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September 14, 2012 12:04 AM   Subscribe

Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks
posted by Artw (64 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
There may be good points made here, but I just couldn't get past the overstuffed, adjective-happy style. Probably because it reminds me of what I don't like about my own writing. Oh well, my loss.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:46 AM on September 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


love this image "You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation,..." - hah great
posted by mary8nne at 12:53 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've lost count of the number of times I've articles that basically boild down to "High-tech scanners have shown that learning/recognition/ thought results in actual physical changes in the brain!!!"

Now the opposite finding would be interesting.
posted by Segundus at 1:22 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


“molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”


Nice try, zombies.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:33 AM on September 14, 2012 [26 favorites]


Nice quote from the article:

"I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain."
posted by illongruci at 2:34 AM on September 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Steven Poole is very good. Reviews books regularly for The Guardian. His book Unspeak and its associated site/blog are a great inoculation against 21st-century politicalbollocks.
posted by rory at 3:15 AM on September 14, 2012


I blinked.
The 1860s are pretty cool.
posted by Mezentian at 3:33 AM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Elitist, patronising scientism (cult of the expert).

There is certainly something wrong with (at least some of) the books he listed.

It is certainly not the fact that they are 'pop'. They are poorly argued, intellectually dishonest money-making exercises. It is good to keep in mind that "practising scientists" (and even Real Scotsmen!) publish such stuff every now and then.

I think Susan Gerhardt's Why Love Matters is an excellent example of a "pop-neuroscience" book done very well - and I am sure it is not alone. The author's failure to mention any of those indicates that he is one of the many journos who make a living out of bashing what they decide is pseudoscience in a sarky-intellectual tone. There are worse (but there are also better) ways to make a living.
posted by holist at 4:55 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have been agreeing with what this guy says for years yet his cranky writing style is lighting up the part of my brain that indicates annoyance.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, great article and glad to see it here. It has wide relevance to many kinds of bullshit.

A friend sent it to me yesterday in relation to bit of pseudoscience that has infested adoption reform groups, Nancy Verrier's "Primal Wound", the idea that prenatal and neonatal memories are fully formed enough for the infant to be severely traumatized for life by being separated from the biological mother, that this is universal and backed up by some experiments that show that newborns recognize the mother's smell. The way this is extrapolated by Verrier using poor anecdotal evidence and questionable science is very similar to the writing about brain scans described in this article.

Not that being adopted does not cause problems for some people, and certainly adoptees should be able to get their background history and original birth certificates, if they want to, but the idea of infant cognition being such that every adoptee is harmed at birth by maternal separation is just one more bit of bollocks presented with a "sciencey" veneer and accepted as unquestionable truth by the fanatic faithful in some groups.
posted by mermayd at 5:09 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Neurobollocks is as good a name for it as my preferred "brain bullshit."

A British colleague reflecting on the insane pressure UK academics are under to publish anything anywhere at any time and pursue every scrap of newly dumbed down grant money was recently telling me how even the most literary and humanist types are all doing something they laughably call "cognitive science" there now. I said, ha, our poorly educated science journalists are miles ahead on that, and even our actual brain scientists are cashing in on the brain bubble.

"Because The Brain" is an answer to any question about human behavior, experience, or creativity, and a 19th c universalist tautology unless you are actually modeling how the brain works directly, not the tiny surface of the things we say or think consciously.

"Hard wired" for bullshit is what we are.
posted by spitbull at 5:23 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Hard wired" for bullshit is what we are.

I actually think we're hard-wired for pattern recognition. Sadly, pattern recognition is bullshit-agnostic.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:30 AM on September 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


I'm relieved that neuroscience isn't progressing faster than our ability to exploit it to support questionable theories.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 5:48 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The article seems to be more rightly pointing out the misappropriation of the prefix "neuro" by authors than anything in particular about the actual science.

It is ironic that in the age of "make shit up until people start believing it" that someone would be TOO BOTHERED by all this SCIENCE being bandied about. Pop-science books get research into the hands of the layperson and like all things there are good examples and bad. Even if all it does is get people to think about science I'm alright with that.
posted by absquatulate at 6:54 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm so glad I don't have to hunt this man down to insist we duel over the honor of Oliver Sachs & V.S. Ramachandran. They are my boyz.
posted by skrozidile at 7:00 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


*SACKS!

...now he will never accept my please be my grandfather request.
posted by skrozidile at 7:01 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


He repeats-- not quite uncritically-- one of the most ubiquitous and naive of the new neuroverities:

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe.
posted by jamjam at 7:30 AM on September 14, 2012


What a terrible article.

“the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.)

That's a grandiose statement? Really? To suggest that the modern, very recent development that is neuroscience is gradually unravelling the nature of the human brain?

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

A nice little drive-by smearing of Sam Harris there! I suppose explaining the reasons WHY Sam Harris' book suggests that conservative religions are bad for human existence would be a little much, so let's just paint him with this brush as we fly by....

Too much crap in the first half of the article to justify reading the second half. Whatever.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:42 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Oh just fuck off now.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:44 AM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology

Honest question: why cognitive psychology? occasionally someone also publishes a bit of pop evolutionary-psychology.

But why isn't there more pop-social psychology? That stuff is fascinating, even before it's been translated into lay-ese. Or pop-sociology, for that matter - something about how social networks influence your life or how cultural capital works.

Maybe there is - I don't tend to read popular non-fiction much.
posted by jb at 8:07 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a grandiose statement? Really? To suggest that the modern, very recent development that is neuroscience is gradually unravelling the nature of the human brain?

That is an incredibly gradiose statement, yes. We have made barely the first halting steps on what will most likely be a centuries-long quest to even begin to understand the human brain, and a good 85% of what we think we know is probably either wrong or so vague as to be meaningless.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:54 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


[A]re the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

Betteridge's Law be damned, this time the answer is "Yes!"

("Igon values", sheesh...)
posted by crazy_yeti at 8:54 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Read it again. The author wasn't suggesting we now understand the brain. There's nothing grandiose about saying that thanks to neuroscience, we are gradually unraveling mysteries that were previously tightly ravelled. It's the author's clear and shitty bias that colors that disingenuous interpretation.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:57 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


a good 85% of what we think we know is probably either wrong or so vague as to be meaningless.


Whereas statistics thrown around by anonymous posters on the Internet are like lighthouses illuminating the rocky shores of numbnuttery.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 9:06 AM on September 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Whereas statistics thrown around by anonymous posters on the Internet are like lighthouses illuminating the rocky shores of numbnuttery.

Cute, Professor Langwedge. Would you rather I argue from authority?

I read in an online discussion of brain imaging methods an estimate by one of the leading fMRI researchers that about two-thirds of fMRI papers are non-replicable, and as someone who has published in the field, I don't think that's far off. Add to that the papers that are methodologically sound but are groping in the dark in terms of what their results actually mean theoretically, and yeah, probably 85%.

There's nothing grandiose about saying that thanks to neuroscience, we are gradually unraveling mysteries that were previously tightly ravelled.

Not just unraveling mysteries, but THE DEEPEST MYSTERIOUS OF WHAT MAKES US WHO WE ARE. Which often boils down to "Look, some chunk of prefrontal cortex changed color."

I'm not saying that neuroscience is useless, but given the crudity of our tools (especially tools for analyzing the human brain) and the staggering complexity of the topic, some humility and acknowledgement of the difficulty of the problem is in order. You rarely find that in popular science books.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:23 AM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


I finally reached the point where I couldn't read Gladwell any more.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 9:33 AM on September 14, 2012


Who was arguing for the unassailable credibility of fMRI? You're making shit up now.

There's nothing grandiose about it, the author just didn't like the language and decided to stretch their interpretation to be as ungenerous as possible. It's boringly saccharine and more than a touch cynical.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:35 AM on September 14, 2012


I'm talking about how the difficulty of getting usable data from the human brain--most of which comes from sort form of brain imaging, either EEG or, more commonly, fMRI--means that we need to be as careful as possible when we make claims about having solved, or being in the process of solving, deep mysteries. ...because, if we overreach and make claims about what we know based on flimsy data, we could potentially have effects on policy and culture that are not warranted and potentially harmful.

There's nothing grandiose about it

The deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are. The only way I could make that sound more grandiose is by adding exclamation points.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:51 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


>I actually think we're hard-wired for pattern recognition. Sadly, pattern recognition is bullshit-agnostic.

Amen. Neuroscience and psychology often provide a first step down the long road to explaining some phenomenon of human behavior, but many people grow impatient and jump to whatever conclusion is in that direction. It's not entirely clear how differences in computer hardware/software affect things like MRI or EEG results, but we're so hungry for answers that we eat the ingredients before the meal is even cooked.

And crazy_yeti brings up an interesting point, too. I probably would have never picked up a Gladwell book in the first place if that "igon value" nonsense hadn't been corrected by his editors. Who was watching the watchman on that one?
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 9:53 AM on September 14, 2012


The deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are. The only way I could make that sound more grandiose is by adding exclamation points.

Well, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the development of the discipline of genetics have certainly unraveled many such mysteries. And genetics, too, is frequently misused by agenda-driven scribes making claims for a layman audience who can't judge the validity of the claims.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 10:10 AM on September 14, 2012


I'm talking about how the difficulty of getting usable data from the human brain--most of which comes from sort form of brain imaging, either EEG or, more commonly, fMRI--means that we need to be as careful as possible when we make claims about having solved, or being in the process of solving, deep mysteries. ...because, if we overreach and make claims about what we know based on flimsy data, we could potentially have effects on policy and culture that are not warranted and potentially harmful.


Sure. Makes sense. Are you seriously saying that the statement

“the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled”

is equivalent to overreaching? Because it isn't. It's saying we are gradually understanding more of the universe. The fact that you are trying SO HARD to shoehorn that into some definitive statement suggests you have the same bias this article's author seems to have.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2012


It's funny that we're in a semantic quibble now, because that whole article was a bunch of semantic quibbling. Guess someone get's a check for tearing down the work of others, though. Meh.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2012


They were gradually being unravelled by psychologists 100 years ago, too. Popular science literature of the day made similar claims then, which (looking at them now) seem a bit silly.
posted by cdward at 10:29 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Leaving behind this one sentence, which I think we have sufficiently belabored, we need more people, especially scientists, to be making the point this article is making. The market is awash in popular neuroscience books, which sounds great--it really is wonderful that people are interested in science--but these books (or, at least, the smattering I've read) simply do not do a good job of encapsulating the work that's actually being done.

First, the vast majority of research topics are being ignored in favor of the same few buzzwords--you'd think that all people are working on is mirror neurons, oxytocin, the amygdala, consciousness, and asking people whether they'd divert a train so it runs over an overweight gentleman. One of the most amazing success stories in neuroscience and cognitive science is the study of vision, especially the way the brain processes color--we actually know how this works in staggering detail, all the way from individual molecules to the ways in which culture affects how it's perceived. The problem is that vision isn't as intrinsically interesting a topic to people as, emotion or economic behavior or consciousness or whatnot, so it gets ignored in favor of neuroeconomics and mirror neurons and other more shaky ground.

Second, the work that is mentioned is being vastly oversold, and complications and complexities are being papered over to make the story being told more digestible. For example, when an area of the brain is mentioned in a popular science book, it's invariably described as "the place where x happens", where x is fear or attachment or something like that. What the book will not tell you is that often x is also activated in studies of completely different things, like linguistic syntax or viewing the forms of letters. Is this because we still haven't figured out what exactly that brain region does? Or is it because that brain region really does have multiple functions? We largely don't know, but it's an issue that the authors should at least admit. Similarly, as Steven Poole points out, neurochemicals are usually described as the molecule behind one and only one of a wide variety of behaviors. Dopamine does a wide variety of things; next time an author describes it as "the reward molecule", put the book down and walk away.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:46 AM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


They were gradually being unravelled by psychologists 100 years ago, too. Popular science literature of the day made similar claims then, which (looking at them now) seem a bit silly.

"HEAD! - The Astounding Science of Phrenology Revealed"
posted by Artw at 10:55 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


IjonTichy: we actually know how this (vision) works in staggering detail, all the way from individual molecules to the ways in which culture affects how it's perceived.

I'd really appreciate if you could point me to any accessible publications on this that you know of. It interests me greatly. I think this would make a great FPP.

I read in an online discussion of brain imaging methods an estimate by one of the leading fMRI researchers that about two-thirds of fMRI papers are non-replicable, and as someone who has published in the field, I don't think that's far off. Add to that the papers that are methodologically sound but are groping in the dark in terms of what their results actually mean theoretically, and yeah, probably 85%.

I wonder if it would now be possible for a postmodern philosopher to get their revenge on Alan Sokal, a phycisist who published a nonsense paper "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", in the journal Social Text as an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether such a journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."

It seems to me fMRI neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and maybe even theoretical physics/cosmology would be ripe territory. I guess it would need to be done with some help from inside - and couldn't just rely on completely bogus data.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:59 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least one neuroscientist I know has made the joke, "If you want funding for a study, make sure you attach a colorful fMRI." What I don't know many laypeople are aware of is just how early in the process the subjective extrapolation/interpretation starts. At least on EEGs, the raw data from the electrodes is passed through a filter, which often needs to be tweaked by the user. It's not uncommon for a grad student/researcher/whatever to tweak the filtering until the picture created matches the desired results.
posted by availablelight at 11:32 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


and couldn't just rely on completely bogus data.

I'm guessing you haven't been following the field of psychology too closely then.
posted by srboisvert at 11:32 AM on September 14, 2012


mermayd: psychohistorians argued that the Unborn feel a vast enduring rage-- experienced as being suffocated by the placenta-- when their mothers drink or use drugs. I believe that Alice Miller blamed Placental Rage for Hitler's & Stalin's genocides.
posted by ohshenandoah at 11:58 AM on September 14, 2012


The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe.

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
-Emo Philips
posted by The Deej at 11:58 AM on September 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


At least one neuroscientist I know has made the joke, "If you want funding for a study, make sure you attach a colorful fMRI."

And it turns out that people are more likely to believe articles that contain pictures of brains, even if said pictures duplicate information in the text or contradict the claim of the paper...
posted by heyforfour at 12:05 PM on September 14, 2012


mermayd: "I believe that Alice Miller blamed Placental Rage for Hitler's & Stalin's genocides."

I've read two of Alice Miller's books, The Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good, and I don't remember either of them mentioning this concept, though the latter had an entire chapter devoted to Hitler's early life... Furthermore, google brings me no relevant hits for the search term "placental rage" (there are ten hits altogether!), and the Wikipedia page, which contains very brief descriptions of each of her books doesn't mention Placental Rage, either.

In the light of this, could you substantiate your claim, please?
posted by holist at 1:45 PM on September 14, 2012


Sorry, I was actually quoting ohshenandoah and hence my request is also directed at them.
posted by holist at 1:48 PM on September 14, 2012


This, however, is what ohshenandoah was sort of offering evidence for, this time really by mermayd: "but the idea of infant cognition being such that every adoptee is harmed at birth by maternal separation is just one more bit of bollocks presented with a "sciencey" veneer"

How so? Isn't it firmly established that separation from the primary carer (may or may not be the mother, but at birth, it is, by definition, the mother) in the first year or two of life is pretty traumatic for infants? And do we have evidence that infant cognition of birth is not sufficient for that trauma to occur, in the vast majority of cases? The baleful screams that come out of the windows of maternity wards where separation from mother after birth is still the norm (far to many in this part of the world) belie that notion. And as long as we don't have such evidence, the notion that you attempt to ridicule above is not "one more bit of bollocks", but, rather, at least a testable scientific theory. Though to my mind, it is actually obvious fact.
posted by holist at 1:57 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


psychohistorians argued

wait...there really are psychohistorians? Crazy.

Frankly, I don't think that most historical evidence is strong/complete enough for rigorous psychological research, not unless you have a time machine. And I'm saying that as a historian - we're like archeologists, piecing together guesses at ideas and motivations based often on scanty evidence, sometimes only of what people did (don't even know what they said, especially for lower-classes).
posted by jb at 2:12 PM on September 14, 2012


I'm surprised that Daniel Amen wasn't mentioned; he was an early pioneer for doing psychology based on brain images, although he uses SPECT rather than fMRI, and can now be regularly seen shilling books, DVDs and supplements in various infomercials.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:28 PM on September 14, 2012


This seems like a pretty good opportunity to share my favorite recent paper: "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations":

Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

If you read the whole thing, you can also see their example good and bad explanations, with and without irrelevant neuroscience.
posted by moss at 6:19 PM on September 14, 2012


Also relevant: Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon:
An argument for multiple comparisons correction

posted by moss at 6:22 PM on September 14, 2012


infinitywaltz: "Daniel Amen wasn't mentioned; he was an early pioneer for doing psychology based on brain images"

He's doing something, but it's not psychology.
posted by meehawl at 7:58 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't tell if that's a slam on me (for mistaking Dr. Amen's field for psychology, when in fact it is psychiatry) or Dr. Amen (for obvious reasons).
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:34 PM on September 14, 2012


Excellent article!
posted by blue shadows at 11:27 PM on September 14, 2012



I think one problem is that people get confused between final causes (why things happen) and efficient causes (how things happen).

Neuroscience is telling us a lot about how the brain works: it's one of the most fascinating areas of science right now. Of course, science is most interesting when there's some uncertainty, and there are rival explanations. If neuroscience knew almost everything or almost nothing about how the brain works, it wouldn't be an interesting field.

The problem with most of the neurobollocks is that it presents hows as whys. "Why are taxi drivers good at navigating? Brain area A is bigger! Why do you experience emotional responses B? Because of neurotransmitter C!"

These are useful and fascinating explanations of the efficient causes, and how things happen. But they tend to be presented as final causes, as if stating the mechanism for a phenomenon explained everything about it.

But knowing the mechanisms behind a phenomenon doesn't help us deal with a phenomenon. Aggression and psychopathy still have to be dealt with if you know how they happen.

Another problem is that when it's explained that things happen because of physical factors, not the ethereal vibrations of soul-stuff, it seems to be implied that these things are immutable and cannot be changed. Yes, testosterone influences male aggression, but there are many other influences on aggression, and many ways to deal with it. Neurobollocks often tends to imply that once there's a material explanation for something, you just have to accept that thing, and it's foolish to try to change it.

Finally, Neuroskeptic on "Vagina" by Naomi Klein.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:48 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


mermayd: psychohistorians argued that the Unborn feel a vast enduring rage-- experienced as being suffocated by the placenta-- when their mothers drink or use drugs. I believe that Alice Miller blamed Placental Rage for Hitler's & Stalin's genocides.
posted by ohshenandoah at 2:58 PM on September 14 [+] [!]

Oshenadoah, I did not write this if that is what you are implying, and certainly do not believe it. "Placental Rage"??

Holist wrote:" Isn't it firmly established that separation from the primary carer (may or may not be the mother, but at birth, it is, by definition, the mother) in the first year or two of life is pretty traumatic for infants? And do we have evidence that infant cognition of birth is not sufficient for that trauma to occur, in the vast majority of cases?"

No, this has not been established. A newborn does not yet have the cognition to differentiate between loving, consistent caregivers and be "traumatized" if the primary caregiver is not the biological mother. Infants can be traumatized by neglect, uncaring institutional care, frequent switching of caregivers, lack of touch and cuddling. Anyone can provide this in the early months. If you know anything about child development, it is not until the baby is 6 months to a year that they really recognize their caregiver and are upset by mother being absent. Children separated from the mother after a year old are more likely to experience some trauma and have problems. This is not true of newborn infants, and no respected child development expert says this is so. There is however a lot of very dubious childcare advice and pseudoscience out there like that of APPPAH and Verrier's Primal Wound that has all sorts of dire and unproven theories. And yes, they are great at twisting neuroscience to support their foregone conclusions.
posted by mermayd at 5:15 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do know a few things about child development. Both that of my own four kids, and that of others. There is in fact plenty of evidence that newborns do have the cognition to differentiate their mothers from other persons. In particular, it seems that human fetuses recognise their mother's voice from 35 weeks of gestation, and that they can recognise their mother's smell at birth. Actually, given our mammalian origins, it would be quite weird if they could not do those things.

As for having the cognition to be traumatised by separation - there is clearly distress. As to what kind of trauma that results in and how long the effect lasts, and what can or should be done about it, there is, of course, plenty of room for argument and research. Given the evidence, ruling it out before the age of six months is not an option. This: "it is not until the baby is 6 months to a year that they really recognize their caregiver and are upset by mother being absent" is sheer bollocks. I wouldn't mind and would just let go, except that it is dangerous bollocks that gets used to justify mistreatment of newborns (though not necessarily by you!). Mistreating newborns is something I strongly disapprove of. Even if it is done with the best intentions.
posted by holist at 6:22 AM on September 15, 2012


The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago.

Is there anything this man didn't know? They don't make 'em like that anymore.
posted by shivohum at 7:48 AM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holist, I am also the mother of 4 children, three of whom I raised, the oldest surrendered for adoption years ago due to the usual unwed mother reasons. In no way do I favor "mistreating newborns". I did all the 'holistic" things although we did not use that term back then, natural childbirth, rooming in, family bed, breastfed for several years. I did have all my children vaccinated though, although now that and circumcision have become hot topics among the holistic crowd.

Having reunited with my surrendered son, I do not see he has been any more traumatized or scarred by his different upbringing than the children I raised for whom I did all the right things. I wish I had been able to keep him, but do not see him as deeply traumatized and neither does he. No, it can't hurt to try and keep moms and babies together as much as possible, but I do not think it matters a whole lot in the long run, and many mothers who could not do the "holistic" thing for whatever reason are made to feel needlessly guilty.

The fact that newborns recognize their mother by smell does not mean that they cannot soon learn to recognize another loving constant caregiver, or that they are traumatized for life if they are not kept with their biological mother.
posted by mermayd at 8:05 AM on September 15, 2012


mermayd, we are talking past each other. I said nothing about being traumatised for life. Many traumas simply heal, because the environment promotes or at least allows that healing to take place. So: losing a loving constant caregiver is a pretty severe trauma, at any age in infancy. But getting a new loving constant caregiver is just the right thing for it: it is something that helps that trauma heal. That, however, is not a good reason to deny that damage is done in the first place. (Also, I happen to be the father of four children :-))
posted by holist at 12:48 PM on September 15, 2012


Holist, I see what you are saying. But that is not what Primal Wound theory says.

The whole thesis of Verrier's Primal Wound is that the trauma is lifelong and unfixable and that the adopted person never stops grieving for the biological mother lost shortly after birth. She also believes this is recorded in some kind of subconscious memory, and that adoptive mothers are a poor and inadequate substitute whom the child continues to know are not the "right mommy".

Verrier states on her web page:

"So deep runs the connection between a child and its mother that the severing of that bond results in a profound wound for both, a wound from which neither fully recovers. In the case of adoption, the wound cannot be avoided, but it can and must be acknowledged and understood."

And also:
"There will be a difference between the environment of security and safety of being with the mother with whom an infant was prenatally bonded, and the anxiety and uncertainty of being with biological strangers (who may also leave at any time)."

"Neither fully recovers" is pretty dire as is describing adoptive parents as "biological strangers." I do not think that is what you are saying, if I understand you correctly. There is no way of knowing what a newborn is thinking, feeling or retaining in the way of memories, so this is something that must be taken on faith as far as how this early separation plays out later in life. Human infants have had to develop some resiliency as before fairly recent times many mothers died in childbirth or shortly after and babies had to be nurtured and raised by someone else and adjust to a new caregiver in order to survive.

Being adopted can be a source of grief and feelings of loss for some adoptees, but I believe these begin when the child becomes cognizant that adoption means they were first given up or abandoned, not at birth when the actual event happens, nor do I think adopted persons' brains are different from the rest of us, something Verrier also asserts.
posted by mermayd at 4:15 PM on September 15, 2012


Verriers book is crap, but what pisses me off even more than how crappily she asserted her claims without adequate scientific evidence, is how her failure is celebrated by people with an agenda to prove poor or struggling women should hand over their infants to wealthier and more resourced people. And with an agenda to diminish the worth and meaning of biological connections to people who find them deep and meaningful.

Love is love. And my biological mother loved me more than many parents can understand. Yes she is a mother, real and meaningful. And she is in my body. So is my sisters, my father, my brothers. You can make my poor insecure premiscuous parents feel so inferior they will sign your demon papers, but you can not take away the love they gave that is within me.

It's an unfortunate reality that some adoptees do feel that kind of connection. I can imagine it would be terrible for adoptive parents who feel threatened by it. I can imagine that adoptive parents also really have no concept of the hell that is losing a child you didn't want to lose to adoption.
posted by xarnop at 7:09 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


xarnop, agreeing with everything you say as an adoptee. I feel the same about my son whom I searched for and found. That is a love nothing can destroy, and a real genetic connection in so many ways.

I am not at all in favor of mothers without resources being coerced to hand over their children to the supposedly more wealthy. As it turned out, my sons adoptive parents were neither wealthier than my family, or more fit to raise a child than me. I did not even get what the agency promised, nor did my child.

Verrier's self-published book does not help the cause of adoptee rights because it is such easily dismissed and refuted crap. We need some real research and science on our side, not psychobabble and New Age baloney. There is a genuine case for genetics playing an important part in every life, and for adoptees to be able to connect with biological family, but books like Primal Wound do not make it, and do make it harder for our issues to be taken seriously by the larger community and legislators.
posted by mermayd at 8:38 AM on September 16, 2012


I totally agree with you about the need for real research. There is a lot of research being done in the fields of prenatal maternal environment, infant attachment and neurobiology and epigenetics and gene/environment interaction. While much of that is in very developmental stages, I think it would be possible to create a much more scientifically sound case for preserving mother-infant bonding better than American culture currently does (can't speak for other countries). We'll get there.

But yes, all of that needs a lot of work, and when people who don't understand science or the limitations of the research they're looking at very well use that to make opinions sound more valid(with BRAIN PICTURES!) it actually does a disservice to the actual exploration of the claim they are putting forth. And honest examination of a possibility should simply present the possibility as worthy of investigation for people with more knowledge of science to actually pick up. But of course, the field of psychology and now "neuropsychology" and the like, itself is breeding ground for unsubstantiated claims to be upheld by "experts" who by virture of having a title claim to have much more solid grounds for their theories than they actually do. And who have very personal investments in earning status, validating their expert status, proving their status makes their contributions more valuble, personal reasons they want their ideas to be true, and of course earning income with their brilliant theories.

To be honest, I would prefer in some ways to not ever have a career or identity in the field of academia and to learn as much as I can without becoming an "expert" or overselling ideas that are purely my own theories/agenda without acknowledging I'm just a person like anyone else with my own feeling base and bias in what I want to be true.

It's another reason I'm a fan of metafilter because it's a great place for intelligent people from all walks of life to communicate on such subjects and to call BS on nonsense claims when it needs to be called. OR conversely for anyone who wants to present a case for validating claims that haven't yet been popularly validated but there may be some lesser known research the community might benefit from knowing about that an individual has knowledge of.

A skeptical and aware community is an invaluable resource for preserving the integrity of research and factual knowledge and the prevention of gurus/experts who don't deserve the attention they get from an unquestioning public.
posted by xarnop at 10:22 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


xarnop, you said it clearer and better than I did and I fully agree.
"A skeptical and aware community is an invaluable resource for preserving the integrity of research and factual knowledge and the prevention of gurus/experts who don't deserve the attention they get from an unquestioning public."
Yes, yes, yes!
posted by mermayd at 4:52 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Separating the Pseudo From Science
posted by homunculus at 9:13 AM on September 18, 2012


Beware of neuro-speculation
posted by homunculus at 1:43 PM on September 19, 2012


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