The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To—Interview with Dean Burnett
Dr. Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist working as a tutor and lecturer based at Cardiff University’s Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences. His Guardian science blog, Brain Flapping, has been viewed over thirteen million times in the last three years—and now he has a new book out called The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To.
Unpredictable and entertaining, Burnett’s account gives us up-to-date research and the principles of neuroscience along the way. Looking at memory, intelligence, observation, social interaction, and personality, Burnett explains why memory is like a doting mother; tall people are more intelligent; criticism is more powerful than praise; and much more.
Kylie Sturgess: It’s an interesting start to the book—it has lots of apologies! Did the introduction really start at the beginning, or did you look over your body of work and look back on it and think, “Oh yes, I really have to apologize for everything now.”
Dean Burnett: No. I looked at them in chronological order, and in fact the introduction was the first thing I wrote. I know some people do write chapters and go back to the originals and reject their earlier stuff and that’s fine, but that’s not how I tend to do things. I haven’t written a book before, so I thought I’d stick to the logical structure.
I’m not the most confident in my writing in that—I think I can do it, just I’m not sure anyone else will like it. I feel like in advance I should apologize to anyone who doesn’t like it because they’ve spent money on it this time. When I’m doing blogs and things, obviously it’s just a few clicks of a search engine and that’s all you’ve lost. You can go a few minutes of your time perhaps and you can forget all about it, but when you’ve invested money in a book, I feel like I owe you something. If I let them down, then I feel like the first thing I should do is apologize!
Also I’m not the most self-aggrandizing of scientists. I’m aware that I’m a capable scientist, but I’m not one of these flashy lead researchers setting the field aflame and stuff. I am more a communicator and teacher. People who write books tend to be the big names—the big shots—and I’m not one of those. So someone [who] picks this up thinking I am—that I’m one of the leading minds in neuroscience—is going to be sorely disappointed.
Again, I feel like I should apologize for that! Various different things I feel needed an apology before they’d even happened. So that’s where that came from.
Sturgess: Did your blogging influence the book?
Burnett: More than influenced it, it came from it. In fact, I hadn’t had any plans to write the book. It’s one of those things of, “Maybe one day I’ll write a book,” and I hadn’t really gotten beyond that point in thinking, “I’ll need the time to write a book. I’ll need the interest of people to go and do it,” because I like writing. I really enjoy it, but I’m not so interested in things like “I have things that people need to hear!”
I don’t have one of those burning ambitions and desires. It’s something I just enjoy doing and seemed to have a bit of a knack for. I hadn’t planned to write a book because I thought, “Well, a blog, that’s what I’ll do.” Then this guy who said he was an agent got in touch and said “Well, who’s going to write the book?” I thought, “Do you think I could?” and it turns out he did. I assumed he was a scammer of some sort. “I can publish your book at just nine hundred dollars.”
I thought, “Yeah, that’s slick. You’re not a Nigerian banker this time, very good!” Though it turned out that he was legit, so he talked me through the process of suggesting a book—and I didn’t actually want to write a brain book. That’s something people tend to be surprised by because back from the earliest [point], I thought there were plenty of brain books out there.
The attitudes to these brain books I’ve read is always one of reverence and mystery and “Oh, it’s amazing. It’s powerful. It’s beyond our knowledge and we should fall down and worship at the feet of the brain!”—if that makes any sense because obviously the brain makes us do that. It’s kind of self-referential, and as someone who works with the brain, I don’t share that enthusiasm and this reverence for it because I know how ridiculous it can be.
I thought, “Well, I don’t like the brain. The brain’s quite rubbish in many ways.” Someone said, “Well, write about it then,” and I said, “I will,” and I did—and here we are with me talking about the book that I wrote on that angry challenge!
Sturgess: I was intrigued by many aspects of it. It seems the book is structured almost like a cook’s tour throughout the entire brain. I was intrigued by the many footnotes and the one about memory and the appetite study. It’s some intriguing research into people’s reaction to how much soup they get?
Burnett: See, I like stuff like that. I think that’s the sort of thing which people would appreciate science more with these quirky ingenious ways of studying things. When you see scientific media, it’s always the big flashy stuff. Images of distant galaxies. “We’ve mapped the universe. We’ve uncovered the reality of space,” and also in neuroscience it’s always the MRI machines or the huge bits of technology that gives us all these colorful blobs which mean things.
I do think there should be more room made for the smaller but the more ingenious and inspiringly crafty studies. For those who don’t know, it’s a study to see how memory affects appetite, so they fed people either three hundred millilitres or five hundred millilitres of soup. There was a very ingenious setup whereby the soup actually could be drained or refilled secretly in a tube that’s in the bottom of the bottle.
Some people who were told they had three hundred mils actually ended up eating five hundred, and those who were told they had five hundred actually ended up eating three hundred. The ones who thought they’d eaten more stayed full for longer…. The ones who thought they’d eaten less got hungrier faster even if they had eaten more. The memory was a much bigger drive of appetite than people realized.
I can imagine expert scientists, all PhDs, sat around this table trying to work up a plumbing system for soup in order to establish something about how the brain works! That’s the sort of thing that’s always more fascinating to me than the big, flashy, whiz-bang stuff.
Sturgess: I never expected a section on humor and the brain to include references to Nietzsche. He never really particularly stuck me as a funny fellow!
Burnett: I think I make that point too. Nietzsche, for all his wisdom, he couldn’t do a stand-up show. You go to an open-mic night and Nietzsche walks up and it’s going to be a tough sell!
Sturgess: I really enjoyed the comparison between the researcher Freud and the Wright Brothers. I thought that was a good comparison when people say, “Oh, why should we be continuing?” What are your thoughts?
Burnett: Yeah, it’s like the example that people in psychiatry and psychology still use Freud as the way things work. His ideas are just as accepted now as they were a hundred years ago. My perspective is they are interesting ideas, and they do have merit value, but like you said, the comparison is to the Wright Brothers and that they discovered how to achieve powered flight.
The principles they discovered are still used today, but we don’t use their airplane designs. They don’t say, “This is how an airplane should work.” We chose to do so, and it’s because we’ve moved on and discovered new things. There’s a place for Freud, but I don’t think like the others who are Freudian who think the ego, superego, and id are how the mind actually works.
There’s a lot more evidence out there now to say that’s not necessarily the case. There’re bits of that, but it’s not the whole story as some people seem to think it is.
Sturgess: I was also intrigued by the elements which attempted to figure out why some people are skeptics and some people are less skeptical of things. There was a study on the inferior temporal gyrus, of the brains of skeptics and believers and how we might respond to certain things. I hadn’t heard of that study before.
Burnett: I think there are a lot of studies more for sort of proof of principle rather than saying, “These studies show this and these studies show that.” Again, I like to see or show scientists trying to tackle these things which are so slippery and tenuous because again, I think I say in the actual text itself this study isn’t perfect by any means. Just a small sample size and also when you put someone in an MRI machine, you ask them to think of superstitious things, then that’s not necessarily a clear-cut example of someone being superstitious.
It’s a good way to show that we’ve all got to start somewhere. This is a good way to start looking at these sorts of things. Maybe people can build on this now and move it into more of the research and areas which are a bit more inclusive, but it does suggest that there is some difference in activity and behavior of the brains of people who are more—let’s be generous and say open-minded—and those that are a bit more skeptical.
Again, the results did again, it’s all open implication. They did sort of say that those who are not as skeptical are perhaps lacking in something in a certain, I’ve got to be as diplomatic as possible here because I don’t like to just go straight in and say, “You’re all idiots.” I don’t dare to!
Sturgess: In chapter seven when you’re talking about empathy, you write about how as long as we don’t do something stupid like put the most pampered people in charge of running the countries, we should be okay… but it seems we tend to do that anyway?
Burnett: It seems to be a sort of by-product of democracy meeting with capitalism in that you need money in order to achieve public office these days, and people with the most money are by and large the most pampered because a lot of studies have shown that empathy is possible between two people but that you’re far less likely or able to empathize with someone who is suffering or in an intense situation if you yourself are not in that situation or in a similarly unpleasant environment, so you don’t really care.
If you’re on a beach drinking delicious cocktails on your four week holiday, that’s a very nice sensation. You see someone walk past with a broken leg then you might think, “Poor thing,” but you won’t give up your holiday to go and help them. It’s a strange neurological quirk that we have that we tend to empathize more with people showing behaviors and sensations that we can relate to at the moment.
As a result, you get these people who have everything. People who haven’t really worked much in their lives or haven’t had to struggle or strive for anything or have never gone without, and they see these people who are on the bread lines, starving, and they’re not able to get ahead in life, and they don’t care because they feel like, “Well, I’ve managed it and so should they.”
They genuinely can’t rationalize a situation whereby these people might be in a situation which is not of their doing. They go, “Well, I’ve managed it, why don’t they manage it too? These people who aren’t working hard or aren’t earning money, it’s entirely their own fault. I don’t care about them,” and it becomes harder to do so.
Yes, it’s an unpleasant facet of how humans behave but one that seems to be quite stubborn and given how we modeled our society it’s not one that is without consequences.
Sturgess: Certainly I hope it’s kept in mind for people to do their research into political candidates next time they vote.
Burnett: Not that there are any particularly good ones at the moment, but there you go!
Sturgess: Overall, have people responded to the book? I thought, “This must have taken a tremendous amount of research….”
Burnett: I’ve only had good feedback so far, but with the caveat of these are the people who are willing to talk to me about it, so I don’t know. There might be a big section of society that actually despises it and burns every copy they can get their hands on.
Sturgess: They just look at the apologies at the beginning and say, “Well, at least he apologized!”
Burnett: As long as they’re paying for these copies and they do it, I’m okay either way. The book is entirely flammable for this reason!
Dean Burnett’s The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To is available in bookstores and online.