08 December 2010

Stop appealing to neuroscience to explain brain-based behaviour!

The Fall 2010 edition of the University of Calgary's Alumni Magazine has an article, "Parenting in the 21st century" by Betty Rice with a quote from Judy Arnall, stating "we now know that the frontal lobes in teens do not finish developing until age 25 --- who knew that there was a biological basis for those illogical decisions they make at 21?"

Who knew?  How about everything who understands that the brain is the seat of decision making [1].  Every decision a person makes originates from their brain, whether the decision is logical or not.  So is there a biological basis for illogical (or logical) decision making?  Of course there is, the basis is called the brain!

It is pretty well useless to base discussion on parenting and teaching around vacuous statements like Arnall's, because it only provides an explanation that uses a variable that, under normal circumstance, cannot be controlled.  It's not like we can make the frontal lobes develop faster, so what use is it to tell us about it in the context of parenting or teaching (other than to use it as an excuse for undesirable teenage behaviour)?

The appeal to neuroscience terms somehow blinds readers to the absurd vacuousness.  This is the problem of "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" (see the very detailed writeup on the paper of that name over at Neuroskeptic).

Granted, I'm pulling a short part of a quote from Arnall, but I feel the appeal to neuroscience explanations must be addressed independently, because neuroscience explanations are so incredibly seductive [2].

[1] Deep philosophical discussions regarding the seat of consciousness, freedom, etc, notwithstanding here, so that we may deal with the issue at hand.

[2] So seductive that there's an entire field in teaching called "brain-based learning", as though we know so much about the brain that it can immediately translate into classroom based approaches.  You'd think that if it were the case, building artificial intelligence wouldn't be so hard, as it currently is.  But it's seductive to many to hear that such and such an approach to teaching doesn't work because it doesn't grow the dendrites in the brain, rather than say something more useful, like that it doesn't work because it bores the children immensely when that material is presented that way.  It's more useful because while we can't control the rate of dendrite growth directly, we can control the presentation style so to reduce boredom.

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