‘Neuroscientists’ Don’t Know the Mind at all

If a guy has ‘neuro’ in his bio, he can say just about anything about the mind, as though he knows what it is. Andrew Huberman is a beneficiary. He is also from Stanford, so conditions were perfect for him to begin a podcast about that thing people hyphenate with confidence: ‘mind-body.’ He used expressions like “peer reviewed” and it appeared to many that he spoke scientific truths. He attracted millions of listeners. Todat, he is so popular that even though you may not have heard his podcast or read him at all, a lot of advice that has come down to you from reformative types emerge from him. If you know people who have suddenly become morning antennas to “catch” sunlight or started buying products like ashwagandha, you indirectly know Huberman. His fame would suggest a world deeply interested in physical and mental fitness. You wouldn’t be able to guess that by looking around.

Huberman says a lot of commonsensical things and uses the sacred theology of science to persuade people—sleep well (somehow); eat fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats; remember to drink water; stress is bad; physical exercise is good; as much as possible, stay away from computer screens. Which sane person can disagree with any of this? But he also says a lot of abstract things, like, for instance, that practising gratitude “activates neural circuits.” He offers some kind of “scientific” evidence, but some of us intuitively know, or “neurally” know, that you cannot say anything definite yet about a whole lot of human behaviour just because somethings lit up on electroencephalogram.

Generally, Huberman says that decent behaviour leads to physical and mental health. A reason why he is now the subject of a controversy. Not because some scientist found contradictory evidence on an EEG screen, but because, according to an article in New York magazine, Huberman cheated on some women. By modern standards of male disgrace, this is almost funny. But the magazine’s reasoning is that if Huberman is morally shady, he should not be taken so seriously as a ‘wellness’ guru.

What I find amusing is that what eventually diminished his aura somewhat was not the discovery that he was no more qualified than the rest of humanity to speak of the mind, but that some of his ex-girlfriends did not consider him an ideal human being (like their other ex-boyfriends perhaps).

From what I have seen, people who are likely to have excessive faith in Huberman and other neuro-gurus, are not famous for their cold logic. They are usually life-long seekers of advice on how to be, how to be happy. Inside them was a reasonless sorrow, to which they attached reasons and villains but the sorrow itself never went. Most of their lives they were consumers of the wellness industry. Once it only meant reading J Krishnamurthy. Then came the “right way” to breathe, and stretching exercises that cannot be called stretching but some deep spiritual stuff. Every five years or so, there would a dramatic breakthrough in the global pursuit of ‘wellness,’ which would arrive through a fascinating person who was, oddly, always a male. Like Huberman. And another famous neuro-something, Sam Harris, who speaks about the nature of consciousness. Not that he should not; just that there is no way he knows a sentence more about the mind than anyone else. The science of consciousness is not even in its infancy. Yet, people give Harris et al the first right to define the nature of being and the meaning of “meditation”.

Huberman says that we must be “mindful,” which is to live in the present. And that we must introspect and learn a lot, and, of course, be grateful. And build muscles. What he is actually saying is, “be like me, why can’t you be like me”. That is what all gurus say, one way or the other.

When a man sets out to say, ‘be like me”, he knows what to say and how to say it. It is somehow useful for a guru to be a narcissist. And there is a bit of that in his ardent seekers too. They are so preoccupied with themselves, how they are feeling. Every spiritual trend is somehow about them. All of “Wellness” is an alpha narcissist talking to beta narcissist.

Many people have defended Huberman saying that it is silly to humiliate him using the comments of anonymous ex-lovers. British actor Russell Brand said that Huberman is being targeted by some women because he is a very manly man who appears to enjoy being a manly man.

But some scholars have used Huberman’s small disgrace to remind people that they always found his ‘science’ too dubious. Andrea Love, a biologist, argued on Slate.com that Huberman used scientific lingo to impress gullible people. “Huberman fills his podcast with confident displays of pseudoscience, topped with the appeal to authority he garners by regularly repeating his academic credentials to gain your trust.”

But then, when it comes to “wellness”, especially the part that involves the mind, there is not much of a difference between science and pseudoscience.

Once, only monks were taken seriously when they spoke of abstract matters, and only those monks who wore a robe or nothing at all or who signalled in some other way that they were different from other humans even as they said stuff like “I am you, you are me.” Today ‘neuro’ is the new robe of the modern monk.

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