Someone sure needs a brain reinvention…

CNN has seen fit to publish a fluff piece by Deepak Chopra entitled “Reinventing the brain is closer than you think.” As is typical of Chopra’s brand of woo, it is light on facts, makes no new or insightful observations, and is padded out with feel-good woo-woo crap that is either too vague or too obviously nonsensical to be of any use to anyone.

He starts out reasonably enough:

We’re living in a golden age for brain research, which could revolutionize how we think, feel and behave.

Thanks to brain scans like the fMRI, brain activity can be localized and even the most precise activity pinpointed. For example, researchers can spot the minuscule area in the visual cortex that, when damaged, prevents a person from recognizing faces, including his own. The slant in neuroscience has been to map the brain down to the tiniest detail.

Well, yes, neuroscience is advancing at an incredible rate, but let’s not exaggerate what we have. There is still a lot of work to be done, and we can’t yet pinpoint “the most precise activity”, if I took that phrase to mean what it would mean if spoken by anyone using plain English.

But what will we use the map for? One obvious area is medicine. The more we know about what goes wrong in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, the closer we get to a cure. But the highest goal would be to reinvent how we use our brains.

Uh, actually I’d vote for saving lives if it were up to me. I don’t even know what reinventing the brain is, but I damn well know what Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are, and I want to see them cured.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, the answer is no. At no point for the rest of the article does Chopra give anything like a clear explanation of what he means by “reinventing our brains”.

“Reinvent” isn’t an exaggeration. Ten thousand years ago, Homo sapiens had evolved the same genetic array that modern people inherit. But in those 10,000 years arose reading, writing, advanced art and music, government, mathematics and science. Their foundation was a new relationship between mind and body.

What do you mean by “same genetic array”? Are you saying our genome hasn’t changed in 10,000 years? That’s demonstrably untrue. And what the hell does that last sentence mean?

If genes and a fixed structure of brain cells told the whole story, it would remain a total mystery why a cave dweller after the last Ice Age should have just the right complement of neurons to discover gravity or write a symphony. Now we realize that the human brain is far from fixed, at any level.

No, it wouldn’t be a mystery, because that’s a stupid thing to say. Who in the hell would think there must be “just the right complement of neurons to discover gravity”? That’s like wondering at the “mystery” of how my computer could have “just the right complement of computer chips” to read this particular page. Or why my eyes would have “just the right compliment of optic nerves” to see the glass of wine next to me.

Any such array would be nearly useless in any context, and natural selection would likely eliminate it (unless it were genetically linked to something that is useful). There doesn’t have to be a special compliment of neurons for computing the theory of gravity. A general capacity for math and logic is what you need. In fact, especially for a behaviorally generalized species like ours, the more generalized and multiply applicable the mental function, the better.

New brain cells are being formed throughout life; trillions of connections between neurons are developed; and the genetic activity inside each neuron is dynamic, responding to every experience and every stimulus from the outside world.

Wha…what? What genetic activity? You mean like transcription and protein synthesis? Those processes most certainly do NOT “respond to every experience”.  New synaptic connections do occur frequently, but that’s not because of a change in the genes. You seem to have confused genetics with the electrical relays in the nerves. They are not the same thing, and thinking doesn’t change your genes.

Human beings reinvent the brain as we go along, day by day. It’s not a matter of eons. In short, the brain is a verb, not a noun. It is reshaped by thoughts, memories, desire and experience.

The first two sentences are mostly true. Neural plasticity is real, although calling it “reinventing” the brain is unnecessarily hyperbolic, in my semi-expert opinion (phd minor in cognitive science). The third sentence, however, is nonsense. And the fourth makes no sense in light of the third.

The word “brain” is a noun. It’s referent, the actual physical gray matter between your ears, is not a noun or a verb or any part of speech, because it’s not a word. I realize Chopra is trying to be poetic and I’m being very literal, but I reserve the right to do so when the attempt at poetry is embedded in a sea of nonsense and half truths. And also, since being “reshaped by thought” is not what makes a thing a verb any way, I hold that his attempt a poetry fails utterly. I have the right to be as overly literal as I want.

Because it is dynamic, fluid and ever-renewing, the brain is much more malleable than anyone ever imagined.

Actually, a lot of people imagined it, seeing as Chopra surely isn’t doing any of this neuroscientific research himself. He’s just grabbing ideas from other people’s heads, dumbing them down to the level of the average woo-woo customer, then calling them his own.

And yes, the brain is plastic, adaptable and dynamic in SOME ways, but it is certainly not “ever-renewing”. It can be pushed to the point that it stops renewing. It’s called Being a Conservative Christian.

Consider a controversial British medical journal article from 1980 entitled “Is the brain really necessary?” It was based on the work of British neurologist John Lorber, who had been working with victims of a brain disorder known as hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”), in which excessive fluid builds up. The pressure that results squeezes the life out of brain cells. Hydrocephalus leads to retardation as well as other severe damage and even death.

Lorber had previously written about two infants born with no cerebral cortex. Yet despite this rare and fatal defect, they seemed to be developing normally, with no external signs of damage. One child survived for three months, the other for a year.

After reading that last paragraph, I had to sit and stare at my screen for a while and let my brain process a confusing and amusing realization: Chopra does not consider infant death to be an “external sign of damage”.

If this were not remarkable enough, a colleague at Sheffield University sent Lorber a young man who had an enlarged head. He had graduated from college with a first-class honors degree in mathematics and had an IQ of 126. There were no symptoms of hydrocephalus; the young man was leading a normal life.

Yet a CAT scan revealed, in Lorber’s words, that he had “virtually no brain.” The skull was lined with a thin layer of brain cells about a millimeter thick (less than 1/10 of an inch), while the rest of the space in the skull was filled with cerebral fluid.

I’ve read about this guy before, and Lorber was exaggerating. The guy did indeed have a brain, it was just greatly compressed by the fluid. This is not evidence that the brain isn’t necessary. Is it amazing? Oh, yes, but don’t read too much into it. Not that Chopra would heed such a warning. Reading too much into other people’s work is what keeps him in business.

Once medical science accepts that the brain can be reinvented, there is no limit.

No. There are always limits. And you still haven’t clearly defined what “reinventing the brain” even means. If you’re talking about neural plasticity, it’s not a reinvention. It’s adaptation and change in response to external stimuli.

Together with Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a leading researcher on Alzheimer’s, my efforts have been directed at how each person can relate to the brain in a new way.

As we argue in our book “Super Brain,” the most direct way to improve brain function is through the mind.

I knew it! I knew it! This isn’t a genuine op-ed. It’s a fluff piece letting Chopra hock his own book. Damn you, CNN! Damn you and your paper thin credibility held in place solely by the fact that Fox News is even worse!

By the way, that last phrase is about as informative as saying, “The most direct way to improve muscle function is through strength.” Chopra may not believe it, but the mind is just something the brain does.

The mind-body connection is powerful because our habits lead to brain changes. What you pay attention to, what your passion is, your approach to diet, exercise, stress and even basic emotions like anger and fear — all of these things register in your brain and drastically shape its structure.

Okay, again. Yes, these things do alter brain structure. But calling it “drastic” is irresponsible hyperbole. In fact, it would be more accurate is that each of these things slightly alters the brain, and over time the alterations build up, making your brain plastic and adaptable to your environment.

In the simplest terms, every experience is either positive or negative when seen as input for the brain. A brain that is processing positive input will grow and evolve much differently from a brain that processes negative input.

This is just complete and utter woo woo claptrap. Every experience is either “positive” or “negative”? Bullshit. The vast majority of experience, from either an emotional or moral standpoint (Chopra is unclear as to which he has in mind as “positive” or “negative”), is completely neutral. As I type this, I’m taking in a wide array of sensory experience about the colors and shapes of objects around me, the temperature of the room, the feel of the keys on my fingers, the sound of my heater coming on, etc etc etc. None of these has any particularly positive or negative effect on me (regardless of whatever meaning Chopra failed to give to those words but may have intended).

Rather than appealing to anything factual from neuroscience or rational from the philosophy of mind, Chopra here is just spoonfeeding his audience the over-simplified, puerile mush that unfortunately so many humans crave. There are good feelings, and there are bad feelings, and you can be better by feeling better. That is ALL he is saying. He’s cloaking it in the language of neuroscience to make his audience and himself feel smarter, but what he’s saying boils down to advice so grossly obvious and easily appealing that even a four year old could grasp it.

This has always seemed intuitively right; we all know that children who are well-loved, for example, almost always turn out better than children who are abused. Now, we have validation from neuroscience.

No, we don’t. At least, we don’t from anything you have presented.

The most important conclusion is that no one needs to submit to old conditioning. The past can be changed by changing the brain, just as the future can be shaped by how your brain is trained today. Reinventing the brain is much closer than you think.

No. No no no no no. You can’t just make problems poof into the aether by positive-thinking them away. The changes in the brain can’t be undone that easily. If you want to talk about things that are “intuitively right”, ever heard the saying, “Old habits die hard”? Well, there’s some truth to it. You can’t just erase the past with vapid platitudes about happy thoughts. For instance, you can’t change the fact that you’ve spent the last several years as a dishonest crackpot bilking people out of their money by talking out your ass about shit you haven’t even attempted to understand.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with “reinventing the brain”. He’s just taken old codswallop and wrapped in a fancy new pseudoscientific garb. The closest thing we can gather from his article is that reinventing your brain means using positive thinking to feel better. And remember earlier, when he said reinventing the brain was more important than curing Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s? Yeah, not so much. Really, really, really not so much. But this is exactly the kind of spoiled, self-absorbed thinking that appeals to millions of under-stimulated American yuppies suffering with a bad case of White People’s Problems Syndrome. And Chopra loves making money off the problem rather than trying to correct it.

Grrrr, fuck this guy. And fuck CNN for promoting him. Bad! Bad 24 hour news network! Y’know, did you ever think that maybe there just isn’t enough news for 24 hours of programming, and perhaps you should try to focus on other things? And that if you didn’t feel the need to fill up 24 ours with whatever crap you can find, you wouldn’t be giving the time of day to babbling crackpots like Chopra?

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2 responses to “Someone sure needs a brain reinvention…

  1. But … but … “brain” IS a verb!

    “To hit on the head or kill by hitting on the head.”

    Which is exactly how i feel every time i read something Chopra’s written — like i’ve been brained.

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