Posted on behalf of Kerri Smith
British comedian Robert Newman kicks off new act The Brain Show like any self-respecting scientist: with an abstract. He tells the audience about the billions pouring into mapping European and American brains through, respectively, the Human Brain Project and the White House BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. He lays out the shortcomings of these projects’ best-known predecessor, the Human Genome Project, which, he bemoans, never did find half the genes it promised. There was no “gene for getting into debt”; no “low voter turnout” gene. And he explains what the rest of his argument will be: that humans cannot be thought of as machines, and that scientists devalue us all by conceptualising people in this reductive way.
Critiques of neuroimaging could not often be called comic. Newman, however, manages it.
Newman hinges The Brain Show on a re-imagining of an infamous 2000 neuroimaging experiment by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki. This claimed to have found the brain network responsible for romantic love, and Newman purports to have taken part. Many of his gags are only tangentially related to the science, but it’s skilfully done. He is asked to bring four photos to the scanner session: one of someone he is deeply in love with, and three of friends he is fond of. He worries about his selection of the first image. “I’m looking at this photo and thinking: is this the best picture of me I could have brought?”
Once in the scanner, he starts to question how the experiment has been set up. Have the neuroscientists who scanned his brain really found ‘the love spot’? “Maybe what we’ve discovered,” Newman says, “is the bit of the brain that lights up when we spot an elementary conceptual blunder in experimental design.” (You can hear more from the show in this week’s Nature Podcast.)
I found him on shakier ground when he chided modern neuroscience for deeming ‘we are our brains’. This encapsulation is simplistic, I’ll grant him, but to believe anything else is to come over a little bit Descartes, in danger of endorsing that mind and body are different things. To many neuroscientists, it isn’t dehumanising to imagine that cognitive powers and personalities are just patterns of neural activity. I think Newman is right to say, though, that “the idea that the brain is a wet computer is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific idea”.
At times, the comedian veers off into evolutionary biology, familiar to anyone who saw his 2013 show, New Theory of Evolution. It is perhaps easier to be hilarious when nature offers up such delights as the lemon ant (Myrmelachista schumanni). The Amazonian insects are actually known for creating so-called ‘devils’ gardens’ in which they kill off certain trees by injecting formic acid into their leaves. Newman, however, simply riffs off their name, telling us that London’s Natural History Museum employs an ant taster responsible for naming the salt-and-vinegar ant and the “I can’t believe it’s not beetle” ant.
During the show Newman wears a large flashing helmet to demonstrate his brain activity during a study of guilt. He also plays the ukulele to two rubber cephalopods, and does a great impression of the physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox standing behind a row of skulls and talking about evolutionary progress. “That’s not evolution Brian, that’s a xylophone!”
Occasionally awkward and delightfully eccentric throughout, Newman also delivers shafts of insight. He doesn’t know which discipline he’ll target next – possibly the history of science – but as his previous shows attest, he’s certainly willing to do his time in the library.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.