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

Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds? (Cambridge: Polity Press 2016) 170 pp. £35.00 Hb, £9.99 Pb. ISBN: 9780745689319

The equivocal title of this short book by Emerita Professor of Social Policy Hilary Rose and Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience Steven Rose is admittedly ‘a restatement of our overall perspective on the mutual shaping of science and society’ (155). But if science can henceforth change our brains through chemical and technological means, they argue, human societies must not abdicate to the biologization of the mind. More specifically, the contributions of neuroscience to our understanding of the brain must not be permitted to shape educational policy at the expense of attention to problems stemming from poverty, deprivation and inequality. Four lucid, well-documented and logically ordered chapters explain that while ‘changing the minds’ of those being educated may be informed by neuroscience, knowledge of brain mechanics must not displace humanities and social science research in this regard.

‘The Rise and Rise of the Neurosciences’ (Chapter One) explains that the mind and the brain had in fact long been considered separate entities – the domain of philosophy and psychology on one hand and of chemistry and physiology on the other. Then, development of neuroscience in the twentieth century eliminated the dichotomy by advancing a materialist account of the mind as the result of brain processes. This empirical grounding of behavior and performance meant increased research grants intent on discovering the source of cognition and ultimately, of consciousness itself. The authors underscore in this regard the creation of one hundred and thirteen research groups in twenty countries, including most notably the BRAIN project in the US (Brain Research for Advancing Innovative Technologies 2014) and the EU’s Human Brain Project (2013).

Not to say that there was no opposition to such undertakings. On the contrary, once ‘The Neurosciences Go Mega’ (Chapter Two) – able to elucidate the role of neurons, neurotransmitters and their enzymes, synapses, networks and connections – some seven hundred or more neuroscientists addressed a letter in 2014 to the European Commission criticizing the Human Brain Project as a ‘radically premature modeling of the brain’ and an unfortunate reductionism that sidelines cognitive science (54). What’s more, claim these disgruntled neuroscientists, there exists no fundamental theory about how the brain operates. As long as the internal workings of the brain remain unknown, any attempt to model it through a computer simulation is unthinkable.

According to the Roses, such authoritative opposition has done little to slow the pace of the mainstream neuroindustry, because the neuroscientific revolution has been unfolding within the context of increasingly globalized capitalism. Sociobiology’s and evolutionary psychology’s claim that we are genetically determined to be individualistic and competitive, coupled with neuroscience’s focus on the singular brain as the root of identity, have fueled the neo-liberal juggernaut. Solve the brain, determine the scientific basis for learning, and you will be able to optimize the mental capital of your citizens, thereby growing the economy. Although emphasized somewhat heavy-handedly, the authors’ clear political agenda does not obstruct their fundamentally sound argument that society and science are in fact inextricably intertwined.

For the educational policy-makers, the most promising strategy for maximizing cognitive capital is ‘Early Intervention’ (Chapter Three); it is therefore essential that ‘Neuroscience Goes to School’ (Chapter Four). Indeed, programs like Head Start in the US and Surestart in the UK emphasize neuroscientific assumptions: learning is a matter of brain mechanisms; the first three years of life are crucial for brain development; parental neglect negatively impacts the creation of priceless synapses. A plethora of journals, reports, conventions, and funded research projects both public and private testify to the growth of the ‘brain industry,’ a booming business that astute neuromarketers have been keen to capitalize on. In with neurochemical analyses, out with phenomenological diagnoses: regardless of socioeconomic conditions, disembodied brains can now be enhanced through ‘smart drugs’ or transcranial direct current stimulation kits sold online. The Roses underscore time and again the glaring irony of the neuroboom’s global appeal to cognitive capitalists in an age of austerity and attacks on welfare.

Fortunately, given that the authors’ aim is to target the neurobandwagon and not to demonize science per se, they recognize neuroscience’s potential to contribute meaningfully to educational policy. Despite their unremitting criticism of the neuroscientific trend in education, they readily admit that neuroscience has helped to change our minds as far as teaching students with dyslexia and dyscalculia is concerned, for example, by identifying such disabilities as real through brain imaging, thereby acknowledging neurodiversity. Likewise, the advantages of spaced learning have been confirmed – a conclusion already reached through educational research – thanks to the mapping of neuronal and synaptic patterns during training. Furthermore, later school-start times for teenage pupils are now more widely accepted and can be considered ‘sympathetically as a first attempt to adapt the social world to what neuroscientists understand as the teenagers’ biological needs’ (137). Once again, though, the writers argue that neuroscience may inform but must never determine teaching strategies and overall educational policies.

‘Can Neuroscience Change Our Minds’ does not target specialists. And although the authors focus on the UK, their message has universal scope within an increasingly globalized world. Concerned first and foremost with social progress, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose aim to enlighten the general public about the dangers of a ‘crassly empiricist approach’ (26) that conceives of the human brain as a neuromorphic computer. Their book demythifies several neuroscientific claims as foundationless or as mere reiterations of relevant insights previously established by the soft sciences, concluding that the link between neuroscience and education is still ‘a bridge too far’ (147). The reductionist disembodiment of the brain ignores epigenetic and environmental factors that remain major determinants of a child’s capacity to learn.

Kathryn St. Ours, Goucher College