Why fMRI scans explain not one human behavior

A therapist once tried to explain to me why people in states of extreme anger aren’t able to reason: if you monitor the brain of someone in such a state on an fMRI scan, you’ll see the frontal cortex — where reasoning is ostensibly “housed” — go dark, shut down. An enraged person literally can’t reason, she solemnly intoned; the hardware that runs that particular piece of cognitive software is temporarily off-line.

But here’s the thing: that whole line of reasoning gets this topic completely backwards. We’ve known since Aristotle (hell, since Homer, writing about Achilles), that rage and other intense passions inhibit reasoning. No surprise there. And in fact, it’s only because we know this about people — only because we understand what a rational person looks like and does, and what an enraged person looks like and does — that we’re able to interpret the fMRI scan in the first place. We look at the activity in the brain of an angry person, notice that the amygdala is particularly active, and think, “Hey, maybe the amygdala has some relation to anger.” If the amygdala lit up when someone was smiling and chatting cheerfully, do you think anyone would’ve drawn the same connection? (I’m told by people better informed than I that the idea that complex processes like higher-order reasoning or anger can be tightly correlated to particular brain structures is mostly fantasy, but let’s just keep things simple.)

Far from substituting for the supposedly superficial “folk psychology” of ordinary life and traditional philosophy, the neuroscience of human behavior is entirely parasitic on it, because (as Roger Scruton argues in The Soul of the World, among many other works) the persons to whom that behavior belongs exist only on the surfaces of things, in the social world where we meet one another face to face and “I to I.”

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