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(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)
(Katy Lemay for The Globe and Mail)

Why ‘neuroskeptics’ see an epidemic of brain baloney Add to ...

One widely used experimental concept that’s come in for criticism is the “goal-priming effect,” the idea that people adjust their behaviour when they are first “primed” in certain ways. A famous case recounted by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Blink – that people walk slower if they are primed with words associated with being old – has proved impossible for other scientists to replicate.

Last year, a group of researchers began the Reproducibility Project, a collaborative attempt to replicate dubious or head-scratching results.

Pretty pictures telling lies

New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus, writing for The New Yorker, placed some blame on the vogue for functional magnetic-resonance imaging studies, or fMRI, in which parts of the brain seem to “light up” as a result of certain behaviour.

The results can be seductively easy to misinterpret. In one demonstration, a group of American post-doctoral psychology students led by Abigail Baird and Craig Bennett put a frozen, dead salmon in an fMRI machine: The data seemed to reveal that the dead fish was thinking. Of course, this was hogwash, or at least fishwrap. What it really showed was that the colourful images from fMRI studies show only probabilities, with lots of false positives.

“I’m so tired about hearing about ‘the brain lighting up’,” Mr. Bennett told BoingBoing.net. “It makes it sound like you see lights in the head or something. That’s not how the brain works.”

Pretty fMRI pictures seem to imply the part that “lights up” is solely responsible for the behaviour being tested. In reality the brain is a much more intricate orchestration of parts working in concert – “different pieces of tissue working together,” Prof. Marcus wrote. “Saying that emotion is in the amygdala, or that decision-making is in the prefrontal cortex, is at best a shorthand, and a misleading one at that.”

Scientific literacy in lockdown

One deeper problem for the average reader or journalist is that the public is discouraged from reading most original research papers by steep paywalls.

“Media literacy in science journalism,” says Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “is really stunted by the fact that we don’t have access to the primary sources.”

Even the British media study – with its reader-friendly revelations about the popular press – is hidden. To see the full text, published in the journal Neuron, you’d have to pay $31.50.

“You can’t expect the public to have a good understanding when they don’t have access to the thing they’re supposed to understand,” says Mr. Higgins.

This is the issue that moved information activist Aaron Swartz to download millions of scholarly-journal articles surreptitiously, for which he faced charges when he died by suicide in January.

If we could look at the studies, however, could we read them competently? Modern neuroscience is still an emerging field; it began in the 20th century, and isn’t taught in every high school like physics or chemistry. Although it’s becoming a more popular university option, few journalists have neuroscience backgrounds, even among the few who have science degrees.

Of course, you don’t need a degree in a subject to write an accurate article. But consider, too, the financial crisis in print media, in which many journalists and editors find themselves fielding multiple areas at short-staffed publications.

This does not excuse the numerous errors Mr. Lehrer, for example, made on his popular Wired.com blog Frontal Cortex. But it’s true that his posts (unlike his articles in print) were not fact-checked, and his editors turned a blind eye.

How can readers learn to be more skeptical? “Certainly,” says Nature’s Mr. Gray, “I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about neuroscience that they read the blogs of the Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic and Mind Hacks. … Those are actual practicing neuroscientists who are experts in their respective fields.”

Meanwhile, no matter how many millions governments throw at them, it’s important to keep in view that knowledge about the brain is in infancy. On NPR after Mr. Obama’s BRAIN announcement, Francis S. Collins, the head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, mentioned “very beautiful videos” that had just been released in a study that imaged 80 per cent of the neurons of a zebra fish larva. “We don’t quite know what the fish is doing,” he added, “but it’s beautiful to look at.”

At least it was a live fish this time. But it’s a long way from a map of the human mind.

Geeta Dayal is a culture and technology writer based in San Francisco. She has a degree in brain and cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a British study on neuroscience articles. The study found that the media often extrapolated neuroscientific findings beyond what was originally reported, but the study made no attempt to quantify the percentage of media coverage that did so. The article incorrectly said roughly two-thirds of the articles were distorted.

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