Wait — are you suggesting that your brain affects your behavior?

One of my office-mates burst out laughing on Monday after receiving an email. The email was a forward, but it wasn’t intended to be funny. It was a brief news blurb about a recent study looking at teenage impulsiveness, entitled “Teens’ brains hold key to their impulsiveness.”

What’s funny about that? Well, where did the journalist think the key to impulsiveness was hidden — in teens’ kidneys? Many scientists puzzle over the fact that 150 years of biology have not driven out Creationism, but 150 years of psychology and neuroscience have been even less successful. Many people — probably most — still believe in mind/brain duality.

Philosophers began suggesting that all human behavior is caused by the physical body at least as early as Thomas Hobbes in the 1600s. A century and a half of psychology and neuroscience has found no evidence of an immaterial mind, and now the assumption that all behavior and thought is caused by the physical body underlies essentially all modern research. It’s true that nobody has proved that immaterial minds do not exist, but similarly nobody has ever proved the nonexistence of anything. It just seems very unlikely.

This leads to an interesting dichotomy between cognitive scientists and the general public. While journalists get very excited about studies that prove some particular behavior is related to some part of the brain, many cognitive scientists find such studies to be colossal wastes of time and money. It would be like a physicist publishing a study entitled “Silicon falls when dropped.” Maybe nobody ever tested to see whether silicon falls when dropped, but the outcome was never really in doubt.

This isn’t to say that the study I mentioned above wasn’t a useful study. I have no doubt that it was. Determining mechanistically what changes in what parts of the brain during development affect impulsiveness is very informative. The mere fact that the brain changes during development, and that this affects our behavior, is not.

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