Interesting words, part 5: Brain damage

A continuing series. In evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s interesting polemic, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” he takes on misconceptions about how the brain works in popular culture:

Nowadays, any banality about learning can be dressed up in neurospeak and treated like a great revelation of science.

According to a New York Times headline, “Talk therapy, a psychiatrist maintains, can alter the structure of the patient’s brain.” I should hope so, or else the psychiatrist would be defrauding her patients.

“Environmental manipulation can change the way [a child’s] brain develops,” the pediatric neurologist Harry Chugani told the Boston Globe. “A child surrounded by aggression, violence, or inadequate stimulation will reflect these connections in the brain and behavior.” Well, yes; if the environment affects the child at all, it would do so by changing connections in the brain.

A special issue of the journal Educational Technology and Society was intended “to examine the position that learning takes place in the brain of the learner, and that pedagogies and technology should be designed and evaluated on the basis of the effect they have on student brains.” The guest editor (a biologist) did not say whether the alternative was that learning takes place in some other organ of the body like the pancreas or that it takes place in an immaterial soul.* …

“The human being has unlimited creativity if focused and nurtured properly,” says a consultant who teaches clients to draw diagrams that “map their neutral patterns” … And then there is the marketing genius who realized that blocks, balls, and other toys “provide visual and tactile stimulation” and “encourage movement and tracking,” part of a larger movement of brain-based” childrearing and education…

These companies tap into people’s belief in [a “mind” independent from the physical brain] by implying that any form of learning that affects the brain (as opposed, presumably, to the kinds of learning that don’t affect the brain) is unexpectedly real or deep or powerful. But this is mistaken. All learning affects the brain.

It is undeniably exciting when scientists make a discovery about how learning affects the brain, but that does not make the learning itself any more pervasive or profound.” (pp. 86-87. Endnotes removed, paragraphs added.)

This rant is redolent of one of the better lines from the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when the main character inquires about the risks involved in a surgical procedure to remove memories from his brain:

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?

Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage.

*Nota bene, Pinker is an outspoken atheist who is dismissive of the existence of souls, but much of his point here is still relevant even if one disagrees with him on this point and believes that souls play an important role in human cognition.