This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

15Nov/10

The power (and danger) of phoney neuroscience

I know that I'm usually on here railing on about how awesome I think the neuroscience and scientific research is, so I thought I'd balance myself out a bit with a really interesting study on the ways in which neuroscience can lead people astray as well.

A group of researchers at Yale University were wondering whether or not the mere existence of neuroscientific data, regardless of whether that data was related at all to the argument at hand, would make listeners interpret a statement as more valid.  Like the good scientists they were, they devised an experiment to delve further into this question.

Essentially, there were two groups of people, ones who were given good explanations for a particular psychological phenomenon, and ones that were given a bad or incomplete explanation.  Furthermore, within each group, half were given explanations that included some kind of neuroscience component (brain imaging, etc.) that didn't really have anything to do with the statement being proposed.

The researchers used this experimental set up on three groups of people - those totally unfamiliar with neuroscience, those somewhat familiar with neuroscience (undergrads), and those who were very familiar with neuroscience (grads, post-docs, and professors).  Their theory was that including neuroscience information with an argument, whether or not it was applicable to the argument, would make those unfamiliar with neuroscience incorrectly think that the arguments were somehow "better" because of this data.

This is basically what they found.  While there was no effect of giving extra neuroscience information to highly-educated listeners, the medium- and no-education groups both considered the arguments to be more valid when presented with totally irrelevant neuroscience information.

It should be noted that everyone was able to correctly determine a good argument from a bad one, but the fact that irrelevant information played a role at all is unsettling at best.

Unfortunately, this speaks to a relatively common practice in our society that includes using fancy-looking science to back up completely insane claims.  It seems like every day you see another headline that links a very specific psychological phenomenon to a tiny point in the brain, when in reality we can make no such statement in good faith.

It's important that people realize that neuroscience information (or any scientific information) is not in-and-of-itself valid or correct or useful.  It is only legitimate, peer-reviewed research that can be accepted as true.

More generally, I urge everyone to take a skeptical approach to any argument that is presented to you, regardless of whether it comes from a science publication or some random person on the street.  Separating the intellectual wheat from the chaff  is what science does best when operating correctly, and we all need to take part in ensuring that the machine of empirical research is well-oiled and error-free.

via The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

9Nov/10

What’s it like to slowly lose the ability to speak? A first-person account.

This is an absolutely amazing piece of writing by Tom Lubbock, a long-time journalist and author.  It begins just as he has received some terrible news: he's got a brain tumor, and only has a year or two to live.  Moreover, the tumor is located near a region of his brain that is dedicated to speech production and comprehension (my guess is either Broca's Area or Wernicke's Area ).

True to his nature, Tom decides to keep a journal detailing his experiences during this troubling time.  He touches on thoughts about his own mortality, his relationship with the people around him, and how these relationships change as he slowly loses the ability to communicate.

I'm blown away by how much humanity comes through in this short piece of writing, and I urge you all to check it out.  Maybe we can all take a more appreciative look at our own mental faculties after having seen this man's experience.

via The Guardian

8Oct/10

The often sorry state of science journalism…

I wish that this article by Martin Robbins didn't exist.  Unfortunately it does, and even more unfortunately, it's nearly dead on in its portrayal of the dark side of science journalism.  Granted, not every writer succumbs to the temptation of these hackneyed storytelling devices, but the truth of the matter is that science journalism necessarily requires a different kind of reporting than is usually seen in the national media.

Without getting too heavy in here, I think that the problem largely stems from the lack of scientific background that many of our science journalists have, and from the fact that our scientific community is often so reluctant to reach out to the public themselves.  I'm not saying you need to be a theoretical physicist or anything, but possessing a set of skills and experience that surpasses a general interest in the field is probably a necessary part of writing to the general public in an informed and unbiased manner.

That's how it should be, but it seems like these days science journalism is plagued by the same things that are slowly taking over all kinds of journalism - sensationalism, half-truths, misunderstanding, and unthorough reporting.

So why, do you ask, does this pose a particular problem for the scientific community?  I would argue that science has a particularly strong stake in being perceived as "unbiased and objective" in its assessment of a given situation.  This is an image that the public seems all to willing to throw out the window these days, and it is particularly hurt when science reporters make wild claims about weak scientific findings that have yet to be replicated or fortified with further research.  I don't know how many times I've read the headline that some new "breakthrough research cures cancer in mice," but I do know that I've yet to see cancer rates drop to zero in humans.

Ultimately, these kinds of exciting, but ultimately empty, stories do not make the journalists look like the half-hearted reporters that they often are, it instead makes it seem like the scientists themselves were distorting the data or trying to create an interesting story out of nothing.

Granted, I'm not saying that never happens in the scientific world, but as a community we've got enough on our hands what with competing for grants, writing research proposals, and taking on the (quite difficult) task of ensuring quality control and objective results.

Scientific research is one of the most important pursuits of mankind, yet it exists in a precarious and fragile position where the slightest amount of bending the truth or misreporting data poses a threat to scientists throughout the entire world.  Perhaps the data will speak for itself, perhaps thinking about how we communicate science to the public isn't the scientists' problem, but if we don't do something about this soon, then we may find our scientific credibility heading down the same path as journalism's...

via The Guardian

21Jan/10

Informed ignorance

Hello to the one or two readers that happened to stumble across this page!  Considering the fact that this is my first post, I'll ask that you allow me a bit of wiggle-room as I start whiddling down my blogging skills into what will hopefully become a finely-tuned website about science, creativity, wonder, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

Given that you know nothing about me, perhaps a brief introduction is in order:  My name is Chris, I'm a Master's student at Tulane University.  I work in a cognitive neuroscience lab, although I'll likely be moving on to a different city, different school, and different research come June.

I am a scientist, but these days this term seems to carry so much weight.  I don't work in a lab coat, don't carry a pocket calculator with me, and certainly don't begrudge the creative fields that don't follow the empirical method.  On the contrary, I hope to nourish and encourage the artist in me, to find a middle ground between the hard logic of scientific work and the fluid beauty of the creative process.  I do not aspire to be either a scientist or an artist, but both at the same time.

My desire to do research, to learn about the mind, and to interact with others who share this interest comes from my amazement at the world and the wonder of not knowing the answers to a problem.  I know that sounds a bit contradictory.  Science is supposed to be about figuring out the answers, dispelling our preconceptions about the world, and shedding light on our ignorance in order to obtain some sort of objective truth.  These things are certainly part and parcel with the scientific pursuit, but they are not the driving forces behind the best science.  Ignorance is.

You tend to realize two things when you first partake in scientific research: one, that the experiment didn't work out how you thought it would at all, and two, that this is perfectly OK.  Oftentimes, the most insightful research uncovers facts about the world that we weren't even intending to look at, that we never could have predicted ahead of time.  This is the beauty of science, this is the engine that drives inquiring minds.

Over the next few years in my life, I hope to come to terms with the monstrous sea of ignorance that stands before each and every one of us.  I hope to look upon the vacuum of all that I don't know, and feel comforted in the fact that I will never be able to comprehend even the tiniest fraction of all that is out there.  And thank god, for if we ever "figured it all out," what else would we do with ourselves?