review of Physics Envy via Why Buddhism Is True

Why Buddhism is True


written by robert wright

3 out of 5 picnics ruined by a single, really gross bug

Aside: why is it fMRI and not FMRI? Chicago manual for style offers one answer, common sense another. God forbid it should start a sentence.

The most important letters in any social science may be fMRI. It’s the hard candy center of certainty surrounded by the chewy nougat of guesswork. Ever since Freud gnawed through his pipe thinking about our dirtier selves, the social sciences have labored under an inferiority complex. Who could doubt math and physics with their incomprehensible equations?  They must be uncovering truth. But spare a thought for Jung, Adam Smith, and Darwin, who all had to insist they had serious theories---no really, serious, guys c’mon---while all those mean physicists snickered into their graphing calculators and wore pink on Wednesdays. Psychology felt the snub keenly, and, as it’s the study of the mind---perhaps the most complex structure we know of---psychologists have always been at a disadvantage to find the proof in the cerebral pudding. After all, what mathematical model could possibly capture why we dream, or how we choose a spouse, or why we do anything for any reason? Psychology set some ambitious goals; at least physics restricted itself to just the inner workings of the universe. But then god created the fMRI and psychology was seen picking out a pink blouse. Unfortunately, the idea that an fMRI machine can give us truth is often overblown.

Why Buddhism is True is a great book. It’s basically a two-part argument.  (1) Evolutionary psychology and certain parts of Buddhism are surprisingly compatible as descriptions of, and solutions to, the human condition. And, (2) that they each offer separate insights into why we might be unhappy in some circumstances.  A big slice of (2) is the hypothesis that we’re ruled by our emotions more than we might realize, and once we recognize our base, emotional state as driven by evolutionary goals (i.e. reproduce) and not individual, human ones (i.e. be happy), we can choose to follow more productive emotions (joy, wonder, awe, curiosity) and be less ensnared by the grimier ones (depression, anxiety, compulsive worry). Wright advocates mindfulness meditation and selective Buddhist philosophy as the best path for chucking the cloying blanket of unproductive emotions, and backs himself up with tracts from evolutionary psychology.  It’s really a wonderful book, this reviewer gives it 4 out of 5 lotus flowers. But there’s one paragraph that really sums up our overenthusiasm for fMRI studies. Wright is making the point that even decisions we think are coolly rational, like buying one thing versus another, are heavily influenced by feelings. In full -

But weighing factors may not be so cool after all, according to an experiment done by cognitive scientists at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT. They gave people real money and offered them a series of things to buy: wireless headphones, an electric toothbrush, a Star Wars DVD, and so on. As these people were shown each product, and then its price, their brains were being scanned. It turned out researchers could do a good job predicting whether someone would purchase something by watching which parts of the brain got more active and which got less active. And none of these were parts of the brain mainly associated with rational deliberation; rather, they were parts associated with feelings. Like, for example, the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in doling out pleasure and gets more active when people anticipate rewards or see things they like. The more active the nucleus accumbens while subjects were looking at a product, the more likely they were to buy it. On the other hand, there’s the insula, which gets especially active when people anticipate pain and other unpleasant things. The more active the insula, the less likely they were to buy the product.

There’s a lot wrong here. Most popsci literature (à la malcolm gladwell, whom I love but can never forgive for popularizing the 10,000 hour rule. Review pending, but in short, malcolm, you owe us an apology) cites fMRI using causal language. E.g. ‘...the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in doling out pleasure.’ Expressions like this are often take literally, as in ‘oh, so the nucleus accumbens causes us to feel pleasure when we see something we like.’ Nope. ‘Doling out’ is shorthand here in the same way saying evolution ‘gives out’ or ‘selects for’ traits is shorthand.  My brain getting more active in an area doesn’t cause me to feel something, that activity is me feeling that thing. Feeling pleasantly anticipatory = increased activity in the nucleus accumbens. It’s kinda like the difference between ‘muscle activity causes your leg to move’ and ‘muscle activity is your leg moving.’

This may seem like just the splitting of semantic hairs, but it’s a subtle mixup that causes a lot of wonky science writing. It’s the old dualism fallacy: my brain and me are different things. My brain causes me to do stuff, which looks very pretty when seen on an fMRI screen.  In fact, the fMRI is a hightech, more precise, and tremendously cool version of simply watching me feeling something.  If I look sad, you can infer I’m thinking about something upsetting and that I’m feeling the emotion ‘sad.’ The fMRI just gives you an extra dimension to your analysis. The facial expression of the brain, if you will.

Wright makes one other, more grievous error. He points out that ‘the more active the nucleus accumbens while subjects were looking at a product, the more likely they were to buy it,’ and ‘the more active the insula, the less likely they were to buy the product.’ Here, he’s making the case that the subjects were not coolly computing the pros and cons of buying a toothbrush over a chewbacca mask. They were using the emotional parts of their brains, not just the logic parts. But remember that seeing someone’s insula light up when they’re trying to decide whether to buy some headphones is the act of them feeling not so great about said ‘phones. So we can rewrite his point as ‘the more subjects liked a product [active nuc acum], the more likely they were to buy it. And the more they disliked it [active insula], the less likely they were to buy it.’

No duh.

[note: I have a beef with the whole premise of this study. If someone handed you free money and then asked what you’d like to buy, wouldn’t you mostly use it for stuff you like? Free money is not the same as money you’ve earned, which would be more subject to logic since you’d likely want to balance longterm, sensible budgeting against impulsive toothbrush purchases. But hey, free money? Sure, gimme a toothbrush for every day of the week. The study’s biased from the very beginning to involve emotion more than logic.]   

Wright’s not the only author to use silly fMRI studies; he’s in good company. And we, the public, swoon at the idea that scientists are actually in fact seeing right on down to the actual, like, brain, and drawing conclusions. Collectively, we should be more skeptical.

I’m not the first armchair reviewer to take a shot at psychology. Someone coined the term ‘physics envy’ to describe the slow creep of unnecessary jargon and overcomplicated models into the soft sciences. Physicists answer only to god and mathematicians, as the joke goes, but sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and economists have to answer to all of us. Slipping in a few graphs seemed to add some legitimacy to their theories.

Contemporary physics envy is fMRI infatuation. The brain is so unlike other organs, and has been inaccessible for so long, that fMRI pictures feel different from, say, a liver biopsy. There’s a sense that we’ve finally revealed the self, or the thing that causes the self, or the soul, or all of those, or none, or something. Whatever it is, it’s impressive. But in our awe and eagerness we’re prone to overestimating how much progress we’ve really made, like a freshman fumbling at his prom date.

As neuroskeptic---who might be described as neuroscience’s wet blanket---sarcastically tweeted regarding an fMRI scan’s conclusion (‘potato chips vs zucchini stimulation leads to significant changes’), ‘brain responds differently to different stimuli!’  Hope you kept the receipt for that blouse.

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