The Brain & Science – The Problem With Wanting It All

As a psychotherapist, I have taken an interest in the rise of neurobiological research being applied to my field. At first, particularly upon hearing about “interpersonal neurobiology” (or IPNB), I was excited — I was seeing the intrapsychic and biological converge into what appeared to be a fascinating model of understanding human behaviour. But here’s the thing: while I have a deep reverence for the subjective life of the individual, I’m also interested in looking at things empirically, where applicable. Without this latter aspect, I feel we fall prey to magical thinking.

The more I looked into some of the new ideas permeating my field, I became aware of a few things. While certain concepts, such as the idea of neuroplasticity, were taken from science, the more I looked at who was writing about this, the more I noticed that the people applying these complicated concepts to psychotherapy weren’t neurologists or geneticists. One of the oft-referenced authors in the field of IPNB is Allan N. Schore, who is a psychologist and researcher. His books are popular with those looking to harmonize neurology and psychotherapy. And while I respect his multidisciplinary work, I have difficulty with binary conceptions of how the left and right brains work (whereas, supposedly, the right brain is responsible for emotional attunement, the left brain for insight and analysis). Why do I have difficulty with this? Because I asked a neurologist, and they confirmed that this is too simplistic a way to look at the brain.

This is a blog post and not a long-form essay. I could go on. I suppose what irks me is the amount of material being written about a myriad of complex neurobiological research findings that skip over the necessary cautions that are the hallmarks of science. Correlation is not causation. How big was the sample size? Is there an outcome bias inherent in the research study that the data doesn’t necessarily suggest? It broke my heart to read Bessel van der Kolk refer to mirror neurons in his otherwise fascinating book, The Body Keeps The Score, because it’s a topic where there is no fundamental agreement.

This goes beyond the intersection of neurobiology and psychotherapy. Most recently was the so-called “Google letter,” whereby an employee of Google challenged: “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” This led not only to outrage from many camps, but people started wielding studies of the brain. A frustrating example was included in the Globe and Mail (essentially defending a baked-in-the-brain theory of why men and women are different). Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that it’s complicated. I recommend this article as a primer for understanding why it is so.

I write this as someone frustrated by the rise of the phrase evidence-based as if it were a guarantee that what we were reading were empirically true (when in fact, if you have a pre-conceived notion of the result you want, say, in a research study, then regardless of how arrange your evidence it will still be biased). In other words, I balance between a deep respect for science and a concern over a bureaucratization of scientific language that results in a skewed idea of what is legitimate.



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