Explaining the Brain–or Not?

Way back in November 2007 there appeared an article from Salon Magazine, titled I Feel Your Pain, by Gordy Slack. It’s about the discovery of “mirror neurons.” 

As the article’s lead put it, “New proof of ‘mirror neurons’ explains why we experience the grief and joy of others, and maybe why humans are altruistic.” 

In one sense, this is a case of the emperor’s clothes. But in another, there’s something to it.

Welcome to neuro-fill-in-the-blank. Neuro-management, neuro-leadership, neuro-everything that we think of as business. The rock star of the movement is, appropriately, David Rock. 

He is not, he’s careful to point out, a neuroscientist. In fact, he’s a pretty eclectic consultant, who does a lot in coaching and leadership, but who has also hit it pretty big with the neuro-thing.

Armed with articles like November’s Salon piece, I was prepared to react negatively to his most recent book, Your Brain at Work. Having started it, I find it curiously interesting. Here’s the story.

Why Neuro-Hooey is Partly Just That

Much of the neuro-excitement is phrased in terms like the Salon article: it suggests that greater knowledge of the brain in electro-chemical terms can “explain” things better. It can help us to “know” things we somehow didn’t “know before.” But most of all, as in that Salon quote, it supposedly helps explain “why.”

Why do we experience empathy? Why do we help some people, and leave others at the roadside? Why do our minds get overloaded? And so on.

This is one of the few situations in life where I find it useful to have studied philosophy. Aristotle nailed this one about twenty-three hundred and sixty years ago.

Aristotle said there were four kinds of causes, that is, explanations of how a thing came about. They are, in his terms: a material cause, a formal cause, an efficient cause, and a final cause. In my own sloppy formulation, here’s what he meant:

Material cause: Why is Jake so unobservant?   Because he’s a teenager.

Formal cause: Why do we find Two and a Half Men funny? Because it uses most of the rules of TV humor.

Efficient cause: Why is Alan on the floor? Because his brother Charlie hit him.

Formal cause: Why is Berta so caustic? Because that’s how they script maids on TV shows.


Most of the ‘why’ questions that neuro-management purports to answer are of the third type: efficient causes. Why do we feel empathy? Because “mirror neurons fire both when a person is in action, and when he or she observes someone else engaged in the same action,” to quote the Salon article.

If the other three ‘causes’ are hard for you to understand, it’s not because Aristotle was obtuse, or dumb; it’s because our culture has dumbed down the concept of ‘why’ into primarily efficient-cause-addicts.

Because of the mirror-neuron answer, one researcher claims, "We used to say, metaphorically, that ‘I can feel another’s pain.’ But now we know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain." [emphasis added]

Ah, now we know why. Because we know of mirror neurons. Got it.

Now let me point out the emperor’s clothes.

Efficient causes may be few in number—but they are infinite in the ways in which they can be expressed. Try these answers to “why do we feel empathy?”

a.    because mirror neurons fire both when a person is in action and…

b.    because strong feelings in others evoke strong feelings in us

c.    because we have a capacity for sensing others’ pain

d.    because our hearts reach out to others

e.    because common experiences unite us

f.     porque experiencias en comun parecen que unitarnos.

Who is to say one of these explanations is ‘better’ than another? Especially the last one, which we recognize as ‘merely a translation’ of the preceding explanation. But—aren’t they all just translations? Some use chemistry, some use poetry, some use metaphor. One uses Spanish.

The belief that one version of an efficient cause is better than another is nothing more than a conceit of the last few hundred years, in which the paradigm of physics has been crowned king of all knowledge forms. 

And the belief that we ‘know’ once a truth is phrased in neurological terms something that we didn’t ‘know’ before it was so phrased is just, well, ignorant.

Why Nonetheless Rock is On to Something

The above notwithstanding, a dear friend recommended Rock’s new book, so I bit the bullet. The first thing I noticed was a great irony: Rock begins his book with a metaphor.

“After several attempts to explain the brain in different ways, I decided to structure this book like a play.” He goes on to say the play has four Acts, each with several scenes, and an intermission. The acts and scenes consist of Paul and Emily, Mr. and Ms. Everyperson, going through the struggles of daily life.

It is ironic, I think, that a neuro-management thinker chooses to lead with a metaphor. And it continues. For example:

Think of the prefrontal cortex as a stage in a small theater where actors play a part…to understand an idea, you bring new actors on the stage…to make a decision, you hold actors on the stage and compare them to one another…to recall information, you bring an audience member up on the stage…to memorize information, you need to get actors off the stage and into the audience.

Again, the irony thing.

But enough cheap shots. In fact, the metaphors are really good. The book is really good. It deals intelligently, and practically, with some really vexing issues of importance to all of us, especially in this day and age. 

How do we deal with information overload? What price is paid when we multi-task? How can we collaborate? How can we generate insights? And how can we effect change?

I must say—though I’m only early on in the book—I’m impressed. Good stuff, well written, practical–and most importantly, well-conceived.

And, if I’m honest, I have to suspect that Rock could not have written those metaphors, nor organized the information, nor made it so practical, had he not done considerable research in the ‘language’ of neuro-etc.

So where do we net out on Aristotle vs. Rock? I still think anyone’s claims to the superiority of knowledge based on hard science are over-done; it’s symptomatic of a world that worships surgery over acupuncture, for example.

But there’s a lot to be said for translating work into various languages. When Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would smell the same,” it has a way of sticking with us better than the same concept as expressed by, say, Noam Chomsky. 

Opera may sound better in Italian than in German. And much of what we need to know about the mind works well in the language of neuro-whatever. Buy Rock’s book; it’s written in human, about being human, by a human.

Do We Learn From Our Mistakes? Or Not?

The NYTimes today reported yesterday on a Harvard Business School study of venture capital-backed entrepreneurs to test whether or not we learn from our mistakes. The results are confounding to many—including me.

Here’s the story. Several thousand VC-backed companies were studied over 17 years. First-timers had an aggregate success rate of 22% (success meaning going public).

The study is about those trying for a second time. Did the 78% who failed the first time learn from the experience, and do better the second time? Or worse? How did the 22% first-time winners fare—did they get lazy and decline? Or did they somehow do better the second time?

No less an expert than Gordon Moore, sainted ex-leader of Intel and the author of “Moore’s law,” said “You’re more valuable because of the experiences you’ve been through under failures.”

I’m with Gordon. But according to this data, we’re both wrong.

Those who succeeded the first time upped their success rate, to 34%. But those who failed the first time stayed mired in the muck, at 23%. So much for the myth of the gritty, plucky lads who pick themselves up and learn from their failures.

Apparently the data are not the problem: “the data are absolutely clear,” says Paul Gompers, one of the study’s authors. Yet it is still far from clear what the data mean.

As is often the case, data are one thing, and explanation another. Of course, the obvious explanation may be true: people just do not learn from adversity. This seems to be the study’s authors’ view—that the learn-from-failure ethos celebrated in Silicon Valley is really just anecdotal tales over-told.

Then again, maybe we actually do learn more from success than from failure. If so, perhaps that’s because of increased confidence resulting from one win.

Or, maybe only the really good people learn at all. And they can learn from experience alone, whether success or failure.

Or, perhaps these conclusions are only true of a certain type of person, characterized by some cross-cutting characteristic, such as risk tolerance. (Did you know height is correlated with IQ? True: short people score lower on the same IQ tests that tall people take. Of course, if you separate young children from the adults, or use age-normalized tests, the correlation goes away).

Or, to channel a recent 30 Rock storyline, maybe the first time winners are just very good-looking people who are actually horrible, but live in a bubble in which others let them pass. Hey, you never know!

Causal deductions are never fully provable—thanks, Dr. Hume. But progress can be made toward explanations.

So, what do you think’s going on?

And I’ll throw one idea into the ring, borrowed from Karl Popper, who developed the falsifiability theory of meaningfulness. A theory which is highly disprovable, but which remains standing, is superior to a hard-to-disprove theory.

Maybe people who fail have a much greater chance to learn. Why it is that they don’t still seems a mystery to me.