The talk I liked least at this year’s TED conference was that of David Brooks, a talented writer whose one-note values-obsessed NY Times columns are consistently passed around for their … values-obsessedness. Biologist PZ Myers takes on Brooks recent book of neuroscience popularizing in a review. At TED I characterized Brooks’ content-free neuroscience diddling as Jonah Lehrer on his worst day ever, but PZ really lays it (and Brooks) out.
Harold and Erica, for instance, begin to fall in love. In the fictional episode of the book, this is represented by a moment of flat affect, when they are working out on their bicycles and take a moment of rest at the top of a hill to hold hands. That’s “lovely,” Harold thinks. Then, a few pages later, we get the technical explanation of what’s going on: Harold’s ventral tegmentum and caudate nucleus are releasing dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine!
Woo, as Homer Simpson would say, hoo. Harold’s brain must be having a wild time.
That’s it. Brooks drops the technical names of two brain regions and a couple of neurotransmitters, briefly mentions their association with learning and reward centers, and we hear nothing more about them for the rest of the book, and nothing in his abbreviated description helps us understand how or why or what. A proximate mechanical explanation is no explanation at all, especially if given to an audience that most likely has little awareness of what a brain nucleus represents, or what these chemicals do. They are polysyllabic magical incantations that allow shallow people to pretend to have knowledge.