Cui bono

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is a very interesting blog with articles and links relevant to what might be called popular neuroscience. As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, however, one of my pet peeves with respect to some popular (and even academic) neuroscience is what Peter Hacker calls the mereological fallacy–the ascription to people’s brains properties that really apply to people. For example, brains don’t think; people think. Brains don’t see; people see.

As described by Hacker, the mereological fallacy applies to psychological predicates–feeling, thinking, knowing, perceiving, etc. A related practice, and a very common one (or at least, I notice it all the time), is the tendency to assert that something is good for our brains when it would be more appropriate to state that it is good for us, and above is a example of what I mean. It’s a 4 minute TED talk on the benefits of playing a musical instrument, and you can see in the title that the benefits supposedly accrue to the brain. The talk goes through some fMRI and PET evidence that many brain regions are involved in playing music, that this large-scale activity exceeds what is seen in other activities such as drawing, that it is associated with changes in brain structure, etc. Those are interesting findings vis a vis the neural correlates of musicianship, but are they really benefits? As a patient / lay person / citizen / non-neuroscientist, who cares that playing music is associated with certain patterns of fMRI activity? Or with enlargement of the corpus callosum? The more relevant benefits cited in this talk principally involve improvements in subjects’ memory and executive functions. Now those are potentially important findings, which suggest real benefits to us as people (beyond the obvious ones of giving pleasure and relaxation to ourselves and those listening).

About Justin A. Sattin

I'm a vascular neurologist and residency program director. I created this blog in order to share some thoughts with my resident and other colleagues, and to foster my own learning as well.
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