Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

Book of the week: There’s a strong political current running through a bold study skewering myths, says Louise Whiteley

July 7, 2016
Children climbing on sculpture by-Anne and Patrick Poirier, Norwich, Norfolk
Source: Alamy
Putting it in cortex: the Roses argue that focusing on the brain encourages a focus on the individual divorced from their social context

It’s an appealing idea: the notion that understanding the learning brain will tell us how to maximise children’s potential, bypassing the knotty complexities of education research. But promises to replace sociological complexity with biological certainty should always be treated with caution. Hilary and Steven Rose are deeply sceptical of claims that neuroscience can inform education and early intervention policy, and deeply concerned about the use of such claims to support neoliberal agendas. They argue that focusing on the brain encourages a focus on the individual divorced from their social context, and that this is easily aligned with a view of poor achievement as a personal moral failing, rather than a practical consequence of poverty and inequality.

Whether or not you end up cheerleading for the book’s political agenda, its deconstruction of faulty claims about how neuroscience translates into the classroom is relevant to anyone interested in education. The authors tear apart the scientific logic of policy documents, interrogate brain-based interventions and dismantle prevalent neuro-myths.

One of the book’s meatiest chapters deals with government reports advocating early intervention to increase “mental capital”, and thus reduce the future economic burden of deprived, underachieving brains. As we discover, the neuroscientific foundations of these reports are shaky. For instance, they tend to assume that the more synaptic connections between brain cells the better, and that poor environment in a critical early period permanently reduces the number of synapses. This makes early intervention focusing on the individual child and “poor parenting” seem like the obvious solution. But pruning of synapses is just as important to brain development, and learning involves the continual forming and reforming of synaptic connections. More is not necessarily better. And while an initial explosion in synapses can be irreversibly disrupted by extreme neglect, the evidence just isn’t there yet for extrapolating this to the more common kinds of childhood deprivation that such reports address.

The Roses’ descriptions of how experimental set-ups are extrapolated to real-world contexts add a seam of humour to the serious business of myth-busting. I smiled to learn that statements about the negative effects of poor environment on the learning brain often refer to studies that compare rats raised in empty cages with those raised in “enriched” ones. Not only is the leap from rat to child a pretty big one, but even for rodents an enriched cage is worlds away from the stimulation offered by, say, an urban sewer. Designing spaced learning protocols inspired by how well fruit flies learn associations between scents and shocks is another, almost satirical, bridge too far.

One of the authors’ favourite moves is to strip away the neuroscience from an argument and show that the conclusion is the same. Or to show that neuroscientific claims make no difference to the design of research studies that invoke them. For example, research into delaying school start times is inspired by generic ideas about the teenage brain, but there are no neuroscientific findings that tell researchers exactly how far to turn back the clock. The book often pairs arguments that neuroscience is irrelevant with arguments that sociological factors that are relevant have been neglected. To return to the example, the authors suggest that a focus on the teenage brain diverts attention from historically specific expectations about teenage behaviour, as well as from practical considerations such as who is to haul the teenager out of bed if school starts after parents have left for work.

Can Neuroscience Change our Minds? is an effective piece of science communication, but it doesn’t just communicate scientific facts. It attempts to explain how research is designed, conducted and interpreted, entangled with its social context. This equips readers with critical tools that can be applied anywhere, but I worry that this democratising potential could be limited by the book’s strong political standpoint. It sometimes reads as though it is preaching to the (politically) converted, who need protecting from neuroscientific rhetoric that might lead them astray. Indeed, the authors don’t scrutinise political concepts with the same rigour they apply to scientific assertions. Neuroscientists are given rather short shrift, and policymakers little benefit of the doubt. While this potentially limits the book’s reach, it also gives it a belligerent charm. I confess I found the acerbic barbs directed at the maths abilities of the former education minister Michael Gove particularly enjoyable.

To present science as entangled with society – or as the Roses term it, “co-produced” – is a tricky sell. We’re generally taught to think of science as a dispassionate, morally neutral tool, whose results can be applied for good or ill. The authors ask you instead to appreciate the complex, subtle ways that research opens up some moral vistas and curtails others; to see how the political climate can tilt research programmes towards the kinds of topics politicians want to be able to claim evidence for.

To make this case, the book wraps its core argument about neuroscience and education in layer upon layer of context. From the misogynistic history of neuroanatomy to links between the US National Institutes of Health’s multibillion-dollar Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (Brain) initiative and the military research conducted via the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), microhistories and dense descriptions race past. Indeed, an impressively wide-ranging introduction to the “rise and rise of the neurosciences” consumes the first third of the book. In a much larger volume, this could have been magisterial. At a slim 155 pages, some methodological rigour is inevitably sacrificed.

But as I read, I eventually stopped scribbling “reference?” in the margins, and accepted the limitations of what is, ultimately, a brave and valuable move: to “bring the claims of neuroeducation into public scrutiny and debate”, but without succumbing to the bullet-pointing of policy reports, or producing a more academic but less approachable work.

In my own research, I’ve been particularly interested in how people use neuroscientific concepts in their everyday lives, from parents describing their child’s obsessive-compulsive disorder as a hiccup in the brain, to advertisers playing with the visual rhetoric of a brain map. Echoing the evidence from a growing body of sociological and cultural studies, I have found again and again that apparently reductive, deterministic statements about the mind-as-brain can disguise a sophisticated relationship to scientific knowledge. For instance, a parent might talk about mental illness as brain disease when advocating for extra resources for their child in school, but resist this notion outside the school environment.

The Roses mention several such studies, but they do so selectively, and generally to demonstrate the reductive or stereotyping use of neuroscientific concepts. For my taste, they could have spent more time discussing the potentially positive cultural effects of neuroscience, alongside their much-needed scepticism about its political co-option. The brain is “plastic” in lots of different ways – and so are ideas about the brain. As the authors themselves point out, neuroscience research can be used to highlight the diversity of brains, as well as to delineate how a typical brain functions. Research on “neurodiversity” could support quite different political agendas to those the Roses currently bemoan. For now, I’m persuaded that neuroscience has little to say to education policy, and I hope this book will be widely read. But if future studies do offer sturdier bridges to the classroom, we may need to play a little more constructively, and creatively, with each other.

Louise Whiteley is associate professor at Medical Museion and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen. She both researches and practises public engagement with biomedical science.

Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds?
By Hilary Rose and Steven Rose
Polity, 176pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9780745689319 and 9326
Published 24 June 2016

The authors

Hilary Rose, emerita professor of social policy at the University of Bradford, was evacuated to Suffolk during the war as a child. “Although I was never conscious of being studious, I was a high achiever. My mother had huge difficulties in finding us enough books to read, as books were both our joy and when the weather was poor our main entertainment.”

Back in London after the war, the 11-plus took her to “a large, impersonal ‘public day school for girls’. In the first few weeks my form teacher criticised my Suffolk accent and said I should have elocution lessons...The class issue bugged me, and by time I was a teenager I was alienated from the school and unhappy.”

Her husband Steven Rose, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Open University, was born in London to Orthodox Jewish parents. “I was something of a swot, and became very interested in science as a way of understanding the world from a fairly early age – especially chemistry and ‘origin of life’ matters – partly as a way of challenging biblical stories.”

It was in Hilary’s second undergraduate year at the London School of Economics that she met Steven, at a meeting of the New Left Review club. “We fell in love and began a deep friendship, shared politics and a common interest in science and society.”

Steven adds: “It was whilst I was doing my PhD that we met, and our lives, personally, intellectually, emotionally and politically have been entwined ever since. Our writing together, which began in the 1960s, has been one of the great joys of my life.”

What gives them hope? “In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, not much,” Steven replies. “I’m inclined to agree with Martin Rees that humanity’s chance of survival to the end of this century is not high. There’s a perfect storm ahead, and our globalised neoliberal economy is incapable of rising to the multiple challenges.”

Hilary adds: “With Brexit adding racism and xenophobia to a world in a weak economic shape fettered by neoliberalism, the rise of the 1 per cent with millions of displaced people seeking safety and a better life, it’s hard to have hope. So I do what I always do – recall Gramsci’s advice: ‘Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. Now in my eighties, I know it has to be another generation that has to realise that advice, and they give reason for my hope.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Putting the brain in its place

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