Last weekend, neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell warned in the Observer
newspaper about the rise of “folk neuroscience
”. Brain-related jargon is fast entering into the vernacular, he said, and often in a way that is gratuitous at best, misleading and inaccurate at worst.
Indeed, such is the appeal of all things brain that many companies use the allure of neuroscience to sell their merchandise, or they offer brain-based products that over-reach the scientific evidence supporting their use (in a 2011 paper, Bree Chancellor and Anjan Chatterjee called this “brain branding”).
To help protect yourself against all this hype and neuro-nonsense, I offer you five simple tips:
1) Just because it’s in the brain doesn’t necessarily mean it's more real. In his article, Vaughan Bell quoted a British politician who recently claimed that unemployment is a problem because it has “physical effects on the brain”. This is the mistaken idea that a neurological reference somehow lends greater authority to an argument, or makes a societal or behavioural problem somehow more real. In a way, many diagnostic brain scanning companies exploit this mistaken thinking. For example, DrSpectscan.com offers SPECT brain imaging to diagnose conditions like autism, even though the diagnostic criteria for autism are social and behavioural. With a ‘proper history and exam,’ write Chancellor and Chatterjee, ‘it is not clear that SPECT scans add to the diagnostic utility or rationally guide treatment.’ Whenever anyone tries to convince you of something by mentioning the brain, take a moment to consider whether the brain really is relevant or the neuro-reference is just gratuitous.
2) Look for conflicts of interest. One industry identified by Chancellor and Chatterjee as having gone beyond the evidence is the world of commercial brain training products. Companies like Posit Science and Lumosity make grand claims about the benefits of their online mental exercises, for example that they will boost your everyday mental performance. In fact, the current scientific consensus is that these kind of transfer effects remain elusive. A problem with much of the research in this field is that it is funded by the brain training companies and conducted by their scientists. For example, this 2006 brain training paper purporting to show memory enhancement in older adults was led by Henry W. Mahncke, a major stakeholder in Posit Science. Most journal articles now require authors to mention any conflicts of interest – usually at the end of the paper, so check for this if you can.
3) Watch out for grandiose claims. No Lie MRI is a US company that offers brain-scan-based lie detection services. Its home page states – “The technology used by No Lie MRI represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!” Sound too good to be true? If it does, it probably is. Last year a judge in Montgomery county evaluated all the evidence for fMRI-based lie detection after a defendant sought to use his scan at No Lie MRI as part of his defence. The judge ruled the brain scan evidence was inadmissible on the basis that the scientific debate about the use of fMRI for lie detection is far from settled.
4) Beware seductive metaphors. Many brain-related products are based on neurological claims that are little more than metaphor. Take the idea that right-brain thinking is somehow more liberated and creative than left-brain thinking. In reality, the two hemispheres of our brain are densely interconnected and they work together whenever we’re engaged in any kind of task. But this hasn’t stopped numerous technology companies peddling products that supposedly give your right-brain a boost, as if you can somehow muscle up one half of your head while the other side rests.
5) Learn to recognise quality research. Ignore spin and take first-hand testimonials with a pinch of salt. When it comes to testing the efficacy of brain-based interventions, the gold standard is the randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. This means the recipients of the intervention don’t know whether they’ve received the target intervention or a placebo, and the researchers also don’t know who’s been allocated to which condition. This helps stop motivation, expectation and bias creeping into the results. Related to this, it’s important for the control group to do something that appears like a real intervention, even though it isn’t. Many trials fail to ensure this is the case. Meta-analyses that weigh up all the evidence from existing trials help provide an accurate picture of whether a treatment really works, so look out for these.