Socialist Worker

Steven Rose — explaining the mind

Professor Steven Rose is one of Britain's best known scientists. For the last 45 years he has been studying the human brain. He spoke to Viren Swami about his latest book, the 21st Century Brain. The web contains material not in the print edition.

Issue No. 1951

Brain scans

Brain scans

Why do we need another book about the brain?

There are already a huge numbers of books on this subject. But I was concerned about the way a set of technologies to do with the brain were being developed. I wanted to raise the alarm about some of the uses of neuroimaging techniques, used to see what's going on in the brain, and of psychoactive drugs. I wanted to call for a public debate on these issues sooner rather than later.

I also wanted to try to diminish the hype from some of my colleagues about the power of neuroscience, the study of the brain, to explain things such as consciousness and to reduce very complicated social processes to the levels of the properties of molecules and cells.

The book summarises what we currently know, and the limits to what neuroscience can tell us about minds and brains — as opposed to what a social, political and historical understanding can tell us.

Do you think we are on the verge of a neuroscience revolution?

I think we're on the verge of a neurotechnological revolution — many new techniques are coming into being, at many different levels, from the use of genetics through to the windows into the brain given by the new imaging techniques. These are immensely exciting, but carry with them some potentially troubling implications.

For instance, the Defence Advance Research Project Agency in the US is now beginning to fund neuroimaging techniques that try to interpret brain thoughts, and technologies that could potentially influence them.

In the US a technique has been patented called brain fingerprinting. According to the company's website, this technique can be used to detect whether someone has been to a terrorist training camp. A lot of this is snake oil — but the fact that a technology is faulty doesn't mean it won't be used.

People are already familiar with the development of new psychochemicals. I am concerned about the affects of prescribing drugs such as Ritalin to children in school. Prescriptions of this drug went up from about 2,000 a year in 1990 to 150,000 a year last time I looked, a couple of years ago.

The children taking Ritalin are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which manifests itself through children being inattentive or disrupting classes. The assumption is that because a child behaves like this there must be something wrong with its brain, and that this can be solved by using Ritalin.

This way of trying to change people's brains rather than addressing the social issues which give rise to such problems seems to be where neurotechnologies are going.

What is the current state of neuroscience?

The neurosciences are one of the hottest areas in science. Each year something like 30,000 neuroscientists meet at the annual American neuroscientists' conference. It's a hugely expanding area with hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into it.

There is a vast amount of data being accumulated, but what we lack is a coherent theory giving us a way of putting all this information together. We cannot understand the relationship between what we study at the genetic level and what we understand at the system level.

Certain traditions of understanding the brain in a social context were developed dramatically in the former Soviet Union. This happened in the 1920s and 1930s before Stalinism came down with its great oppressive boots.

The pioneering ideas of people such as Lev Vygotsky and Pyotr Anokhin are completely lost now. That is why you get these ridiculous contrasts — nature and nurture, mind and brain, brain and body — as if we weren't dealing with a coherent system.

A clearer insight can be developed from a number of eastern traditions or from a Marxist tradition. These traditions are concerned with process rather than product. The Western scientific tradition, on the other hand, is concerned mainly with things — molecules or cells. But what is extraordinary about living things is the dynamics. Nothing about our brain processes or bodies is stable.

If you see someone who you have not met for a few weeks, you will still recognise them, even though every molecule in their body has been changed, broken down, re-synthesised hundreds of millions of times over that period.

You seem in your book to be talking about something the Marxist Frederick Engels said — that natural processes develop in time rather than just space. And this applies not just to thought processes but also the evolution of humans as a species and the development of particular individuals.

I did a talk recently with someone who had written a book about consciousness. He looked at it as if there was a single thing — consciousness — that had always been the same over the whole of history, and people just had different ideas about how it worked.

I want to argue that today's consciousness is different to that of Victorian England, Plato's Greece or ancient Egypt. Consciousness emerges in a social context. It is shaped and transformed by history, society, culture and technology. Unless we understand that context we come back to the narrow, reductionist set of problems that philosophers constantly throw up.

You also have to look back before human history — you have to put the brain in the evolutionary context. A large part of my book is about the emergence of the brain and behavioural capacity, leading to the human brain.

And there is also the developmental context of an individual. A newborn baby is a human, but it is not necessarily a person. Becoming a person involves a whole set of wider social interactions — it's what happens over the first few years of life, and that's reflected in the brain as a child grows and develops.

In your book your talk about developmental systems theory.

The idea of this theory, also called autopoiesis, is that organisms create themselves. They are not the result of the passive interplay between genes and the environment.

One of the problems with the spurious dichotomies posed between nature and nurture, or genes and environment, is that they don't help us understand the process of development. Development is not the unrolling of some pre-programmed code in the genes. It is the active role of the organism in shaping its environment, choosing its context. In doing so it is creating its own future.

In my earlier book, Lifelines, I ended with a set of slogans that encapsulated these ideas. I said, 'We create our own future, though in circumstances not of our own choosing.' That's the essence of what developmental systems theory is about.

It is particularly relevant for the brain. At conception there is just an egg and a sperm. But by the time the baby is born there are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain. Those cells have something like 100 trillion connections between them.

There is an interaction between what I call 'specificity' and 'plasticity'. You have to be able to wire up the brain in such a way that when the baby is born it can see — the eyes are wired up to the visual cortex of the brain and so on.

As the baby develops the retina of the eye grows and the brain grows. They grow at different rates, so you have to constantly break and remake the connections between them — that's 'specificity'. Specificity has to battle against environmental change.

At the same time how we see and perceive is shaped by the context in which we develop. The connections between eye and brain can be modified by the environment — that's 'plasticity'. You have to have both at any time.

What do you think of other neuroscientists like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins?

I have to admit I have a soft spot for Dawkins. Anyone who calls Bush a shitty little oil sheik can't be bad.

So far as his science is concerned, I think in his understanding of evolution he's what I call an ultra-Darwinist. He believes that there is a divorce between the replicators — our genes — and the organisms that carry them. This leads him into a morass as regards evolutionary processes.

As far as the mind and brain are concerned, in Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, he ends by saying, 'Only we can rebel against the tyranny of our selfish replicators.' Steve Pinker says something similar: 'If my genes don't like what I do they can go jump in a lake.'

But you cannot be a materialist and also make these kinds of arguments. Who is the 'we' who is rebelling against the selfish replicators, who is the 'I' who can tell my genes to jump in a lake?

To try to escape from this determinist trap they've made for themselves, they have to claim there is something else controlling us. I want to argue instead that our capacity to act freely in the world arises out of our biology. To use their terms, it is our genes that allow us to rebel against our genes.

Some of the other people I'm critical of are cognitive psychologists who want to argue that the brain is simply a sophisticated computer. They want to abandon the notion of higher level language of thoughts, intentions and agency. They dismiss these as 'folk psychology'. But I argue that the brain doesn't deal with information, it deals with meaning.

How do you view the distinction between the mind and the brain?

I think the moment you phrase the question in that way you demand an answer that is premised on the idea that there is a thing called the brain and a thing called the mind.

I argue that the language of mind and the language of the brain are two ways of talking about the same processes. It's like if there's a cat in the room you can call it 'cat' in English or 'gatto' in Italian. But you don't then ask what the relationship is between 'cat' and 'gatto'. You know you are referring to the same object in two different ways.

There is a different problem, which I talk about in the book. It is based on a thought experiment. Imagine you have a device called a 'cerebroscope', which allows you to measure the state of all the cells and connections in a brain at any one time.

Then imagine a scenario. For example, I'm standing waiting for a bus, the bus is coming, I step onto the road, then I see it's the wrong bus. Lots of things are going on in my brain — the visual imagery in my visual cortex, the auditory image of the sound of the bus, there's my memory of the bus I want to catch, the fear that it's the wrong bus, and so on.

The cerebroscope allows you to measure all the processes in my brain, but would someone reading the cerebroscope be able to tell what I was doing at that moment? I don't believe they would. The way the brain is wired up is profoundly historical. To understand what was happening the machine would have to have tracked my brain back in time to the very moment of my conception.

If it could do that would they then be able to tell what was going on? I'm still not sure of the answer to that question. It may still be that many different brain states are compatible with many different actions.

Your book talks about the neuro-industrial complex. What role do you think this plays?

Huge amounts of funding for neuroscientific research comes from the pharmaceutical industry, or from government funding with a particular goal in mind. Some of these goals now relate to social control. A lot of marketing companies are now also interested in whether the neurosciences can help their advertising.

A couple of years ago I wanted to study the memory in a real life situation. I devised an experiment where I would look at people's brains as they shopped in a supermarket. We took our subjects through a virtual supermarket and asked them to buy certain objects at certain times.

The consequence of this is that I am now inundated with requests to speak at marketing conferences and to advertising agencies about neurosciences.

Coca-Cola and BMW have both set up laboratories to investigate what is going on when you buy Coke rather than Pepsi, or when you buy a BMW.

There's also interest from economists in what they call 'neuroeconomics' — the study of brains in the conditions of a neo-liberal market. A few years ago the Economist magazine became very interested in evolutionary psychology, they wanted to know if it could explain people's market choices.

There is massive investment in technology, but founded on some bad science. It conjures up an image like that in the novel Brave New World, where everyone is doped up, rather than having their real problems dealt with.

That's precisely the right analogy. In Brave New World the author, Aldous Huxley, invents a drug, Soma, which makes everyone happy. Soma is as good as sex. The refrain he uses is: 'Hug me till you drug me honey, love's as good as Soma.'

There is no such universal drug, but what the pharmaceutical industry is coming up with is a huge range of specially tailored drugs, some of which are legal, such as alcohol and tobacco. Some are on the fringes of legality, or illegal, such as cannabis. Some are prescribed, and some, such as Ritalin, are imposed on people.

There's a claim that the world would be better if we were all on Prozac, which makes you 'better than well', but there's also evidence that it makes some people suicidal and some people violent.

Then there are other drugs like those we work on in our lab. We are working on a potential treatment for cognitive loss in Alzheimer's disease. As a consequence of this kind of work there is a range of quasi-legal drugs, the so called cognitive enhancers or smart drugs, which you can get on the web.

We are moving into what one neuroscientist has called a psychocivilised society. He used the term in a positive sense, but I'm distinctly uneasy about it. It suggests that instead of changing the world, you need to change your head to adjust it to the world. We all play with drugs such as dope or alcohol, but when drugs become a means of social control, or of avoiding the real issues, it becomes very dangerous.

The World Health Organisation says the major crisis of this century is a worldwide epidemic of depression. What is going on in the world that makes people so depressed? And is the answer just to take certain kinds of drugs? Or should we look at the social order that produces unhappiness.

But some of the research and new technology could be used to help people.

I've spent 45 years trying to use these techniques to understand how the brain works. I have no doubt that it is part of being human to try to understand the world and to use the techniques of science. I'm a rationalist and a child of the enlightenment in that sense.

It's certainly true that developments in neurosciences can produce huge benefits. I'm not against the use of drugs. The mistake is a different one. If you have toothache and take aspirin to alleviate the pain that's fine, but it would be wrong to think that the cause of the toothache is too little aspirin in the brain — you have to deal with the tooth as well.

What will come out of the neurosciences will be treatments to alleviate the distress of Alzheimer's, which is a major issue in an aging world. There will be techniques to deal with Parkinson's and to deal with spinal cord injuries. So the picture is not of an overwhelmingly malign neuroscientific industry trying to control the world.

What's the future for the brain, and for all our brains?

I'm pretty gloomy. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci talked about 'pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will'. I've got lots of the pessimism, but I struggle to find the optimism these days.

My friend Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, says humanity is unlikely to survive the next century and I think he's probably right. There is an accumulation of environmental and human problems that pose real danger. The old cry was socialism or barbarism, I now think it's socialism or the end of humanity. But I'm not optimistic that our societies will make the right choice.

If you put aside that general question, it's clear that over the coming decades there will be developments in understanding neurological processes and in curative technologies. I'm optimistic about that. No one who has seen the devastating effect of Alzheimer's would reject the possibility of resolving some of that misery.

These developments are likely whether we have a good theory of the brain or not, because the technologies don't entirely depend on the theory. But to gain a better understanding of the deeper philosophical questions, we need to go beyond the reductionist scientific traditions of the Western world. Some people are beginning to think along those lines.

We're also going to be confronted with a range of ethical questions about the use of new technologies and drugs. One of the most important reasons why I wrote my book was to call attention to these new developments and to try to spark a wider debate about their uses.

Steven Rose's The 21st Century Brain, is £20 from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 14 May 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1951
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.