That’s not how the brain works!


I’m watching this video of Ben Carson’s recent speech, and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I know everyone is aghast at his trivializing of the slave trade, and that’s the more important example of negligent ignorance to focus on, but good grief, I was trained as a neuroscientist, and his remarks about the brain are appalling.

It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate, and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there; it doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it. But that’s what your brain is capable of. It can process more than 2 million bits of information per second. You can’t overload it. Have you ever heard people say, “Don’t do all that, you’ll overload your brain.” You can’t overload the human brain. If you learned one new fact every second, it would take you more than 3 million years to challenge the capacity of your brain.

None of that is true! Not one bit of it! I can’t imagine anyone who learned the slightest bit of neurobiology in the 20th century believing any of that. The brain throws away most of its sensory input. We don’t know what the “storage capacity” (and it’s fundamentally wrong to think of it that way, as if it’s a flash drive) of the brain is, and we don’t know the storage requirement of a “fact”, so that’s just a bullshit estimation.

Do you even need to know anything to be a brain surgeon? Somebody wack him upside the head with a copy of Kandel and tell him to start reading this stuff he pretends to know.

Apparently, he’s been reciting this pseudoscientific claptrap for years, in his books and speeches before religious groups, but we all know that anybody who read or listened to that stuff wasn’t competent to criticize his bad science.

Comments

  1. microraptor says

    Well, it’s not as if we didn’t already know Ben has a hole in his head.

  2. blf says

    (Partial cross-posting from Discuss Political Madness…)

    Why you should NOT let Ben Carson drill a hole in your head (“The US politician has claimed he could stick electrodes in your brain and have you recite verbatim a book you read 60 years ago. In no way is this true”). The author (Dean Burnett) usually writes a snarky science-based column (“Brain Flapping“, e.g., How internet porn caused the rise of Donald Trump), but in this case he is incandescent, explaining “if you’re sceptical that I’d go to the extent of reading an entire PhD thesis just to flesh out a topical article, I can assure you I have indeed read it. And wrote it. IT WAS MY PHD! For the first time since starting this often-farcical semi-satirical science blog, I can legitimately quote my own published research, because when it comes to the role of the hippocampus in memory retrieval, this is legitimately my area of expertise.”

  3. says

    make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate,

    Do y’suppose if someone went trepanning in Ben’s skull, they might uncover some actual knowledge?

  4. says

    Two Republicans are sitting in a bar. One of them says, “Did you know that we only use one third of our brain?” The other one says “Really? What do we do with the other third?”

  5. says

    sigaba:

    Running theory for this guy is he’s been suffering early onset dementia since the aughts.

    There’s really no excuse for this. Carson has believed incredibly daft shit for decades, this isn’t new.

  6. Rich Woods says

    @Caine #3:

    Do y’suppose if someone went trepanning in Ben’s skull, they might uncover some actual knowledge?

    That or a grain silo.

  7. blf says

    From the Encyclopedia of American Loons:

    #1451: Ben Carson

    […]

    Though his credentials as a neurosurgeon are impressive, Carson is not a scientist and has no aptitude for the values associated with science such as truth, accountability and sensitivity to the evidence. Carson is, for instance, a creationist, though he doesn’t even have the most rudimentary idea what the theory of evolution (just propaganda) is: I don’t believe in evolution … I simply don’t have enough faith to believe that something as complex as our ability to rationalize, think, and plan, and have a moral sense of what’s right and wrong, just appeared, which is precisely not what the theory of evolution says. […]

    […]

    Not surprisingly, Carson buys wholesale into the The United States as a Christian Nation myths, though, saying that divine intervention created America. There are many well-documented stories about God’s intervention on behalf of our country during the War of Independence, wrote Carson in a 2014 column, but cited just one: A familiar story about Benjamin Franklin leading the delegates in prayer during a particularly difficult moment of the Constitutional Convention, which was particularly loved by Jesse Helms and is just as false now as it was in Helms’s heyday.

    […]

    Meanwhile, Carson blames feminism, no less, for Ferguson. […]

    […]

    Out of pity for poor, persecuted anti-gay people like himself Carson has also called for judges who disagree with his position to be removed from office. […]

    Something must certainly be done. Currently, we are facing a war on God where Hitlerian progressives are turning America into a society very much like Nazi Germany (like Cuba or Western Europe). We already live in a Gestapo age where Obama takes his cues from Mein Kampf and is effectively committing treason […]

    […]

    Being educated himself, it is natural for Carson to have strong views on education. So according to Carson, teaching kids about America’s past mistakes, such as Japanese American internment or treatment of the native population, should be avoided since it will make students sign up for ISIS.

    […]

    As for immigration policy, Carson has said that he is open to drone strikes on American soil to fight immigrants, which doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea if you wish to go down in history as anything better than something to scare children with. […]

    And as for voter fraud, Carson has bravely suggested that non-citizens who commit voter fraud should have their citizenship revoked. The suggestion was apparently met with applause. Good f***ing grief.

    […]

    Between 2004 and 2013, Carson promoted and appeared in testimonials for Mannatech, a company claiming that its line of glyconutrients would cure anything, including autism, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, life-threatening heart conditions, ADD, arthritis, and so on. […]

    The entry, which was written in Sept-2015 and has no significant updates, concludes: “[… H]e is dishonest to the core and there’s certainly a lot of pandering going on here, but it is hard to get around the conclusion that, despite his achievments [sic] as a neurosurgeon, Carson is pretty stupid. He lacks the most fundamental critical thinking skills, and is pathologically unable to distinguish evidence from whatever-he-wants-to-believe. Given his current influence among wingnuts he is also frighteningly dangerous.”

  8. Rowan vet-tech says

    I can’t fucking remember what I did yesterday. I certainly can’t remember something from 20 years ago.

  9. microraptor says

    busterggi @10:

    Brain surgeons can apparently function without functional brains.

  10. Infophile says

    Okay, I can wrap my head around a brain surgeon not knowing how pyramids work, but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around a brain surgeon not knowing how brains work. How did he do his job? Was he just following someone else’s instructions the whole time, never applying a single independent thought to it?

  11. says

    Caine-

    Yeah, my neurologist friend swears that Carson’s probably been suffering with it for over a decade. Apparently it’s almost impossible to catch in highly educated people because they’re able to mask the symptoms.

    I will chalk up his bizzare religious beliefs to his upbringing and his his product endorsements to his being a money-mad self-promoting asshole, but the fact that he brings it all up so often and seems to weave it together is strange, and his weird medical ideas are inexplicable.

  12. Ed Seedhouse says

    “Do you even need to know anything to be a brain surgeon?”

    Apparently you have to know how to drill a hole through a skull. Seems Carson may possibly have been practicing the procedure on himself.

  13. blf says

    Apparently you have to know how to drill a hole through a skull. Seems Carson may possibly have been practicing the procedure on himself.

    He was probably following the mummification instructions in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which calls for removing the brain with hooks. Perhaps more to the point, it also considers the heart the seat of intelligence and memory. He “thought” it was a map showing where the grain silos are hidden in the pyramids.

  14. ChasCPeterson says

    Why do people think that a brain surgeon needs to know how brains work?
    First of all, NOBODY knows how brains work. Hell, they’re only the most complex known items in the freakin universe. PZ pointed this out in a recent post about teaching neurobiology: We have cell-level mechanisms like synapses and neuromodulators, and we have whole-organism psychology/behavior, and in between there is pretty much a huge dunno zone. Physiology textbooks all have a chapter on the brain, but all that’s in there is what parts of the brain (usually) perform which functions. HOW the parts perform the functions (i.e. mechanistic physiology) is not known. Not even for far-simpler seaslugs (Aplysia is a common experimental animal).
    And second, a surgeon doesn’t have to care much about physiology anyway. They are technicians. They cut stuff out. It’s not like they have to interpret test results or figure out diagnoses or treatment plans. All they have to know is enough anatomy to avoid cutting out the indispensable bits. Surgeons ain’t all that. A brain surgeon needs to know brain anatomy and have enough self-confidence to go in and cut somebody else’s brain apart wthout too much worry or guilt; that’s it.

  15. Raucous Indignation says

    ChasCPeterson @18:

    Your second paragraph is completely wrong in almost every way possible, but you may be too much of an arrogant and ignorant shit stain to know it. So I’m telling you. It’s wrong, almost every word of it. Your second paragraph is so colossally wrong in so many ways that a full referenced refutation would require it’s own highly annotated footnote page.

  16. Ed Seedhouse says

    Raucous Indignation@19

    Your whole message is stupidly wrong. How do I know this? Why I just do – exactly like you somehow think you know that ChasPeterson is wrong without any cited evidence or even an explanation about how it is you came about the expertise you are implicitly claiming to have.

    My post is just like yours, namely mere contradiction without evidence. I, unlike you apparently, at least know that I am doing it.

    I think you badly need to have a listen to Monty Python’s “argument” sketch.

  17. ChasCPeterson says

    Ed, your post is not just like Dr. Indignation’s.
    You didn’t call him* a “shit stain”.

    If I was perhaps a bit insultingly hyperbolic, let me try again:
    PZ was “trained as a neuroscientist”, yet he doesn’t know how the brain works. That’s because nobody knows how the brain works.
    And brain surgeons aren’t even trained as neuroscientists. They are trained as surgeons.
    Brain surgeons don’t have to know how the brain works. That’s because nobody knows how the brain works.
    Yet still there are brain surgeons.

    Better, Dr. Indignation?

    *a calculated assumption

  18. leskimopie says

    Ben Carson has tapped into the hidden power of the brain and using his cyborg enhancements is able to perfectly recall every bit of information ever to grace his brain allowing him a near omniscience the likes of which can not be rivaled by all the worlds super computers put together, and now finally he will always know where his damn luggage is!

  19. says

    But if neuroscientists don’t know how brains work…

    ..then why are there still neurosurgeons?

    And how can materialists have so much faith that there aren’t magical leprechauns running the whole thing?

    :P

  20. says

    @8, blf

    I don’t believe in evolution … I simply don’t have enough faith to believe that something as complex as our ability to rationalize, think, and plan, and have a moral sense of what’s right and wrong, just appeared, which is precisely not what the theory of evolution says. […]

    Mercy! That’s way funnier than what I came up with!

  21. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Doc Carson is not that different than the IT tech that may have asked you, “Have you tried rebooting?” when you called in with a problem. He’s probably very good at what he does, but the low levels of how the thing works is well outside of his field of expertise even if he’s worked on them every day of his adult life. He might be better at his job if he did understand the low levels, but it might only be a negligible increase in competence.

  22. chigau (違う) says

    ck #25
    IT people do not cut into actual living brains.
    That’s different.

  23. says

    a couple years back i described carson thusly:

    carson may indeed be smart in his field, but he’s like an idiot savant. he’s stuffed his braincase with neurosurgery and nothing else. he couldn’t even fit evolution in there! his expertise is a trade school vocation; he’s basically a high-achieving car mechanic.

    and knowing nothing about politics or history, like sarah palin, he’s perfect for the gop: a token for a desired demographic who’s also an empty willing vessel ready to be filled with all sorts of propaganda, ideology and nonsense.

  24. says

    heh. via the new yorker:

    WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—At a press conference on Tuesday morning, Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told reporters that people who are pushed out of windows are “extremely lucky” because they get “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly through the air.”

    … On a subject more pertinent to his new job at hud, Carson said that people without housing “enjoy the rare satisfaction you can only experience by building your own dwelling out of cardboard.”

  25. M'thew says

    @28:

    Goodness. That scared me.

    For a moment I thought he really said that.

    He didn’t, did he?

    Tell me he didn’t…

  26. multitool says

    IT people do not cut into actual living brains

    Hey, you don’t know my life!

  27. blf says

    IT people do not cut into actual living brains

    Of course not! Brains don’t contain the magic blue smoke. Therefore. brains are non-functional.
    QED

    Corollary: Brain surgeons, whilst skilled and with many years of training, are expensive plumbers.

    Corollary: Plumbers, also skilled and with years of training or apprenticeship, are a less-expensive option for fixing a leaking basinbrain.

  28. methuseus says

    chigau @26:

    IT people do not cut into actual living brains.
    That’s different.

    And that’s why the surgeons made so much more than me when I worked at a hospital. Oh, and the malpractice insurance premiums.
    That said, I do, and have for a long time, know about how the computer does what it does, just never quite enough to get a better job, or at least I’m not that good at convincing the HR person I have the knowledge via my resume.

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