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on July 12, 2013
This book is a healthy antidote to some of the exuberance over the use of brain science in practical applications. The field of cognitive neuroscience (the study of the way the human brain implements thinking) is young. The field has learned a lot in the past few decades about how the brain works. However, there are some good reasons to be skeptical about how easily this work translates into the public sphere. This book does a solid job of laying out some of the key issues about why people should be skeptical.

That said, I have a few concerns about the book. I don't think it introduces brain imaging techniques in a way that someone without a background in the field is really going to get. I think the authors could have gone through the techniques at a more leisurely pace. The book is quite short as it is. In addition, I found the discussions of neuromarketing and applications of neuroscience to law to be more compelling than the discussion of the implications of brain research for theories of free will.

If you want a quick introduction to reasons why you should treat practical applications of neuroscience with a grain of salt, then this book will be a good read for you.
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on August 1, 2013
Drs Satel and Lilienfeld, two thought leaders in the mental health field, have produced a terrific book on a subject of high importance. We all see articles and blogs and scientific papers everywhere we look signaling that advanced technologies in the neurosciences (e.g., brain scans) are revolutionizing our understanding of the human mind, consciousness, and even soul. There is no question such technologies and perspectives provide invaluable scientific advances, but this book provides a refreshing and balanced perspective that they are not yet the answer to all mysteries and may never be. This is a highly readable, smart, and beautifully written treatise. Despite the somewhat dramatic title, the narrative here is not extreme. The authors provide a careful and rationale review of the evidence, and the limitations inherent in it. This book offers a valuable reset to the reductionistic notions that are sweeping across the research approach of many fields of human behavior.

This book is highly accessible, though not "dumbed down" and it should be of interest to active scientists and lay readers alike. It is a terrific entree to the intersecting fields of neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry. I highly recommend it!
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on June 29, 2013
Wow, this was an excellent read. Sally Satel wrote a book, that was quite the counterbalance to the pop-neuroscience audiobooks I've listened to over the years.

Satel, isn't by any means against the huge steps-forward in brain imaging and neuroscience, but she is opposed to the overeager popularizes who jump to hasty conclusions, and the media swallowing up the hype and spreading nonsense. She knows that this all could later discredit what is an important science. Neuroscience is very young, and many scientist seem all to eager to get rid of the whole psychological part of the picture, neglecting the fact that humans have a mind. Satel seemed against to the religious and platonic notion of the non-physical soul, but believes instead, that the mind comes forth from the brain. Yet still mental states are not identical to the physical brain states. Both need to be considered important, to better understand human behavior and how we change.

Concerning brain imaging, just because a part of the brain lights up, when we look at a picture of Bill Clinton for example, doesn't conclusively show how we feel about him. Lets say the amygdala shows more activity, then the researcher may say that Clinton stirs fear in us. The problem is though the amygdala does indeed light up when one is afraid, it also lights up in several other occasions, it could mean a number of things. It doesn't just serve one function, but many, so a speculative interpretation is required. Also, several part of the brain will light up in any given moment, all of which can indicate different things, muddying up the water further.

Satel, shows some of the many problems in the attempts the show the signature of a lie in the brain, and why lie detector test often fail.
She shows the how dangerous David Eaglemen's ideas are in "Incognito" concerning how the whole justice system should be changed, since all crime is caused by malfunctioning brains.
She challenges the new wave of scientist who negate our having the freedom to do otherwise then we do, showing how there is just not enough evidence to be dogmatic determinist.
She argued against those who say teens aren't to be held responsible for murder, because their brain were still developing. Yeah, she had some excellent reflections on all of these things.

Concerning all the claims that addiction is a disease, Sally Satel, shared an interesting study done during the 1970s, when opium and high grade heroine flooded southern Asia. It was estimated that at least 50% of all the men serving in the army, ending up trying one of these drugs during the Vietnam war. It was believed that between 10-25% became addicted and deaths from overdoses begun to sore. The GI Addiction epidemic became a big deal and there was lots of fear that once the soldiers returned home, the the addiction would continue (for once an addict, always an addict). So Richard Nixon demanded drug testing to be done and made it so no one could return to the States unless they passed. If they failed the test, they would have to enter an army sponsored rehab until clean. Once this was announced, almost everyone just stopped using the drugs. And a 3 year study done on them only 12% relapsed briefly by the end of the 3 year follow up. This study undercuts the "once an addict, always an addict" mantra and the belief that addiction is a chronic brain disease. If it is, then how is it that 88% of the veterans who were strongly addicted to a hard drug, managed to just stop cold turkey and never relapse again? There were lots of motivating factors, for one in Asia the drugs were cheap and helped them deal with the stress of war and once they learned they couldn't come back home unless they were clean, they found the motivation to stop. Once back in the states, the fear of arrest, the high price of heroine and the shady drug culture didn't seem worth the risk, so most just transitioned back into ordinary life. This shows that in many ways the disease model ultimately fails. Lets says 50 percent of the solders got terminal cancer while in Vietnam, and the insensitive president said "You can't return back home until you are cancer free" then guess what, none of those with cancer would have come home, they couldn't have just made the decision not to have cancer. See how there is a difference? See how addiction being a disease is not quite accurate? Drugs do alter the brain, causing intense cravings, but there are other psychological factors involved. The Disease model has been pushed to far, one needs a holistic approach.
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on June 16, 2013
This work, well-written and engaging for virtually any audience, treats the topic of neuroscience with great respect. At the same time, however, it strikes a cautionary note with regard to understanding the current state of this important science, and the sometimes overreaching elements who would proffer it as a panacea of knowledge for all things behavioral, biological, metaphysical, and political. Most striking about this area is not necessarily the technology described, nor even the inevitable and important increases in knowledge, but the willingness of the human interlocutor or "expert" to intervene and offer (sometimes insisting on) an interpretation of the science that simply isn't supportable. If you think you're more than your brain -- or what another human being interprets regarding a one-shot snapshot scan of your brain-- then this is the book for you. It is a valuable addition to the growing library of neuroscience, policy, freewill, and personal liberty.
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on April 30, 2014
A good corrective to the much hyped, and even over hyped, promises made by some for the future found in neuroscience. It looks at the hit-or-miss applications of neurobiology in advertising, law, addiction, and ethics, and takes on the occasions when proponents of reductionist thought wander into unfounded statements that have more to do with philosophical or even metaphysical presuppositions. They also point out the flaws in the current technology and the probabilities of those being overcome.
Many of the criticisms of the book seem to rely upon attacks upon Dr Satel's membership in the American Enterprise Institute, and a tendency to lump all critiques of neuroscience, and indeed any science, into the, ill defined, "post-modernist" or "neo-marixst" camps. This is unfortunate, and lazy. It is also not unexpected. Any deviation from the, fairly narrow, accepted dogmas of any field are seen as betrayals and related to accordingly. In addition, the fairly philosophically, not to mention historically, unsophisticated takes many of the critics have only underscores just how weak their position is.
What, stopped me from scoring the book with a full five stars, is that Statel and Lilianfeld do not stop themselves from occasionally indulging to far in their own speculative philosophizing
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on March 6, 2014
I began reading this book with some trepidation having experienced the brain-numbing convolution which can come from books asking you to think about how you think. No need to worry, though. Reading "Brainwashed" numbed my brain more by boredom than by convolution.

Here's why:

Though a brief mention was made of the "hard problem" of consciousness (i.e., how do subjective experiences such as taste, color, pain, etc. arise solely from the physical processes of neurons firing in the brain), this most essential aspect of the brain --- consciousness and how it arises and what it is --- is pretty much ignored in this book. Instead, the focus is on to what extent physical processes in, and the mechanics of, the brain, as revealed by our super-duper, miracle machines like the fMRI, can tell us about why we do what we do, especially about whether we have "free will" when we do what we do.

And it's in their discussion of those issues when I became as disappointed as I was bored.

First, there's not even a nod to the possibility that the brain might involve quantum mechanical processes. Though not yet widely accepted, serious scientists like Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Kauffman believe that it does. So the current state of the arguments for and against that possibility would have been very enlightening, ESPECIALLY because Kauffman has argued that, if it does, there would be a physical rationale behind the argument that human beings have what he calls "true free will." And, as I mentioned, the issue of free will is front and center in this book. So their lapse in mentioning this possibility raises doubts about their competence on the issues involved.

Second, speaking of competence, when they do get the perfect opportunity to question whether brain mechanics alone (rather than a more holistic approach) can determine if a certain group in society is competent (specifically, the group known as adolescents), they punt. They do a fine job examining the mechanics of adolescent brains mentioning the role of myelin on brain axons and "wiring" in the pre-frontal cortex. But they then unquestioningy accept the view that those mechanics PROVE adolescents are "incompetent." Well, actually, even though that's the widely accepted view (understandable, in large part, for reasons unrelated to anything having to do with science), there are well-respected scientists who strongly disagree with this position. Among them is Dr. Robert Epstein who's written a widely admired book called, "The Case Against Adolescence" along with a companion article titled, "The Myth Of The Teen Brain" where he posits exactly the same arguments which the authors in this book are allegedly otherwise making but miserably fail to do so in this instance.

Finally, the biggest focus in this book is on the fear that, by denying the existence of free will, criminals will somehow or another not be held to account for their crimes. After all, if nature/nurture "made me do it" how can you "blame" the criminal. There's actually a pretty good discussion about the issues involved. But then it gets ugly.

I have no problem with the position that nature/nurture or not, crimes can not and must not go unpunished. What I do have a problem with is the virtual wallowing in victimhood and vengeance which these authors seem to favor. To them, a victim of a crime can not be "respected" or "honored" (their words) unless the victimizer is soundly thrashed. Moroever, society, they argue, would be ill-served by in any way softening the retributive (nice word for vengeful) part of the criminal justice system.

Here, I couldn't disagree more strongly. Among the most uplifting stories about the human condition which I can think of involve those where victims and/or their loved ones have forgiven the victimizers. And for me, if there's anything which a person familiar with the human brain should be concerned about, it's that we should be encouraging the better, not the worst, aspects of human nature. Maybe then there'd be fewer victims and victimizers.
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on September 17, 2014
“Fifty Shades of Gray Matter,” was the first title Sally Satel wanted but she had to go with “Brainwashed. The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.”

The book has six chapters and an epilogue:

1. This Is Your Brain on Ahmadinejad: Or What is Brain Imaging?

2. The Buyologist Is In: The Rise of Neuromarketing

3. Addiction and the Brain-Disease Fallacy

4. The Telltale Brain: Neuroscience and Deception

5. My Amygdala Made Me Do It: The Trials of Neurolaw

6. The Future of Blame: Neuroscience and Moral Responsibility

Epilogue: Mind over Gray Matter

Satel and her co-author Scott O. Lilienfeld discuss the stunning progress in neuroscience and its implications for society, especially through the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that takes pictures of the brain in action.

The authors do not aim to critique science and the technology of brain scans. Rather Satel and Lilienfeld sound a warning bell that we are witnessing premature applications of these seductive, techno-color images of the brain that promise to help diagnose drug addicts, understand the influence of neurological damage on criminal responsibility, and predict consumers’ buying habits, to name only a few topics discussed in this concise, elegantly written book.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists are alert to this warning and know we are in danger of losing the mind to this age of neurocentrism.
For example, in his new book, The Spark: The Science of Human Development. Jerome Kagan (1) reviews in detail the many problems using blood flow measures in the brain to understand emotions:

…many events evoke a brief feeling that lasts about a second and then disappears. But there is little change in blood flow to a brain site during the initial second. The peak in the blood flow signal occurs about sic second after the event occurred and therefore, five seconds after the feeling may have vanished. The blood flow measure reflects a cascade of phenomena that include association to the event, a possible feeling, and perhaps a private query as to why the scientist presented that particular stimulus.

The rigor of psychological studies of the mind cited in Kagan’s book often take a back seat to the fMRI scans which measure brain activity by noting associated changes in blood flow. Since cerebral blood flow and neuron activity are correlated, when an area of the brain is in use, blood flows to the region also increases. We are flooded with observations of brain parts lighting up. There are no shortages of interpretations when certain regions of the brain glow --- even though we know that brain regions have millions of interconnections, we sometimes confuse the meaning of excitatory and inhibitory functions on brain sites, and that the better people become at a skill, the less hard the brain appears to work.

Yet this neuromania pervades the culture, supplying consumers craving certainty the illusion of simple black-and-white answers to their many shades of gray psychic distress.

For example, the other day I watched the Dr. Oz Show, a daily television program focusing on medical issues and personal health launched by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions and Sony Pictures. Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiac surgeon, and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University. I watched Dr. Oz interview child and adult psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen on the topic: “Your Brain: Up Close and Personal.” Dr. Amen runs the many national outlets called Amen Clinics (sounds religious) in Newport Beach, California; San Francisco, California; Bellevue, Washington; Reston, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and New York, NY.

According to Satel and Lilienfeld:

…Daniel Amen, oversees an empire that includes book publishing, television shows, and a line of nutritional supplements. Single photon emission computer tomography, SPECT, a nuclear-imaging technique that measure blood flow, is the type of scan favored by Amen. His clinics charge over three thousand dollars for an assessment…he grossed over 20 million in 2011…There is near universal agreement among psychologists and psychiatrists that Amen’s scans cannot diagnose mental illness.

In another chapter, Satel and Lilienfeld focus on neuromarketing --- a field with a long history. Using consumer motivational research, depth psychology and subliminal tactics to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products was the theme of Vance Packard’s (I read it in high school) classic book on advertising, “The Hidden Persuaders,” published in 1957. Now, enter the fMRI and marketing. Some neuromarketers sell the idea that focus groups are not a reliable means to find out what consumers like or what they are going to buy. Instead of asking people about their buying preferences, neuromarketers bypass the conscious mind and go straight to analyzing fMRI’s of consumers to determine both their unconscious desires and decision making processes.

Satel’s specialty is treating drug addicts. She is frustrated with the accepted definition of addiction as a chronic and relapsing brain disease. To treat drug addicts, Satel reminds us, we must help them change their behavior and cravings for drugs. To do this, we appeal to their desire and motivation for change. To call something a disease implies there is a medication to stop the disease process. There is no such medication for drug addicts --- and for many other mental maladies. Drug addicts sometimes respond to incentives to change. People with disease are not able to reverse their disease voluntarily. To treat drug addicts, we have to understand minds.

In their last chapter, Satel and Lilienfeld turn their attention to neuroscience and moral responsibility. They wonder if advances in neuroscience bring us closer to solving the age-old dilemma of how much of our behavior is determined and how much is the result of our free will. As Satel and Lilienfeld note, the proper use of reason is to recognize reason’s limitations. Neuroscience does not bring us closer to understanding this predicament.

We do have a choice about learning from neuroscience and accepting the limits of our new technology, without throwing out our minds with the brain water. We remain mystified about how the water of the brain becomes the wine of self-consciousness. Our limits spring from the mystery of the generation of consciousness, the basic experience of humans on which our social and personal relationships rest. We do not understand how consciousness is produced, nor do we understand its full potential.

I believe I made a free choice to read Satel and Lilienfield’s superb book, but maybe the writer Issac Bashevis Singer is on to something when he says:

We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.


(1) Kagan, Jerome. The Human Spark. The Science of Human Development. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

by Steven J. Ceresnie, Ph.D.
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on March 11, 2015
This is an excellent book for anyone looking to understand the burgeoning war over the limitations of MRI, PET and other brain scans. Should criminal defendants be able to introduce MRIs into court and get off on grounds that "my brain made me do it"? Can neuroscience unlock the secrets of the consumer's mind, giving businesses that pay for research based on MRIs an enormous market edge? Can addicts rightfully claim that addiction changed the chemistry of their brains, rendering them little more than helpless bystanders of their own "disease"? Does neuroscience, finally, as some scientists claim, threaten the very concept of free will? With wit and care, Satel and Lilienfeld subject the growing field of neuroscience to their own multilayered imaging. The potential of neuroscience is enormous, they write -- but so is the danger when the scans are taken out of the lab and used by hucksters to advance personal agendas.
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on April 28, 2014
There's a lot to like about this book, but I will highlight two points that I think are most important. First, the authors provide a sobering warning - with evidence, of course - of how some neuroimaging findings have been greatly overinterpreted. This not only leads to inappropriate conclusion, but it also decreases the likelihood of science/us ever understanding the phenomenon of interest. Another important merit of this book is that it challenges us to evaluate critically the social, environmental, and structural factors that may mediate and modulate behavior rather than simply looking to see whether one brain region is more active than another.
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on September 30, 2013
Brainwashed provides an interesting, and mostly balanced, critique of "pop" neuroscience fields that are becoming widespread but aren't entirely based on solid scientific evidence. The book is an easy read and does a reasonably good job of explaining the science behind each issue.
While the overall message of the book is thought provoking and relevant, I think the delivery falls short in some chapters.

The book is divided into 6 chapters, each focusing on a different area of neuroscience abuse. Each has the same prevailing theme: current technology isn't able to determine the state of a human mind using only "brain images" and any field/company/expert claiming to do so is probably misusing/misinterpreting the data.

Chapter 1 introduces the brain imaging techniques that form the basis of the discussion later in the book. The explanations of each technique are fairly easy for anyone to understand, although very brief. This chapter also begins to point out the limitations of each technique and explains how they're misinterpreted or misused in fields that are discussed later in the book.

Chapter 2 focuses on the "rise of neuromarketing". Neuromarketers claim they can use brain imaging to determine the intent of consumers and the effectiveness of advertisements. According to the authors, many of these marketing claims and techniques aren't supported by scientific fact.

Chapter 3 examines the role of neuroscience in the treatment of addiction. Specifically, it's focused on the incorrect classification of addiction as a brain disease. This is one of the chapters where the author's message seems to move away from the limitations of brain imaging.

Chapter 4 explores how brain imaging techniques are used as "lie detectors". As in chapter 2, the authors contend that many techniques used and claims made in this field aren't supported by scientific fact.

Chapter 5, "The Trials of Neurolaw", looks into this emerging field. Using brain imaging as evidence in criminal trials is said to have the same limitations as neuromarketing and lie detecting. There isn't enough scientific evidence to link imaging results to human emotions or motivations.

Chapter 6 considers different levels of determinism and how much choice we actually have in determining our actions. I thought this was one of the weaker chapters in the book as it focused more on philosophical arguments than the limitations of science.

Overall, I found the premise of the book to be thought provoking and very relevant considering the prevalence of neuroscience in the media. I think it's always healthy to be skeptical of grandiose claims and this book provides plenty of evidence to discredit such claims. Unfortunately, I think it may be easy for some to misinterpret the message of the book and wrongly discredit the science being discussed. It's important to note that the problem, as presented in this book, with fields like neuromarketing and neurolaw is not that the science behind fMRI etc is wrong, but that it's being misused and misrepresented. I think the authors do a fairly good job of separating the misrepresentation from flaws in science, but there's still room for people to take away a different message, as I've seen on some websites.

My least favorite sections of the book were in chapter 3 and 6, focusing on addiction and free will respectively. In both of these chapters, the authors tend to diverge from offering strictly scientific evidence in their critiques of "pop" neuroscience. Especially in chapter 6, which seems to be more of a philosophical argument than a discussion of the limitations of neuroscience and the misuse of its data.

Despite some shortcomings, I found Brainwashed to be an interesting and easy read that kept me thinking about it for a while after I finished it. I'd recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in the subject.
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