavior.

The Revolt Against Brain Porn
The past few months have seen an increasingly strong backlash against overhyped, reductionist neuroscience, and particularly against “brain porn”—those impressive multicolored brain scan images cited as evidence for everything from the fact that Buddhists “really are happy” to the superior empathy of vegans over omnivores. (Shocking news, I imagine, for folks who were sure that those monks were just faking it, and that vegans were heartless bastards seeking only to deprive them of bacon and eggs.)

I won’t go through all the details (interested readers can consult Alissa Quart’s New York Times OpEd piece on the topic and follow the other links throughout this post), but here are some of the main points of these critiques:

  • Neuroscience references make us gullible. To make a weak or incoherent argument much more compelling, all you need to do is add a few fMRI images or the words “Brain scans show…” My favorite sum-up of the problem comes from neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop: “Anything neurosciencey just sort of leads to a general loss of critical faculties.” See her full lecture here (click on “Emmanuel Miller Lecture”). To delve deeper, see also an April 2012 Neuron review (purchase or subscription only) or a 2008 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience study (open access).
  • All too often, brain imaging studies have serious methodological flaws. Problems including the lack of a proper control group contribute to false-positive results. Again, Bishop explains this nicely. Watch her lecture.
  • Brain scans are never direct measures of brain activity. Alva Noë discusses this problem in clear detail in his book Out of Our Heads and a recent NPR blog.
  • Brain activity is much more complex than it’s made out to be. It’s misleading to think of the brain as a collection of separate parts that are each responsible for doing one type of thing—understanding language, or feeling anger, or recognizing faces (this last issue is specifically addressed in Out of Our Heads). In the words of Gary Marcus, blogging for the New Yorker, “What really matters is how vast networks of neural tissue work together.” I would add that these networks don’t just involve the brain; in our obsession with the brain, we easily overlook the role of other aspects of the nervous system.
  • The media—and people in general—tend to draw false, reductionist conclusions from brain studies. Brain images are interpreted as hard evidence that certain beliefs or phenomena are real, or that certain categories of people (women vs. men, gay vs. straight, pathological vs normal) are fundamentally different from one another. (See that Neuron article again.)

Putting it All Together: The Killer Critique
All of these factors lead up to one final and, to my mind, compelling critique: Once you take away the mystique, oversimplification, and false conclusions, much of this neuro-data just isn’t that interesting.

Bishop gets at this problem when she questions the use of imaging to determine whether a particular intervention (learning tool, teaching process, etc.) is effective. Her area of specialty is children’s communication problems, but the argument applies to almost any intervention designed to help people change in some way.

Suppose you have a technique designed to help people with anxiety disorders feel less anxious. It works! The people wind up feeling much less anxious. But then extensive brain imaging shows no consistent brain changes. Would you then change your mind and conclude that the intervention didn’t work? Of course not. Or suppose the imaging shows dramatic, consistent brain changes, but the people still feel extreme anxiety. You’re not going to go championing your technique as an anxiety cure. If the people feel less anxious AND you see brain changes, the imaging may tell you something, but it certainly does not tell you that the technique is effective. (For more related discussions, see Bishop’s lecture and this post and comment exchange on her blog.)

A similar argument applies to the various “Look—these people’s brains are different!” studies. Say you’re trying to understand a group of people who think, feel, or act in a particular way (they are depressed, they abuse drugs or alcohol, they’re really great at math, they fall in love easily, they believe in God, they’re obsessed with reality TV, etc.). And say you manage to find something really distinctive about these people’s brains (setting aside for the moment all the problems associated with doing that).

It can seem as though you’ve learned something profound: why people get depressed, believe in God, and so on. It’s because of their brains! But there’s no real substance to that answer. Studying pictures of a depressed person’s brain no more tells you why they are depressed than studying pictures of an athlete’s muscles tells you why they can run a 4-minute mile. You’re seeing a static image, with no information about the conditions and experiences that shaped the brain (or muscles) in the first place, or about the complex ways in which the brain (or muscles) interact with the rest of the nervous system, body, and external world.

This is not to say that neuroscience can’t tell us many important things. It can and it does. But we get into trouble when we expect it to provide definitive answers about why we are the way we are, why we do the things we do, and how we might go about changing what’s not working in our daily lives. In addition to leading us to false conclusions, this strict focus on the brain blinds us to an often richer, more meaningful, and more useful source of data about human difference and potential for change: behavior.

Who’s Afraid of B.F. Skinner?
While the problems with reductionist neuroscience have gotten a lot of press, the alternative of focusing on behavior has not. In fact, when I first sat down to write this post, I thought I’d be taking a novel angle on the issue. But then I watched Dorothy Bishop’s lecture. Right near the beginning, she clearly states that rather than being “totally seduced by all the neuroscientific things that are going on around us,” it’s more useful to “put at the forefront of our research endeavors studies of behavior.” About two-thirds of the way through her talk, she emphasizes this point again, saying that her “main message today is really that we need more behavioral studies if we really want to understand interventions and really want to get better interventions.” And then she goes on to discuss real examples of the types of behavioral studies she’s referring to. All of this came as a surprise to me, since none of the references to her lecture that I’d seen—including a fairly detailed, frequently cited summary—even mentioned the word behavior (or behaviour, to use Bishop’s native British).

Why might it be that what Bishop herself calls her “main message” has failed to attract popular attention? There are a number of possible explanations, including the obvious fact that she spent more time talking about the problems with bad neuroscience than about the benefits of studying behavior. But I believe the primary reason is a deeper one: talking about behavior just doesn’t get people excited.

Behavior isn’t sexy like the brain is sexy. Brain-based psychology conjures up images of powerful, futuristic devices, high-tech images, and dramatic discoveries (“Look! I’ve just discovered the neurons that make someone a brilliant physicist!”) And behavior-based psychology? That brings images of salivating dogs, rats in cages, and rather more mundane findings (“Look! The rat just pushed a lever!”). It’s no wonder that the prominent bloggers on the brain porn issue have names like Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic, and Neurobonkers, rather than… well, honestly, even I can’t think of any interesting names with “behavior” in them.

Learning from Behavior
It’s hard to imagine that anyone these days would advocate a return to the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and John Watson, fighting to eliminate all references to mental states and processes in favor of behavioral measures. However, in a cultural climate where the brain is often seen as the ultimate authority on everything, studying behavior helps to remind us of all the other crucial factors we tend to ignore. It also provides valuable guidance to all of us in the business of building practical skills, whether it’s teaching children to read, enabling victims of trauma to readjust into society, or—in the work that my colleagues and I do—helping groups to manage their differences and become resilient, high-performing teams.

In upcoming posts on our blog, my co-author Ben Benjamin and I will explore several critical insights we can gain by focusing on behavior, particularly in the context of trying to improve our communication. Along the way, we’ll discuss how one area of neuroscience—the study of neuroplasticity—provides a model for the way behaviors shape our brains (rather than just the other way around).

Stay tuned!