The Neuromancer and other Neuroscience Fiction
by Ian R Thorpe
Does anybopdy imagine a brain really looks like this
In the early nineteen-nineties a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) David Poeppel discovered an astonishing thing. He was studying
the neurophysiological basis of speech perception, and a new technique had just come
into vogue, called positron emission tomography (PET). About half a dozen PET
studies of speech perception had been published, all in top journals, and David tried
to synthesize them, essentially by comparing which parts of the brain were said to be
active during the processing of speech in each of the studies.
Poeppel was amazed to find that there was virtually no agreement. Every study
had been carried out with great scientific precision, the scope and objectives
documented, the nature of the tests specified and the observations and statistical
analysis to be carried out defined. The results and conclusions had been subjected to
peer review and published with hyperbolic claims about breakthroughs in
neuroscience. Each study had been subjected to critical analysis and found valid but
collectively they were so inconsistent they seemed to offer no coherent conclusion. It
was like six different witnesses not just describing a crime in six different ways but
six people describing six different crimes.
Poeppel's findings were a major setback
for neuroscience and for those scientists
who are eager to tell us life is just a
chemical accident, humans are nothing more
than hairless apes and the brain is a thinking
machine, a biological computer whose
operating system and application software
were stored in our DNA. If six studies led to
six different answers, why should anybody
believe anything that neuroscientists had to say? (Nobody does of course, except
other scientists because, like the priests and elders of a fanatical religious cult they
know it is important not to let the lay followers sense a wavering of belief.)
Publicly the high priests of neuroscience carried on pretending they are only a
whisker away from understanding the mysteries of the brain and refusing to
acknowledge the brain - mind conundrum was as far as ever from being resolved.
Privately there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some said Poeppel's
research was invalid because PET, which involves injecting a radioactive tracer into
the brain, was unreliable. Others claimed the studies themselves were flawed and
In spite of the discovery that years of neuroscientific research had produced no
answers, only questions, the field prospered. Well why not, the idea of unravelling the
mysteries of the human psyche and thus being able to control the thoughts of whole
populations, to persuade large social groups to accept policies that were totally
against their interests is a wannabe tyrant's wet dream and most politicians who
aspire to high office are wannabe tyrants. Governments poured almost as much into
the neuroscience scam as they did into other scientific scams, notably global warming
and genetically engineered crops.
The technique of PET was replaced with the more flexible technique of
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allowed scientists to study
people's brains without the use of the risky radioactive tracers, and to conduct longer
studies that collected more data and yielded more reliable results. Experimental
methods gradually become more careful.
Brain imaging, despite being
demonstrably flawed became more, not
less, popular. I have a very good personal
illustration of how useless. Following a
massive brain haemorrhage I was subjected
to several MRI scans. And over the months
I had some bizarre conversations with
doctors and was told, "According to the
science you cannot possibly have survived
such severe brain damage." I was sitting talking to these people and they were telling
me as scientists that I was dead. Does anybody still not understand why I think
scientists are a cunch of bunts? (It's a Spoonerism, a kind of scientific term)
As MRI scanners became more widely available, and as methods of interpreting
the data (interpretation owing more to the dark arts than the natural sciences) became
more standardized and refined, researchers finally started to find a degree of
consensus between labs.
Meanwhile the research grant phishing industry went into overdrive, after all
unravelling the mysteries of the human brain and proving we are just biological
machines with no soul and no collecive consciousness and that the spiritual aspect of
humanity is an illusion promised to be a bigger money spinner that looking for the
Higgs Boson, a project similar to looking for a needle in a haystack when you do not
know what either a needle of a haystack look like. Neuroscience started to go public
in a big way. Fancy color pictures of brains in action became a fixture in media
accounts of the human mind and lulled people into a false sense of comprehension.
The word breakthrough became as overused as the word science, and as abused too.
(In a feature for the magazine titled "Duped," Margaret Talbot described research at Yale that
showed that inserting neurotalk into research papers made them more convincing.)
Brain imaging, which was a very esoteric field in 1990, became in the eyes of the
adademic community the most advanced way of understanding the human mind. The
prefix "neuro" was suddenly being attached to everything. Neuroethicists wondered
about whether you could alter someone's prison sentence based on the size of their
neocortex. Like I said, a cunch of bunts.
After almost two decades of running this scam for profit and glory the Church of
Scienceology's luck had to run out. A few bright souls started speaking up, asking:
Are all these brain studies really telling us much as we think they are? (Mine
certainly wasn't, according to the "science" I'd been a zombie for twelve years but I
showed no sign of decomposing, in fact I was copping off with women half my age!)
A book published in 2011, “Neuromania" questioned our growing obsession with brain
imaging. A second book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of
Humanity by Raymond Tallis, published in 2012, invoked the same term, neuromania,
and made similar arguments about the subjective nature of interpretations of brain
scans. In the book Out of our Heads, the philosopher Alva No wrote, "It is easy to overlook
the fact that images made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in
action. Instead, brain images are elaborate reconstructions that depend on complex
mathematical assumptions which can, as one study earlier this year showed,
sometimes yield slightly different results when analysed on different types of
Which is what I, as an ex computer man before the physical organ in my head
was trashed by blood leaking from a ruptured artery, have said to those people who
told me "according to the science, you're dead." My speciality was data networks.
Now the electrical pulses that come in through a copper wire or radio signals or the
light pulses from a fibreoptic are pretty meaningless to a computer unless it has a
codec designed and programmed to interpret them. And if I was to change the
parameters on your receive data channel, the pulses coming in would not be readable
text, but gibberish. And for the record, I'm not dead, even in my early days though my
body was fairly useless and my brain trashed, my mind, was intact. I could speak,
write, think, had good spatial awareness and my cognitive skills were pretty much as
they had been even though half my body was paralyzed. Not bad for a dead guy eh?
What these neuroscientists had done was repeat the trick pulled off bt the
cosmologists and by placing highly imaginative interpretations on images constructed
from energy readings taken on light arriving from distant cosmic bodies, convince
those who dole out the funds contributed involuntarily by taxpayers that they were
really making progress on understanding “life, the universe and everything” as
Douglas Adams put it. In fact they did not really know what had generated the radio
activity their monitors picked up. I'll give you an example, the standard proof that Big
Bang theory is correct is the existence of Cosmic Background Radiation. This, the
'science' says is echoes of the big Bang itself. “What else could it be,” ask the science
tits when challenged.
What indeed. With a hundred billion galaxies each containing a hundred billion
stars (a scientist went round and counted them all!) including pulsars, quasars, Red
Dwarfs, Red Giants, White Giants, Neutron Stars, black holes and so on, all
emitting radiation all the time across many different frequencies it could just be a
radio active mushg that fills the gaps between things. So much of what is passed of as
science is nothing more than highly imaginative interpretations of electronic
reconstructions of data synthesized from perfectly commonplace natual phenomena.
Questions about the limitations of neuroscience occupied thoughtful blogs like
Neuroskeptic (Discover Magazine) and The Neurocritic and finally made their way into the
mainstream media, in the form of a blunt New York Times op-ed, in which the
journalist Alissa Quart declared, "I applaud the backlash against brain porn, which raises
important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to
accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything."
Quart and the growing chorus of neuro-critics are half right: our early-twentyfirst-century world truly is filled with brain porn, with sloppy reductionist thinking,
bad science, bogus science, scientific arrogance and an unseemly lust for Nobel
Prizes neuroscientific explanations.
There is a lot to understand about the brain and how it works before the failings
of neuroscientists can be understood, at this level it is sufficient to say that just as the
climate scientists constructed completely false models of the earth's atmosphere
because they simply ignored hundreds, possibly thousands, of interactions that
contribute to climate trends in the localised microclimates and. (motivated by
political prejudices perhaps) oversimplified their algorithm by only considering
carbon dioxide as a possible cause , so the people who have tried to create a computer
model of the brain have focused on just a few areas of the brain and deliberately
ignored areas that are poorly understood or not understood at all.
And they have not even considered the interface between the physical brain and
the great, unknowable human mystery, the mind.
Barack Obama’s announcement of a $100 million brain-mapping project,
Quantum Soul: Is Each Of Us A Part Of The Universe
New Physics Theory Proposes Time Is Disappearing From Our Universe.
How Brain Scans Work And Why Neuroscience Is Science Fiction
Can Your Body Sense Future Events Without Any External Clue?
Mathematics and reality
Science and Reality
The Illusion Of Self
Flight From Freedom
The Truth Is Not Out There
String Theory Unravelled
Before Big Bang
When Aliens Got Funky With A Monkey
Illustration 1: Mysteries of the mind: The Persistence Of Memory by Salvador Dali