The week of April 10, 2016

Why we’re living in an era of neuroscience hype

By Neuroskeptic

Do you want to be more successful? Happier? More intelligent? Don’t despair. The answer, we’re told, is right in front of your nose—or rather, right behind it. It’s your own brain. Thanks to neuroscience, you can hack your gray matter. According to the sales pitch, almost anything is possible, if you can master your brain—and if you can afford to buy the products that promise to help you do that.

But how many of these neuroproducts are neurobullshit? And what makes neuroscience so attractive to people with something to sell?

I’m a neuroscientist who has been blogging about the brain for the past eight years. Over this time I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of neuroscience-themed commercial products. There are brain pills to optimize your mental focus. There are futuristic-looking headbands that promise to measure or stimulate your neural activity in order to make you smarter, or help you sleep better, or even meditate better. There is no end of “brain training” apps and neuroscience-themed self-help books.

These products tend to have names based around “Neuro” or “Brain.” And they will come advertised as being “created by neuroscientists,” “based on the latest brain research,” or at least endorsed by some leading brain expert.

Once you look beyond the “neuro” gloss, however, you’ll see that many of these products aren’t new at all, but just old products in new packaging. A recent, and notorious, example of this was “Fifth Quarter Fresh,” a brand of chocolate milk. The drink was promoted as some kind of brain tonic, able to protect young athletes from the dangers of concussions—with the help of a deeply flawed piece of research conducted at the University of Maryland.

It’s just chocolate milk.

With flawed research, chocolate milk was promoted as some kind of brain tonic, able to protect young athletes from the dangers of concussions.

Likewise, most “brain training” has little to do with neuroscience as such. Yes, you do use your brain when you’re practicing and training on these software titles, but that’s nothing special, since you use your brain to do everything. Brain training apps involve games or puzzles. They’re not “neuro” games or “brain” puzzles, as if other games and puzzles aren’t. It would be equally accurate to call these things “mind training” or “intelligence training,” but some marketing genius realized that we are living in the era of the brain and that “neuroscience” is a selling point.

This is not to say that all neuroproducts are worthless, but my advice to anyone considering buying one would be to do some research first. Find out whether it has any real neuroscience backing it up—check to see what neuroscientists are saying on blogs and on social media, not just in the testimonials, and ask whether there’s any evidence that the new product has been shown to be any better in practice than the older (and cheaper) equivalents.

The rise of neuroproducts is part of a broader trend: We are thinking—and talking— about the brain more than ever. Today, it is widely claimed that neuroscience has much to teach psychiatry, economics, education, the legal system, and even the fight against terrorism. I and other writers have challenged this “neuromania,” but it shows no sign of abating.

We live in an era where many look to the brain for guidance in the most mundane situations. Just last month, a piece appeared in the Travel section of the Telegraph explaining, in all seriousness, that family holidays were a good idea because they are good for the brain: “[H]olidays can also advance brain development in children. This is because on a family holiday, you are exercising two genetically ingrained systems deep in the brain’s limbic area…” Not to be outdone, the Detroit News, meanwhile, discussed the benefits of coloring books. Coloring, which “uses both hemispheres” of the brain and “has a relaxing effect… in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain.”

We feel that if we can reframe a “mind” problem as a “brain” problem, then by doing so we’re already halfway to finding a solution.

As Anne Scheel quipped on Twitter, “It’s so great how neuroscience transforms everything you’ve always done anyway into something that’s fantastic for your brain.”

Another example of the growing reach of neuroscience comes from the case of Kids Company, a (now defunct) U.K. charity devoted to caring for underprivileged children. Kids Company spent a large sum of money on brain scanning studies with the aim of showing that poverty, trauma, and abuse have measurable effects on the brains of young people. Although the research itself seems to have been scientifically solid, Kids Company reportedly had a very clear hope as to what the results would show. They wanted to get “hard” neuroscience evidence that adversity scars children. They already had plenty of “soft” evidence of this, from psychology and from everyday experience, but Kids Company seems to have felt that “hard” neuroscience evidence would bolster its case.

In my view, it’s this sense of “hard” vs. “soft” truth that lies at the root of the craze for neurobullshit. We seem prone to a mind-brain dualism, thinking that the mind is something soft, malleable, and mysterious, whereas the brain is a hard, biological thing open to scientific probing. Therefore, we feel that if we can reframe a “mind” problem as a “brain” problem, then by doing so we’re already halfway to finding a solution. (In fact, the hard/soft, brain/mind fallacy dates back to Greek philosophy, and is known as Cartesian Dualism.)

Really, the human brain is no harder or easier to understand than the human mind, because they are ultimately the same thing. So, while it is possible in principle to reframe a “mind” issue as a “brain” issue, it’s often not useful to do so. Consider that the feeling of hunger, like all mental states, is a product of some process in your brain. If you’re hungry, it might be possible to work out the exact neural basis of your hunger—but you’d still be hungry. The solution to the brain-state of hunger is to eat something, and you don’t need to know any neuroscience to know that.

Why is there so much neurobullshit around today? I think the answer is that neuroscience really has made great advances in the past few decades, and these advances have been very visible. Methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), introduced in 1990, have made it possible to measure and picture brain activity in real time. FMRI really is an amazing technology that has revolutionized neuroscience; it has also made neuroscience more accessible to the public. The trouble is that the colorful images produced by fMRI and other neuroimaging techniques are immensely compelling but often misinterpreted. Such images have led to the impression that now, for the first time, we can understand the brain, when in fact, neuroscientists are still struggling to understand these images and what they have to tell us.

Ultimately, modern neurohype is driven by the appeal of “hard” or scientific approaches to problems, combined with the modern buzz surrounding brain science. The result is that neuroscience (or something resembling it) has become a selling point—a shiny new coat of paint, both for products and for ideas. Today, while we really do know more about the brain than ever before, our understanding is still very limited. Neuroscience is not yet advanced enough to tell us the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes