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Chocoholics: Neuroscience is NOT coming to the rescue!


It is your fault.

In “The Brain Is Not an Explanation,” Wray Herbert (Psychological Science March 23, 2011) tries to bring some rationality to the interpretation of brain science here:

Brain scans pinpoint how chocoholics are hooked. This headline appeared in The Guardian a couple years ago above a science story that began: “Chocoholics really do have chocolate on the brain.” The story went on to describe a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of chocoholics and non-cravers. The study found increased activity in the pleasure centers of the chocoholics’ brains, and the Guardian report concluded: “There may be some truth in calling the love of chocolate an addiction in some people.”

Sure, that’s it. It’s not my fault, it’s Russell Stover’s. As it happens, however,

A growing number of scientists, including many who study the brain, are calling for more caution from scientists, both in reporting and interpreting fMRI data.

Oh, so you’re saying it’s my fault? Well, just for that, I am swearing off the pop science press (for five minutes, maybe, while I go buy another box of chocks).

Part of the problem is conceptual:

As Beck notes, we probably don’t need a brain scan to corroborate what most people probably already believe anyway.

In other words, the study shows nothing more than what we might expect (brain centre expected to register pleasure in fact does). We would have learned something if it had showed otherwise, but why should we have expected it to?

I once asked my co-author on The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard, how he dealt with the charge, regarding his studies of mysticism, that “the so-called mystics are just faking it to get attention.” Easy, he said, they would be generating the wrong kind of brain waves for what they claimed they were experiencing.

So all that the glitzy brain technology can tell us is whether a given brain state matches self-report. But when there is no clear reason for doubting that it does, we may as well go with the self-report.

This is just another case of mechanistic materialism elbowing out common sense. But I still maintain it’s not my fault. It must be in my genes somewhere.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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