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Neuroblobology, Ray Tallis and Bruce Hood.

June 4, 2012

I had an enjoyable discussion with poet, philospher, clinician and scientist Professor Ray Tallis on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning about The Winner Effect and how power affects your brain. He was kind enough to describe the book as a ‘must read’, but felt I may be guilty at times of ‘neuromania’ by attributing causal actions to parts of the brain which should only be attributed to persons, not neuroblobs. I am hugely sympathetic to this critique of some interpretations of brain imaging, and may well have been careless in my language at times in the book by attributing  apparently intentional actions to parts of the brain such as the cingulate etc. But actually, in my case, as an arch anti-reductionist who regards thoughts and relationships as having equal explanatory status to molecules, and who believes that human relationships are the most fundamental reshaper of the biology of the brain, I don’t feel that Ray’s criticisms were entirely justified. I think many people talk in metaphorical terms about the parts of the brain just as they often speak metaphorically about parts of an engine – ‘the timer decides when each cylinder should fire’ sort of thing. This does not mean we are giving some sort of homuncular status to the part in question, rather it is just a feature of our habitual tendency towards anthropomorphism in metaphor. Ray Tallis also said that we should say it is the person who is the agent for the behaviours often attributed to parts of the brain, but I am not sure that this is entirely plausible given that we don’t really know who or what the ‘person’ is, particularly when it comes to largely unconcious processes, as Bruce Hood has so elegantly outlined in his recent book The Self Illusion. But Ray Tallis has made an enormous contribution to the field, and I will most certainly carefully scrutinise my language in future to try to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of neuro-blobology.

I had a subsequent interview with Robin Lustig on the BBC World Service where I talked about power’s effect on the brain and how Bertram Russell had it right when he said that power was the fundamental stuff of human relationships, as energy was the fundamental ‘stuff’ of physics.

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