Neuroscience News

At Slate, Daniel Engber argues that the age of nonsense neuroscience is already over …

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And he can trace its demise to 2008:

Such things are hard to measure, of course, but I think there’s circumstantial backup for my claim. In Brainwashed [a book excoriating the nonsense], for example, many of the key examples of mindless neuroscience come from 2008 (or before). Chapter 1, on the fallibility of brain imaging, starts with an article from ’08 by Jeffrey Goldberg, for which he traveled to Los Angeles to find out how his cortex might respond to pictures of Jimmy Carter and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s a useful study in the practice and promotion of witless pseudoneuroscience, but at the time, Goldberg’s case was not unique: That election season saw a rush of like-minded (and like-mindless) political neuro-coverage. Brain-based marketing firms placed their spurious analyses of presidential candidates and potential voters in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and many other outlets; the neuropundits were running wild. But a lot has changed since then. Four years later, during the 2012 election, these sorts of stories were nowhere to be seen. At some point in Obama’s first White House term, interest in these political brain scans evaporated.

Chapter 2 of Brainwashed begins with another scene from 2008—the publication of the best-selling pop-neuroscience book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. Satel and Lilienfeld describe its author, Martin Lindstrom, as a leading member of “an upstart generation of Mad Men known as neuromarketers.” But attempts to revolutionize the field of market research through the use of brain-imaging techniques haven’t gained much traction in the past 10 years. … As for neuro-best-sellers, those too have been on the wane since 2008.

Some of us aren’t sure if that fungus is really dead or just dormant. It doubtless took a huge hit from its use in politics:

For example, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine suggests that if voters were attracted to Sarah Palin as a candidate in 2008, it may have been because the “mirror neurons” in their brains were going “‘ding, ding, ding—this person is just like me.’” And another group of scientists suggest that voters who rated Hillary Clinton unfavorably on questionnaires were, according to their brain images, actually “battling unacknowledged impulses to like Mrs. Clinton.”

Most of the audience was probably battling acknowledged impulses to send people like Dr. Brizendine packing, which seems to have been what happened—for now.

4 Replies to “At Slate, Daniel Engber argues that the age of nonsense neuroscience is already over …

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Brain imaging is a logical outcome from the belief we think with our brains.
    A rejection of the soul has finally reached its logical outcome.
    If we are brain parts then why can’t one image them and discover they are giving us our ideas and its unrelated to our motivations of our souls.
    Animals have brains but hardly think like us.
    There is no evidence we use our brains for thinking. They are just a middleman betweeen our souls and our bodies. Only the memory is part of the material world and thats the thing that breaks and causes all problems with human thinking.

  2. 2

    The vast bulk of neuroimaging research has not been “nonsense”. I hope readers will not tar all neuroimaging studies prior to 2008 as “nonsense”.

    In particular, functional imaging studies have been enormously fruitful in telling us how the brain works, and, in particular, what may be going wrong in the brains of people who suffer from mental disorders, and in giving us clues as to more effective therapeutic strategies.

    I doubt that “nonsense neuroscience” is over. Nonsense science tends not to go away, and the more sensational the “finding”, the less likely it is to be true, and the more likely it is to hit headlines, which is annoying.

    But there is a simple way of telling the nonsense from the real stuff:

    Functional brain imaging involves measuring signals from a very large number of brain regions – tens of thousands. This means that statistically, you have to do a very large correction for multiple comparisons, thus greatly reducing your statistical power. This means that reliable studies are studies that measure something very simple, in a large group of subjects, or compare one substantial group with another.

    Studies in which some personal characteristic is correlated with brain signal across a single group of people, is almost certainly grossly underpowered.

    So if a study tells you that Greedy People have more Brain Activity, in some Greed Centre than Non-Greedy people, it is bunk.

    If it tells you that people show correlated BOLD signal in brain network X while performing task Y, then it probably isn’t.

    If it tells you that people with condition A show less/more signal in region X while performing task Y, then check the meta-analyses.

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    Elizebeth B Liddle
    I say brain imaging can not help in mental disorders any more then being greedyish.
    All imaging does is show activity/lack of it here or there after prompting.
    Yet it would be that way anyways for any reaction in the body. We are connected to our brains but our brains are not evidence that is us thinking.
    Christianity teaches we are souls and so its impossible for the material world to affect our thinking.
    Therefore all mental disorders can only be a single cause.
    That is interference with the triggering mechanism for the memory.
    The power of the memory is the orgin for mental disorders in every case.
    one must conclude this from the bible and observation will confirm it.
    Show a single disorder of the mind where memory problems can’t be invoked to explain it.

  4. 4
    DinoV says:

    Liz – from an atheistic-naturalistic perspective; what philosophy of mind grounding do you find the most plausible given your worldview??

    “Each particular mental event occurs if and only if some particular brain event occurs this would not establish the materialists identify theory, which holds not just that mental and neural events are correlated in some regular, lawful way but that they are one and the same event and moreover, that these events are, basically, physical.” Jerome Shaffer, “The Mind Body Problem” in The encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 4: 339.

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