Neuro-enthusiasm

What the author can do after his book launching? Well, he can write another one! So I do. In my new book I would like to take a closer look at the vanguard of psychology – cognitive neuroscience. It is an excellent exemplification of the commercialization of science. Although it has advanced a lot in the last few decades, and neuroscientists are constantly discovering amazing things about the brain, the promise of neuroscience has led to really high expectations and many overblown, unproven claims. Moreover, neuroscience is turning up more and more in marketing. Some good examples were given by Molly Crockett during her lecture within the TED Conference in London in 2012:

Here’s a study published by a team of researchers as an op-ed in The New York Times. The headline? “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” It quickly became the most emailed article on the site. How the researchers figured this out? They put 16 people inside a brain scanner and showed them videos of ringing iPhones. The brain scans showed activation in a part of the brain called the insula, a region which is linked to feelings of love and compassion. So the researchers concluded that because they saw activation in the insula, this meant the subjects loved their iPhones. The main problem with this line of reasoning is, that the insula does a lot. It is involved in positive emotions like love and compassion, but it’s also involved in many other processes, like memory, language, attention, even anger, disgust and pain. Based on the same logic, one could equally conclude you hate your iPhone. When you see activation in the insula, you can’t just pick and choose your favourite explanation from off the very long list. My colleagues Tal Yarkoni and Russ Poldrack have shown that the insula pops up in almost a third of all brain imaging studies that have ever been published. So chances are really, really good that your insula is going off right now, but I won’t kid myself to think this means you love me.

We can find many similar simplifications of neuroscience discoveries even in daily press. As a consequence there are also many products and services offered as proven by neuroscience. We can buy neurodrinks or neurosupplements. It seems that now it is not any longer in fashion to market products but rather to neuromarket them. We are confronted with discoveries of neuroeconomy or neurolow. It is possible to buy neuroart and to ask designing agency for neurodesign. Although it is not proved yet that we can use brain scans for diagnosis, many labs offer neurodiagnostic services. Having such a diagnosis we can easily find neurocounseling or neurotherapy. For those who are interested in fitness it will not be difficult to find neurosport services. On many webpages created by neuroenthusiasts we can find promises like: “With the right tools the possibilities are limitless”.

Such boundless enthusiasm must raise some suspicions. Probably similar suspicions were experienced by neuroscientist Craig Bennet which resulted in him going to the fish market to buy a dead Atlantic salmon which was used for the research. Bennet with his coworkers placed their subject in a brain scanner and “showed” it pictures of people in various social situations and “asked” it questions about the feelings of people on pictures. During this experiment a small area in the salmon brain flared to life in response to the task. The researches described their experiment and its results in the article entitled “Neural correlates of interspecies prospective taking in the postmortem Atlantic salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction” (Bennet et al, 2010). The “salmon study” won a 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for work “that makes people laugh, then think”. But the Ig Nobel Prize was not the primary aim of Bennets team nor the demonstration, that the salmon’s brain activates while “watching” social situations. He is an experienced neuroscientist who realized that when researchers run large numbers of statistical tests simultaneously on the BOLD (blood-oxygen-level-dependent) signals, some of these tests are bound to appear as “statistically significant” just as a result of chance. These results mistakenly show that the brain is more active while performing a task by the subject, when in fact, this part of the brain is not actually working. That is why Bennet decided to show these artefacts in such an unortodhoxically way. Their study illustrates that decisions in data analysis can impact the reliability of fMRI results.Obraz1

Statistical artefacts are not the only weak link in the process of explaining human behaviour offered by neuroscience. While analysing results of neuroscientific research we should bear in mind that this, what scientists see on their colourful monitors, is the concentration of oxygen dissolved in the blood. The relative concentrations of oxygenated blood in a small area of brain tissue creates a signal known as the BOLD response. Between finding BOLD responses and human behaviour there is a long way with many difficulties. In fact, some neuroscientists have already been so enthusiastic about the progress of their discipline that they forget that there is more to understanding behaviour and cognition rather than tracing the neural activities alone. Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld (2013) in their book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience write about six reasons why we should be sceptical about discoveries formulated like: “Brain Scans Show…”:

First, brain scans rarely allow investigators to conclude that structure X “causes” function Y. (p. 14)

Second, the subtraction technique used in most fMRI experiments is not necessarily well suited to the question being asked. (p. 15)

Third, although neuroimaging has deepened our knowledge of brain anatomy and function, its popular application tends to reinforce the misbegotten notion of the brain as a repository of discrete modules that control distinct capacities to think and feel. (p. 15)

A fourth caveat to keep in mind when one is interpreting brain scans is the importance of experimental design. The way in which investigators design their task can exert a big impact on the responses they obtain. (p. 17)

A fifth caveat stems from the fact that fMRI is an indirect method. Contrary to popular belief, imaging does not measure action of brain cells per se. (p. 17)

Last, it is important to keep in mind that before the final data even “reach” the voxel, analysts must deploy statistical approaches to extract meaningful information from noise. (p. 19)

These restrictions cause the real picture of neuroscience to be far from its colourful marketing image. As Thomas Insel concluded in his article from 2009, there is no evidence that the past two decades of research in neuroscience have brought us a decrease in mental disorders nor have any impact on their prevalence or on a patient’s life span. There is also no specific evidence that neuromarketers can manipulate us using information gathered from scan images in order to turn us into docile customers (Satel & Lilienfeld, 2013, p. 45). The expectations that neuroscience would help us to treat addictions have also not been fulfilled yet. Brain-based deception detection can perform impressively in laboratories, but there is no evidence that its capabilities can be used in natural forensic situations. There is a huge gulf between commercialized neuroscience and its actual power which will probably never be spanned.

Bennett, C. M., et al. (2010). Neural correlates of interspecies prospective taking in the postmortem Atlantic salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction. Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, 1, 1-5.

Satel, S. & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic Books.

Advertisements

One response to “Neuro-enthusiasm

  1. Pingback: About the Misery of Psychology, Cargo Cult, and the Decade of Behavior | Psychology Gone Wrong·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s