Neuromarketing podcast on All in the Mind

This past week, Phil Harris of the University of Melbourne, Shane Moon, Managing Director of Inner Truth, and I participated in a conference held at the Royal Institution of Australia on the subject of neuromarketing – I joined the group in Melbourne via skype. The event was hosted by science journalist Natasha Mitchell, and portions of the discussion can be found in this week’s episode of All in the Mind.

Link to download podcast of “Buying desires: Neuromarketing or neurohype?” from All in the Mind

Further coverage of the event on Natasha Mitchell’s blog



Tyler Burge has a piece in the New York Times Opinionator column entitled “A Real Science of Mind”, in which he takes neuroscience to task for claims that understanding the brain is the right level of explanation for understanding mind (increasingly, a word that is losing its utility, IMHO).  He rightly trounces neurobabble, and points out that correlations “between localized neural activity and specific psychological phenomena are important facts.  But they merely set the stage for explanation.”  Where he gets into trouble is when he continues by saying  “Being purely descriptive, they explain nothing.  Some correlations do aidpsychological explanation.  For example, identifying neural events underlying vision constrains explanations of timing in psychological processes and has helped predict psychological effects.  We will understand both the correlations and the psychology, however, only through psychological explanation.”

Claims of hegemony over insight for one discipline or another are always suspect.  I am all for reducing the amount of neurobabble out there in the world, but trying to predict which level of explanation will have most meaningful answers is a bit like reading tea leaves – it is probably most prudent to watch carefully as the fields mature, and then take the most powerful observations and incorporate them into a new canon, one that has yet to solidify.  Moreover, there is no shortage of neurobabble emerging from psychology, so one should make sure one’s house is in order before casting stones.

Link to Tyler Burge’s NY Times article.

You are not your brain scan!

Natasha Mitchell, host of the ever interesting All in the Mind series from ABC Radio, gave a talk this past July at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas entitled, “You are not your brain scan!“.  From the liner notes on the Slow TV website:

“The study of the brain has attracted extraordinary public interest in recent years, partly driven by major scientific breakthroughs in understanding the brain’s workings. To rely on brain scans, however, risks simplifying the science and equating our brain scans with destiny, much like the early years of genetics and reporting on genetics.  In this very entertaining and insightful talk at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, Natasha Mitchell of ABC Radio (All in the Mind) introduces a healthy note of sense and caution to the discourse about what we can learn from studying brain scans.”

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere (and maybe even if you have), you will have noticed that images of brain scans have suffused popular culture of late.  Natasha takes us through the pitfalls of believing that the brain scans tell us what we so desperately want to know, and along the way gives a pretty good overview of  The Neuro Meme, as well as the ways that not only the public but scientists have become seduced by the power of the image of the living brain.   [One of my favorite lines: “It’s become a game of pin the thought on the neuron.” ]   Natasha’s main point is that scientists might be making claims beyond what is technically or conceptually reasonable, and I, for one, stand up and enthusiastically applaud her for taking the imagers to task over the veracity of their claims. One need not even invoke the infamous dead fish fMRI to know that there has been a bit of hyperbole out there.

[Postscript:  I would have liked Natasha’s presentation on its merits alone, but the fact that she pokes fun at the growth of neuro-everything, but then applauds neuroethics as one new subfield that is on the money, biased me even more.  I wonder if that is one of those brain things…]

The Science of Love: A Neuroethics Journal Club

Last week, the Core celebrated an early Valentine’s Day by breaking open a box of chocolates and engaging in a lively journal club discussion on Love. The paper, a seminal piece by Aron et. al (Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love), set the stage for a rich exchange on topics ranging from the neurobiology of love and sex, to the rise of folk neuroscience and potential applications of a “love potion”.

The conversation opened with an anecdote from my experience as a research assistant at Stanford, where I worked in conjunction with Art Aron on a exploration of romantic love and analgesia (Younger et. al, in submission).

The story went something like this:

When I began working on the ‘love project,’ I was a nineteen year-old who, like most people of my age and generation, believed that romantic love was nothing short of supernatural. Raised on a steady diet of Disney Princess stories and bubblegum pop, my first exposure to the neurobiology of love was shocking and uncomfortable.

The body of scientific literature seemed to taunt me from the pages of PubMed. ‘Of course there is no cupid shooting arrows! Unless ‘cupid’ is a cute way of saying, “dopamine-rich areas associated with mammalian reward and motivation systems” (Aron et. al). Love happens in your brain!’ Not only that, the literature snickered, love is not special to your brain; it happens in everyone’s brains via roughly the same mechanism.

It was like finding out that ‘Santa’ is just your mom in a red bathrobe.

Although I was certainly disillusioned,  my discomfort ran deeper than the discovery of a tangible truth behind love’s mystery. Below are some of the questions that plagued me during my initial investigation, as well as a some of the journal club musings in response. Continue reading


Eurozine has generously published a translation of Ewa Hess & Hennric Jokeit’s article in Merkur entitled Neurocapitalism. You can get a pretty good sense of what the authors are going off about from the first two paragraphs:

Today, the phenomenology of the mind is stepping indignantly aside for a host of hyphenated disciplines such as neuro-anthropology, neuro-pedagogy, neuro-theology, neuro-aesthetics and neuro-economics. Their self-assurance reveals the neurosciences’ usurpatory tendency to become not only the humanities of science, but the leading science of the twenty-first century. The legitimacy, impetus and promise of this claim derive from the maxim that all human behaviour is determined by the laws governing neuronal activity and the way it is organised in the brain.

Whether or not one accepts the universal validity of this maxim, it is fair to assume that a science that aggressively seeks to establish hermeneutic supremacy will change everyday capitalist reality via its discoveries and products. Or, to put it more cautiously, that its triumph is legitimated, if not enabled, by a significant shift in the capitalist world order.

Continue reading

I and Thou, the Brain and Pain: Self, Empathy and the Other

The I of the basic word I-You is different from that of the basic word I-It. The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use). The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genetive–i.e., without any “of” clause).
– Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923).
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
-Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).gaze_o'pain

In the July 1st issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, there is an article by Xu et al from Shihui Han’s lab on neural mechanisms involved in emapthic bias towards racial in-group members. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the authors demonstrated that when an image of painful stimulation was applied to racial in-group faces – either Caucasian or Chinese – there was increased activations in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and inferior frontal/insula cortex in both groups. These collective neural mechanisms (referred to as the not well understood ‘pain matrix’) have been a region of interest for cognitive scientists, moral psychologists and bioethicicsts in the convergent field of sociocognitive neuroscience, particularly in the study of empathy (see for example, Jackson et al., 2004). The significance of the Xu paper is that they show, from a first-person perspective, that activation in the ACC decreased significantly when participants viewed faces of the other race. The ACC also tends to be activated when individuals are in pain themselves.

Martha Farah, a neuro-ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania commented on this study in a recent issue of e! Science News, invoking the decades-long history that has examined in-group vs. out-group bias:

“This is a fascinating study of a phenomenon with important social implications for everything from medical care to charitable giving,” she said. But the finding raises as many questions as it answers, Farah said. “For example, is it racial identity per se that determines the brain’s empathic response, or some more general measure of similarity between self and other?” she said. “What personal characteristics or life experiences influence the disparity in empathic response toward in-group and out-group members?”

She continued in another online publication:

Such automatic neural responses don’t necessarily translate into behaviour, cautions Farah. “Just because there is this difference in ACC response it doesn’t mean that we are inevitably going to behave less empathically toward the other group.”

And so, I ask “so what” questions: do these findings really tell us anything we didn’t know before? So what if the brain responds differently to others? Will that change any of our current methods of socialization or anti-racism campaigns?

Neuroimaging In Focus: The Hype

tda0043lThe Dana Foundation‘s Cerebrum recently featured an article by Russel A. Poldrack, which addressed some common misconceptions about neuroimaging research. The piece starts off with this quote:

Colorful brain images may tempt researchers to make claims that outpace solid scientific data—and may tempt the public to believe those claims. In particular, although brain imaging has provided solid evidence of alterations in brain structures and functions associated with many psychiatric disorders, it can be used neither to diagnose such disorders nor to determine exactly how treatments work—at least not yet. Keeping some key ideas in mind can help us evaluate the next report of a brain-imaging “breakthrough.”

The issues and problems with the interpretation of brain images is no stranger to neuro-ethics discourse. For example, Illes et al., have provided conversation on the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) of advanced neuroimaging, in addition to other papers that explore epistemological and ethical issues that come with the current limitations of imaging technology (see: e.g., Racine, Bar-Illan & Illes, 2005; Illes 2007; Illes, Racine, & Kirschen 2006). Others, such as McCabe and Castel and Weisberg et al., have taken an empirical approach to understand the “temptation” of brain images by testing human participants directly. These latter studies demonstrated that presenting brain images or neuroscience information with research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning, or as a more satisfying explanation – even if the information presented was “logically irrelevant”  (as was the case in the Weisberg et al study).

The Dana article on “pipe dream” neuroimaging comes right on the heels of a couple other reports on some crucial methodological and statistical flaws in the data analysis process of brain imaging. The first, which received considerable online debate in blogs and elsewhere, was the paper “Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience.” The lead author, Ed Vul, suggests that the analytic methods used in imaging indicate that many studies used faulty techniques to obtain their data.  A second paper, currently in press for Nature Neuroscience, argues against “double-dipping” in systems neuroscience research. Double-dipping refers to “the use of the same dataset for selection and selective analysis,” and “will give distorted descriptive statistics and invalid statistical inference whenever the results statistics are not inherently independent of the selection criteria under the null hypothesis.” This, no doubt, gives more fuel to the fire for the extreme sceptics of neuroscience, medicine, and science in general. Who will guard the guardians of neuroscience?

What the Cerebrum article got me thinking of in particular, aside from what I briefly refer to above, and the – loosely – hermaneutical process of interpreting brain images, is how we as human beings relate to facts that we receive from science and medicine, and our relationship with technology; in particular technology that provides facts associated with the self. Joseph Dumit has explored this concept, and the persuasive power of brain images in his book Picturing Personhood. Using a neuro-anthropological perspective (pardon the neologism), Dumit examines the power that brain images have, as represented in the mass media, in altering understandings people have of their own bodies and brains – a term he calls the “objective self”. I have become particularly fascinated in the notion of objective self-fashioning, specifically as it relates to the research field of imaging genetics (or imaging genomics). In an up-coming paper I’m giving at the 20th Annual Canadian Bioethics Society Conference in Hamilton, ON, I argue that the power (and persuasiveness), increased sensitivity, and less statistical variability of the combined technologies (genetics + imaging) requires a heightened clinical sensitivity to the objective-self-fashioning process in the translation of knowledge derived from imaging genetics. This is not an argument for neuro- or genetic-exceptionalism.  I welcome feedback on this claim as I develop my paper.

I will close with a quote from Hall and colleagues on addiction, the notion of disease, and neuroimaging and the “seductive allure” of neuroscience explanations:

A ‘disease’ that can be ‘seen’ in the many-hued  splendour of a PET scan carries more conviction than one justified by the possibly exculpatory self-reports of addicts who claim that they are unable to control their drug use (p.867).