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Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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Theology and Science
ISSN: 1474-6700 (Print) 1474-6719 (Online) Journal homepage:
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. Brainwashed: The
Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
Alan Weissenbacher
To cite this article: Alan Weissenbacher (2014) Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld. Brainwashed:
The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, Theology and Science, 12:1, 119-121, DOI:
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Published online: 12 Feb 2014.
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as identity construction out of the address in the argumentation. This is of course
quite a different connotation of the other than that found in Levinasphilosophy.
But to me, it appears like a scientic contribution, which makes clear that
the horizon of addressis indeed a very fundamental horizon for any human
Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany
© 2014, Andreas Losch
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless
Cambridge: Basic Books, 2013. 226 pp. $26.99 ISBN 0465018777
Brain scans show that swing voters distrust presidential candidate Mitt Romney!
the headlines read in a recent election. Researchers scanned the brains of various
voters while they viewed the candidate and saw that many of them had an
active amygdala. As the amygdala is often associated with fear, they concluded
that these people were experiencing distrust. This is problematic, however,
because the amygdala can also be associated with many other emotions, including
sexual attraction in women the fact of which, if acknowledged, could produce an
entirely different news report. Brain scans are being used not only in elections, but
also in courtrooms to help assay guilt or assist in the selection of jurors who might
be more favorable to a particular outcome, and in the marketplace to determine
how best to market products.
How does one read these pronouncements and separate the wheat from the
chaff; or (just as critical) avoid spending money on products and services that
make grandiose claims about the brain, but deliver little? Psychiatrist and AEI
scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld assist in answering these ques-
tions by pointing out where neuroscience overreaches and what it currently can
and cannot deliver. The book is not meant to be a critique of neuroscience itself.
They offer a balanced account of the science involved and champion research
that is done well. What they critique is rather simplistic interpretations and
naïve applications of brain research, as well as the assumption that the brain is
the most important level of analysis when it comes to human behavior.
They begin with a basic overview of functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI), and this is primarily where one nds the science itself examined as well
as problematic forms of reasoning from neuroscientic data. Brain scans do not
read minds, diagnose mental illness, or reveal if one is lying. They highlight two
primary problems in data interpretation, which are confusing correlation with
Book Reviews 119
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causation and that of reverse inference, reasoning backward from neural activation
to a claim that one is having a certain subjective experience. Much of the brain is
multifunctional, and to claim that one can determine a specic subjective experi-
ence from areas of brain activity that can actually be activated by a host of processes
is problematic.
After the rst chapter, the rest of the book turns to the various practical impli-
cations of fMRI research in the public sphere: neuromarketing, addiction, lie detec-
tion, neurolaw, and whether brain research has eliminated the idea of free will.
Practical examples abound of those who seem to ignore the complexity of the
brain for either sensational headlines or making substantial amounts of money
from companies willing to pay for scans to determine how consumersbrains
will react to various products and marketing campaigns. The chapter on addiction
therapy provides many examples of addicts having personal agency along with
addiction being related to brain changes. The conict between brain disease or
weakness of will is a false choice, and relying on the level of neuroscience alone
in treating addiction is advancing a reductive and one-dimensional view that
could impede more holistic and effective interventions. The chapter on the ques-
tionable application of brain scans to the courtroom also highlights the false
dilemma between whether it is the brain or the person responsible. Neurological
terms do not mean that only one behavior was inevitable.
For a work purporting to deal with neuroscience, a surprising amount of the
book does not focus on the science itself. It could have been helpful to have
more discussion of the underlying aspects and assumptions involved in brain
imaging. The authors spend a lot of time instead discussing topics such as the
history, ethics, and law surrounding types of marketing persuasion or the
history of lie detection. The chapter on free will for example has little neuroscience,
opting instead for a more philosophical treatment of free will and an analysis of the
ethics of retributive justice, topics much more developed in other works.
Written at a popular level and focusing primarily on the practical and often pre-
mature real-world uses of neuroscience that ignore its limitations and complexity,
such a book should be accessible to those not in the eld, and as the examples used
impact the public as a whole, it a recommended read for everyone who wishes to be
more neuroliterate. If one desires more technical detail regarding the science itself,
its limitations and potential sources of error, then there are other works such as The
New Phrenology by William Uttal or Just Because Youre Imaging the Brain Doesnt
Mean You Can Stop Using Your Head by John Cacioppo that contain more technical
detail; but as these works tend to be sparse on practical examples, Brainwashed can
provide what the others are missing.
The book is ultimately a valuable addition to other works that point out the
scope and limitation of current neuroscientic research. This is an important
subject-matter as other elds take on this research, creating elds such as neurolaw,
neurotheology, neuromarketing, or neuropolitics. These elds may be taking on
neuroscience in the assumption that such would lend them more legitimacy or to
seek new insights previously unavailable, yet such legitimacy could be
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undermined and insights turn out to be baseless if one does not approach the
neuroscience with wisdom and interpretive restraint.
Graduate Theological Union, USA
© 2014, Alan Weissenbacher
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