This article appears in 2013's second edition of Argument, which is officially released tomorrow (07.03.13). I've reposted it here with added links, references, and images but the text remains unchanged from the original.
Ever since we figured out we had brains, we’ve been trying to figure out how they work. Modern neuroscience methods like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have allowed us to move on from indiscriminately cutting bits of brain tissue out and seeing what happens, to seeing how the brain works in action.
The grand aim of neuroscience might be to figure out how our brains work, but that doesn’t mean that it actually can. We now find ourselves in a situation with very high expectations about what neuroscience can actually do, and over-blown claims by people who want to jump on the neuro-bandwagon to make money or push an agenda.
This has now become so common that it has its very own word on Urban Dictionary: ‘Neurofication’ – “the act of artificially augmenting any area of science or non-science endeavour with the mystery, validity, and nobility of true neuroscience by simply adding the prefix neuro- to the moniker”.
Here’s a quick guide to spotting neurofication and some reasons why you should be careful not to get caught out by the neuro-hype.
1. Does it still make sense if you take out all the neurosciencey words?
A now famous study from 2008 by Deena Weisberg and colleagues at Yale University showed that sprinkling a text with neurosciencey language can make a big difference in how credible readers think the text is. The researchers found that laypeople were just as good as experts at distinguishing good explanations of psychological phenomena from bad. However, if the explanations were jazzed up with illogical and irrelevant neuroscience, like references to brain scanning and ‘frontal lobe circuitry’, both the lay and student participants were duped into thinking that bad explanations were better than they actually were. It’s not just neuroscience words that have this effect, though – any long, scientific-sounding explanation, using any kind of scientific terminology, can make bad explanations more believable.
Figure 1 from Weisberg et al. (2008): Mean ratings of how satisfying the lay particpiants found the explanations with and without the neuroscience jargon.
Cut the scientific-sounding fluff
The next time you read an article giving a neuroscientific explanation for a particular phenomenon, see if you can make sense of what’s being said and whether you think it’s a good explanation once you’ve crossed out all the scientific terminology. If it’s a good explanation, it will still be one when the scientific-sounding fluff is out of the way.
2. Is the brain image just eye candy?
Brain scans look super cool and are an excellent way to catch the attention of a potential reader. As ‘brains’ are the theme of this edition of Argument, chances are there’s one on the front cover and lots of brains throughout the themed-section. But what’s the problem with jazzing up your article with a picture of a brain showing where it ‘lights’ up when it’s thinking about something?
A picture can say a 1000 wrong words
A study by Castel and McCabe in 2008 showed that simply having a brain image next to a piece of text had a significant effect on the readers’ perceptions of the plausibility of the science in the text. This applied even if the idea was completely implausible (for example, ‘because watching TV and doing maths both lead to activation in the temporal lobe, watching television will improve math skills’).
Students rated a series of fake newspaper stories, based on made-up science, to be more scientifically reasonable when accompanied by an image of a brain, compared with when the same information was presented with a bar chart or just a plain text (see figure below). This is despite the fact that both the brain images and the graphs added nothing to the understanding of the fake scientific claim in each article. In short: the next time you see a picture of a brain in an article, do your best to ignore it, concentrate on the ideas and let the words themselves do the talking.
Figure 1b from Castel and McCabe (2008): Mean ratings of scientific reasoning for the articles as a section of experimental condition (control, bar graph, and brain image).
3. Does the article claim that researchers have found a ‘brain-spot’ for something?
Reductionism – reducing something to its basic parts – is popular because we like simple answers to complicated questions. However, the short, simple explanations of complex brain functions that make for good headlines are often far from being true. For neuroscience, this means finding a ‘spot’ in the brain that is responsible for a particular action or behaviour. Recently there have been articles on the God spot, jealousy spot, decision-making spot, eureka spot, willpower spot, worry spot, habit-changing spot and even the ‘high-school spot’ (the last concept is from a study published just last year which claims to show that a patient had “a cluster of neurons in his temporal lobe that help represent "high school-ness").
No brain region is an island
All of these reports are based on the false premise that the particular region of the brain that shows activation during a cognitive task is the only region that is involved in that particular function. But the brain doesn’t work like that, and reality is much cooler than the oversimplified version. Whilst different parts of the brain are specialised for different things, they all have more than a single specific function, which can also change depending on the situation. More importantly, they’re all connected and have to work together to produce the wonderfully complex behaviours and thoughts that anyone with a brain is capable of. Parts of the brain might be less active than others during a particular task but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. To paraphrase John Donne: like a man, no brain region is an island.
Brain activity in a dead salmon
There is also another problem with finding specific ‘spots’ in the brain that do things. It’s easy to overlook the fact that bits of the brain don’t actually ‘light up’ when they’re active. The coloured blobs shown on brain imaging scans are actually complex reconstructions based on mathematical analyses that are very easy to get wrong.
Figure 1 from Bennett et al. (2010) showing 'brain activation' in dead salmon
In a now infamous study conducted in 2010, Bennett and colleagues put a dead salmon inside an MRI scanner and showed that if you do the statistics badly, you can get very convincing images showing clear brain activation in a dead fish ‘reacting’ to images of people in social situations. This has to be one of the craziest and most informative things ever done with a dead fish.
4. Are you being sold a neuro-quick-fix?
This one’s the easiest to spot, because the power of neuro is being used not to sell an idea, but to sell you a product. It’s hasn’t quite happened in Norway – yet – but you can’t visit a supermarket or pharmacy in the UK these days without neuro-branded products screaming at you. The most blatant example of a neuro-branded product that has really taken off is the DrinkNeuro range of drinks that will apparently help you, amongst other things, sleep better (NeuroSleep), stay calmer (NeuroBliss), be more driven (NeuroFocus), ‘shine’ – whatever that means (NeuroSun), control your appetite (NeuroTrim), stay focused (NeuroSonic), and have better sex (NeuroGasm).
Unsubstantiated health claims
In November 2012 The British Advertising Standards Agency ruled that the makers of the products, Neurobrands, had to pull ads for their drinks because of unsubstantiated health claims related to many of the allegedly active ingredients. If you visit the DrinkNeuro website looking for scientifically sound, randomised, controlled trials providing evidence to back up the neuroscientific claims for each drink, forget it. What you will still find, however, is what seems to be evidence enough these days: celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson holding bottles of NeuroBlah and grinning like loons. These marketing people are geniuses.
You shouldn’t need a sip of NeuroSonic to realise that you should steer well clear of these products and anything like them. But, the public’s demand for ‘magic bullets’ that provide quick and easy fixes, coupled with unthinking celebrity endorsements and the obviously strong financial incentives to sell these kinds of products, means that we can probably expect it to get worse before it gets better. Expect NeuroDrinks in your local Kiwi or Rema 1000 soon.
Neuroscience is still the best we have
If the brain was simple enough to understand, we would probably be too stupid to understand it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand it, or that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and ignore what neuroscience has to offer. If we want to find out how the brain works – how a 1.4 kilo mass of cells manages to be the most complicated thing in the known universe – neuroscience is probably our best bet for doing so. Researchers and the public just need to be careful not to get caught up in the neuro-hype.