How policymaking is using — and misusing — the brain

By Dr Nathan Hughes

April 28, 2016

As the field of neuroscience continues to advance, politicians and policymakers are taking notice. Proponents are arguing for its application to a wide range of policy concerns.

However, such enthusiasm should be tempered with the reality of a science still in its infancy. While there are opportunities for neuroscience to offer evidence for policymaking, we must also reflect on cases where neuroscience has been used and misused in support of particular policy initiatives, as I have recently done in a paper for the Melbourne School of Government.

The most widely cited apparent misuse of neuroscience is in support of an early years policy agenda espousing early intervention, parenting education, and ultimately the ready use of child protection proceedings against families “at risk”. A proliferation of policy documents in various states argue the crucial importance of the first three years to subsequent outcomes, with allusions to the “developing brain” often explicitly referenced. For example, an influential cross-party United Kingdom policy paper, provocatively entitled “Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens“, stated that:

“Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial: effectively, our brains are largely formed by what we experience in early life … The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop.”

This represents a gross and deliberate misappropriation of developmental neuroscience in support of arguments for the unparalleled importance of the first three years of a child’s life. Advocates have selectively co-opted particular findings, resisting counter-narratives and presenting certainty where there is debate.

Data drawn from cases of extreme deprivation are inaccurately extrapolated, so as to make a case for the care-giving or environmental conditions deemed sufficient for typical neuromaturation.

Images of brain scans serve as powerful symbolic devices, despite limited relevance or interpretation. Evidence is at best misinterpreted or selectively used, and at worst manipulated or willfully ignored so as to support specific political goals. Such applications clearly need to be resisted.

Towards nuanced, graduated rights for kids

However, a very different utilisation of such evidence is possible, as is apparent in the application of adolescent developmental neuroscience. A particularly pertinent example of the use of developmental neuroscience to inform policy is in the use of graduated laws for adolescents and young adults to address key public health concerns.

An understanding that young adults possess advanced capacities for cognitive reasoning, while at the same time continuing to develop interpersonal, social and emotional capacities, suggests an approach that supports gradual removal of restrictions on behaviour in specific controlled circumstance based on perceptions of increasing maturity.

“Such examples demonstrate the potential for a more modest application of neuroscience …”

A much-cited example of such an approach is the graduated drivers’ license, as employed in various places, including Australia, New Zealand and many United States states. Restrictions on adolescent drivers explicitly recognise the increased risk associated with peer influence and alcohol consumption during this period. Such approaches appear to have met with some success. For example, an evaluation across 43 US states suggests an 18-21% reduction in the involvement of 16-year-olds in crashes in those states with the most extensive graduated driving license programmes.

Given this apparent success, it seems appropriate to consider whether it is possible to extend such approaches into other aspects of policy, particularly where similar public health concerns are apparent.

Whilst not without critique, such examples demonstrate the potential for a more modest application of neuroscience to make a significant contribution to social policy, particularly when combined with research evidence from other academic disciplines.

How should we use neuroscience?

Given that evidence emerging from neuroscience remains tentative and speculative we should be sceptical of portrayals of simplicity and certainty. Where evidence is presented in ways that make it appear straightforward or definitive, it is likely that it has been misinterpreted, inappropriately simplified, or wilfully manipulated. The motivations behind such presentations must therefore be questioned. Indeed, neuroscience will not provide simple, uncontested solutions to long-standing, complex policy-related problems. As Stephen Morse suggests, we therefore require “neuromodesty”.

As with any other form of evidence to be utilised in policymaking, neuroscience needs to be critiqued, and its limitations recognised.

Neuroscience evidence may not currently be “fit for purpose” for robust evidence-based policymaking; for example, such research is often undertaken in laboratory settings or modelled on animals, and may therefore offer limited insights into complex situated human behaviour of the sort with which policy is concerned, or may result from innovative and exploratory research that needs replication and corroboration.

Whilst valuable, understandings of people and of behaviour derived from studies of the brain should not trump those of other academic disciplines.

Neuroscience must therefore be used in combination with research from other academic disciplines, with its complementary contribution recognised; for example, solutions to the prevalence of motor vehicle accidents in adolescents benefit from combining insights from psychology, epidemiology, sociology and public health, as well as developmental neuroscience.

Whilst there is currently a need for caution in its application, it is also clear that recent advances in our understanding of the development and functioning of the brain suggest the promise of things to come.

There is every potential that the limitations in current neuroscience will be addressed, overcoming many of the objections regarding the application to policymaking. Recognition of this future potential suggests the need for a diverse range of academic disciplines and professional groups to bridge the disciplinary divide so as to engage in fresh debate regarding the applications of neuroscience to policy.

Such debate must include consideration to the possible applications of emerging understandings of neuroscience to specific policy issues, as well as opportunities for policy stakeholders to inform future directions in neuroscience by providing research questions pertinent to current and future challenges for society.

This article was first published as “Policy-making (mis)using the brain” at Pursuit

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