Bringing the art of neuroscience and psychology to life.

Neuro in the News: Neuroscience Under Attack

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Alissa Quart wrote Neuroscience: Under Attack, an article discussing the backlash of recent interesting headlines making some pretty large neuroscience claims.

You may have seen some of them:
Oxytocin May Play Role In Fidelity By Affecting Distance Committed Men Keep From Attractive Women

or, a little older but one of my favorites

You Love Your iPhone, Literally

People love a good headline.  And people love to hear that there is a magic pill or some easy answer to all problems.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t always work that way.

With this blog I hope to be able to share neuroscience findings in ways that can be accessible to the public and to industry, as is my passion.  But it is also my passion to make sure that the integrity of science is preserved and not stretched beyond the boundaries.

Working in industry I’ve met with this problem many times.  Someone saw an article or was approached by a vendor about some new neuroscience finding or technique and they want to use it for everything.  And while I’m super excited that they are excited about neuroscience, I always caution them:

– no, that’s not exactly how it works, it’s not so simple

– if you go to a widget salesmen, they are going to sell you a widget

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take some of the examples I listed above.


People have always wanted to believe in pheromones.  And yes, they do exist.  There are chemical signals produced by one animal that can activate mechanisms in the body of another animal to react in different  and specific ways. This can be best seen in animals, more so than humans.  But there is evidence that humans can transmit the smell of fear and that we can recognize our family members by odor.  And that’s really cool.

And that brings us to Oxytocin and the recent news that it can prevent men from cheating on their spouses. I’m not sure what offended me more, that they called it the “trust hormone” or that someone made such a flying leap as linking it to infedelity. Oxytocin has been shown to be involved in the monogamous bonds of voles (one of the very few animals that practice monogamy).  It best known for it’s role in the mother-infant bonds and may even be involved in breast feeding and facilitating birth. But it’s also involved in other, non-relationship, actions like wound healing.  Basically, like most hormones and neurotransmitters… it’s involved in a lot of things.

So what else is going on in this study? Basically men, single and partnered, were approached by attractive women.  Those in a relationship that received an oxytocin nasal spray preferred the attractive women to stand further away.  And this is being taken to mean that oxytocin keep men faithful.  Seem a bit of leap? Yes. Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security and human bonding.  So I have to wonder why all of the people that received the nasal oxytocin treatment didn’t feel more comfortable with the women getting closer. Oxytocin is involved in sexual arousal and in decreasing fear and anxiety. So why would it have this action in the partnered men?  In fact, it has been shown to increase empathy, particularly in eye-gazing in men.  So why didn’t they see this difference.  Fishy. Finally, how does this study say anything about fidelity? The distance at which the men want to keep an attract woman away from them under the watchful eye of experimenters does not say anything about their fidelity behaviors.

As with most things, I suspect more study needs to be done on this idea. And no, I don’t think you should be spraying your partner’s pillow with oxytocin spray to keep him loyal.

And it’s finding stretching like that they leads people from love between people to…

Loving your iPhone 

I love the idea of neuromarketing.  It makes total sense to me. Your brain processes the sensory information you receive and then makes a decision on how to act on it. Appealing to the brain’s senses seems perfectly logical. Functional flavors, scents and visuals that tap into the brain’s processes seems to me to be a great direction for consumer companies to go.

But in the world of industry we can sometimes get far removed from the actual world and even further from the academic world. In industry, companies want to be able to make claims.  Or they want to be able to see real shifts in consumer behavior in reaction to their products. And one dangerous way of examining a product’s effects is using neuromeasurment.  Why do I say dangerous?  It’s perfectly safe to do.  But perfectly dangerous to interpret.  Further, there are many many ways to measure brain and behavior and those measures are completely dependent on what it is that you are trying to test.  However, if you go to a widget salesmen, he will tell you that his widget can get you all the answers.

In comes fMRI and iPhones. In this study the researchers (and honestly, I can find if this is even the correct term to use as the author is only listed as writing books on consumerism, not as an actual fMRI scientist) used fMRI to measure brain activity when exposed to different brands – only using 8 men and women and exposed them to audio and video of a ringing iPhone.

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they “heard” it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also “saw” it. This powerful cross-sensory phenomenon is known as synesthesia.

Synesthesia?  Um… no.  That’s just learning.  When you associate a sound with a visual… that’s classical conditioning… that’s Pavlov.  Synesthesia is  a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Meaning that when someone sees color they hear music.  Or when they smell an odor they see a color. This is completely different.

Anyway, back to the study…

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member. In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.

This statement actually made me angry. First of all, this study didn’t look for addiction.  But it also surely didn’t look for love.  And the insular cortex… that’s an area of the brain that lights up in nearly all fMRI studies. It’s associated with emotion and cognitive functioning and actually the anterior insular cortex is involved with disgust.  So…

This guy sells millions of books and gets listed as a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Influential People”. Ugh.

Neuroscience provides for great understanding of human function and behavior.  And I really do think that we should embrace that in our daily lives and products.

But we also need to be able to think critically and cautiously.  Companies need to be sure to consult with neuroscientists that are not just trying to sell a widget. And journalists need to be cautious of how far they stretch scientific findings.

Don’t be afraid of science, respect it. And kudos to the scientists mentioned in the first link regarding the backlash from the neuro community on pseudoscience.

On that note, I’d like to leave you with a link on how a group of scientists managed to use math to see “brain activity” using fMRI in a dead fish.
Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .




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