Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel, Scott O. Lilienfeld |, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

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by Sally Satel, Scott O. Lilienfeld

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In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind, revealing the sources of our deepest desires, intentions, and fears. As renowned psychiatrist and scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld demonstrate in Brainwashed, however, the explanatory power of brain scans in particular and neuroscience


In recent years, the advent of MRI technology seems to have unlocked the secrets of the human mind, revealing the sources of our deepest desires, intentions, and fears. As renowned psychiatrist and scholar Sally Satel and psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld demonstrate in Brainwashed, however, the explanatory power of brain scans in particular and neuroscience more generally has been vastly overestimated. Although acknowledging its tremendous potential, the authors argue that the overzealous application of the burgeoning field of brain science has put innocent people in jail, prevented addicts from healing themselves, and undermined notions of free will and responsibility.

A provocative challenge to the use and abuse of a seductive science, Brainwashed offers an essential corrective to determinist explanations of human behavior.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Wall Street Journal
“In their concise and well-researched book, [Satel and Lilienfeld] offer a reasonable and eloquent critique of this fashionable delusion, chiding the premature or unnecessary application of brain science to commerce, psychiatry, the law and ethics…. In a book that uses 'mindless' accusatively in the subtitle, you might expect an excitable series of attacks on purveyors of what's variously called neurohype, neurohubris and neurobollocks. But more often than not Dr. Satel and Mr. Lilienfeld stay fair and levelheaded. Good thing, because this is a topic that requires circumspection on all sides.”

New York Times
“Dr. Satel and Dr. Lilienfeld offer a methodical critique of this oversimplified neuro-nonsense, convincingly arguing that in many ways the M.R.I.’s of today are simply the phrenology heads of yesteryear, laughably primitive attempts to wrangle human character and behavior into tractable form.”

“In this volume, these two prolific authors combine their talents to provocatively call for caution concerning many of the promises associated with neuroscience…A very readable, even entertaining, commentary on how neuroscience is beginning to change the world…A welcome reminder of the never-ending need for healthy skepticism as we encounter the various creative endeavors that so often accompany emerging scientific developments.”

The National Review
“[An] incisive and clearly written book…if you want to know where and why the neuroscientific used-car salesmen are wrong, if you want to arm yourself against their preposterous overselling, read this book.”

David Brooks, New York Times
"[A] compelling and highly readable book."

“A well-informed attack on the extravagances of “neurocentrist” thought.”

The New Scientist
“The intrepid outsider needs expert guidance through this rocky terrain – and there's no better place to start than Brainwashed by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Satel, a practising psychiatrist, and Lilienfeld, a clinical psychologist, are terrific sherpas. They are clear-sighted, considered and forgiving of the novice's ignorance”

Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
“A smart and sometimes devastating critique of ‘neurobollocks’… this book is a brisk read, but a good one -- and, I would argue, an important one.”

“Satel and Lilienfeld provide an engaging overview of the technical and conceptual factors that complicate the interpretation of brain scans obtained by functional magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques…. Brainwashed offers much to bolster popular understanding of what brain imaging can and cannot achieve.”

Huffington Post
"[An] important new book.... Brainwashed is not an anti-neuroscience book by any means. Indeed, the authors celebrate the new insights into human thought and behavior that brain studies have yielded. But the book does take a hard stand against the prevailing neurocentrism, and aims to restore some balance to our understanding of human fallibility, including drug and alcohol addiction."

BBC Focus
"In a witty but no-hold-barred book, the authors skewer the ridiculous claims of those who tell us that brain imaging can unlock the secrets of the mind.... Brainwashed explains why we must be skeptical and accept that, if anything, brain research has revealed just how much further we have to go."

Gary Marcus,
"The book does a terrific job of explaining where and how savvy readers should be skeptical."

"Well-written and remarkably balanced…. Should you buy it?... For new readers, or as a gift, it would be fantastic."

“Offers an availing expose on the recklessly radical conclusions of Naïve Neuroscience and what must be addressed to maintain a comprehensive, sensible and constrained Modern Neuroscience.”

"A skeptical but fair-minded review of the field that carefully distinguishes between wild hopes and actual accomplishments."

“[A] lucid new book”

The Scientist
Brainwashed is a reasoned, humane addition to the growing ‘neuroskeptic’ bookshelf.”

Booklist, Starred Review
"[A] fascinating book."

Library Journal
“An accessible entry point to important and timely neuroethical discussions. Above all, readers will learn why they should turn a critical eye to reports that begin, ‘Brain scans show…’”

Kirkus Reviews
“A valuable contribution to the neuroscience bookshelf.”

Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
“This thoughtful, provocative book provides a needed counterbalance to the arrogant neuromythology that purports to explain all of human behavior through brain imaging. It makes a strong moral argument that we are, ultimately, creatures of choice who can exercise will; it grapples boldly with a science that has sometimes threatened our understanding of what it is to be human.”

Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart
“Science develops new tools that have promise for illuminating age-old questions, and those new tools are then misused or oversold until expectations are finally reconciled with reality. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfield tell the story of neuroscience’s real and illusory contribution to goals that range from treating addiction and detecting lies to mapping the neural underpinnings of morality. It is a daunting topic, but Brainwashed somehow manages to blend the authors’ mastery of their subject with compulsive readability.”

Jeffrey Rosen, Professor of Law, George Washington University and Legal Affairs Editor, The New Republic
Brainwashed challenges the much-hyped claim that neuroscience will transform everything from marketing to the legal system to our ideas of blameworthiness and free will. Satel and Lilienfeld bring much needed skeptical intelligence to this field, giving neuroscience its due while recognizing its limitations. This is an invaluable contribution to one of our most contested debates about the ability of science to transform society.”

Peter D. Kramer, author of Against Depression
“An authoritative, fascinating argument for the centrality of mind in what, doubtless prematurely, has been called the era of the brain.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“Neuroscience is an exhilarating frontier of knowledge, but many of its champions have gotten carried away. This book shows how attempts to explain the human condition by pointing to crude blotches of brain activity may be superficially appealing but are ultimately unsatisfying. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld are not dualists, romantics, mystics, or luddites. Their case for understanding the mind at multiple levels of analysis will resonate with thoughtful psychologists and biologists, and they make that case lucidly, expertly, and entertainingly. Anyone who is interested in the brain—and who isn’t?—will be enlightened by this lively yet judicious critique.”

Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works
“In this smart, provocative and very accessible book, Satel and Lilienfeld are not out to bury neuroscience; they are here to save it—to rescue it from those who have wildly exaggerated its practical and theoretical benefits. Some of this book is very funny, as when they review the dubious history of neuromarketing and neuropolitics, and some of it is dead serious, as in their discussion of how the abuse of neuroscience distorts criminal law and the treatment of addicts. Brainwashed is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the use and abuse of one of the most important scientific developments of our time.”

Hal Pashler, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego
Brainwashed provides an engaging and wonderfully lucid tour of the many areas in which the progress and applications of neuroscience are currently being overstated and oversold. Some of the hyping of neuroscience appears fairly harmless, but more than a little of it carries potential for real damage—especially when it promotes erroneous ideas about addiction and criminal behavior. The book combines clearheaded analysis with telling examples and anecdotes, making it a pleasure to read.”

Raymond Tallis, author of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity
“There is a widespread belief that brain science is the key to understanding humanity and that imaging will X-ray our minds, revealing why we buy things and whether we are telling the truth and answering questions about addiction, criminal responsibility, and free will. Brainwashed is a beautifully written, lucid dissection of these exaggerated claims, informed by a profound knowledge of current neuroscience. It is essential reading for anyone who wants a balanced assessment of what neuroscience can and cannot tell us about ourselves.”

Dr. Steven E. Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
“Satel and Lilienfeld have produced a remarkably clear and important discussion of what today’s brain science can and cannot deliver for society. As a neuroscientist, I confess that I also enjoyed their persuasive skewering of hucksters whose misuse of technology in the courtroom and elsewhere is potentially damaging not only to justice but also to the public understanding of science.”

Library Journal
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was developed in the 1990s, introducing a way to look inside people's brains as they are thinking and feeling. Authors Satel (psychiatry, Yale Univ.) and Lilienfeld (psychology, Emory Univ.), a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, respectively, argue against the use of brain scans as the basis for marketing efforts, addiction treatment, lie detection, and decisions in criminal trials. Contrary to messages from naive media, neuroentrepreneurs, and zealous neuroscientists, the authors explain how particular mental states cannot be pinned directly onto active brain regions. They assert that a comprehensive understanding of behavior requires consideration of not only brain activity but also psychological, social, and cultural influences. In the final chapter, the authors discuss how a brain-centered view of behavior threatens concepts of free will, moral responsibility, and retribution for wrongdoing. VERDICT The authors' arguments may not fully convince all readers. Nevertheless, the book serves as an accessible entry point to important and timely neuroethical discussions. Above all, readers will learn why they should turn a critical eye to reports that begin, "Brain scans show…."—Katherine G. Akers, Emory Univ. Libs, Atlanta
Kirkus Reviews
Psychiatrist Satel (Yale Univ. School of Medicine; When Altruism Isn't Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors, 2009, etc.) and psychologist Lilienfeld (Psychology/Emory Univ.; co-editor: Case Studies in Clinical Psychology, 2013, etc.) take up the cudgels against what they call "neurocentrism." The authors debunk the proliferation of disciplines (e.g., "neurolaw," "neuropolitics" and "neurotheology") that have recently spawned, rejecting "the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain." In their view, this approach is not only facile but mechanistic, and it overlooks the cultural and psychological determinants of human behavior and dismisses the notion of free will. The authors warn that this has crucial implications for the prosecution of crime. In the future, if brain scans are deemed sufficient to determine the predilection to violence, this raises the specter of preventative detention and calls into question criminal law and the relevance of premeditation. Satel and Lilienfeld provide an overview of the development of brain scans over the past 100 years, explaining why the inference that modern scanning devices such as the fMRI can reveal consumer preferences is exaggerated. What is shown is the activation of areas in the brain; the rest is pure inference. The authors also question the brain-disease model of addiction, citing the experience of soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam but routinely detoxed in order to be discharged. They explain that their purpose is not to critique the exciting technological advances of neuroscience but rather their misapplication, and they take exception to the "assumption that the brain is the only important level of analysis for understanding human behavior, and that the mind--the psychological products of brain activity--is more or less expendable." A valuable contribution to the neuroscience bookshelf.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Sally Satel is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a lecturer at Yale University School of Medicine, and a practicing psychiatrist. The author of PC, M.D., she holds an MD from Brown University and completed her residency in psychiatry at Yale University. Satel lives in Washington, DC.

Scott O. Lilienfeld is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Emory University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia

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Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reassures you that you are not a computer and that human choice still triumphs over neurodeterminism and neuromarketing. A must-read to get through all the dreck coming from the other side, the people that want to use your brain to sell you more stuff that you don't need. You are more than the bumps on your head or the flashing amygdala of your brain.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago