The Armchair Neuroscientist

It's natural to view news items and blog posts about the brain as authoritative. We need to talk about what we're talking about when we talk about "the brain".

April 5, 2013
Jonathan Libov

Before we fully launch into this post, take a look at this headline in The Telegraph:

Facebook Home could change our brains

Leading neuroscientist Susan Greenfield says Facebook's new phone and app encourage us to live in the moment. That could change our brains, she claims. [Link]

If your BS-radar sounded even just a little, you'll enjoy this.

You've probably heard that the White House has proposed an initiative to map the human brain, nudging the study of the brain ever further in the public imagination. While neuroscience has yet to enjoy the kinds of public spectacle — the moon landing, Mars Rover — that glues the world to the screen, it's remarkable that concepts like hormonal secretion ("getting your dopamine fix", a "rush of adrenaline") and brain lateralization (being "left-brained or right/brained"), have entered common parlance. Some time ago they would only have been exchanged in academia.

As a consumer of popular science news, you've probably even seen fMRI illustrations like this one:

Amazing, right? We can see what the brain is doing millisecond-by-millisecond!

However, you might want to pause before you Like, Retweet, or Reblog this GIF. I came across it myself on Twitter. The content of the tweet, which I paraphrased below, served as a sort of caption for what the image represented:

"what your brain looks like when you encounter something interesting"

That caught my attention. I clicked the link and landed here, which also accompanies the illustration with a tweet-length comment:

"This describes the brain and what’s happening."

That's kind of vague. But at least we finally have a link to the original source of the illustration, a paper published in the science journal Nature. The title of this paper?

"Whole-brain functional imaging at cellular resolution using light-sheet microscopy"

Um, okay. Suddenly this amazing, entertaining illustration of the brain has become much less accessible. Why? To answer this question, we need to talk about what we talk about when we talk about the brain.

Skepticism is academic

Before moving into the tech world, I studied Cognitive Science in college and worked for a year as a Research Technician at an Auditory Neuroscience Lab. While I'd like to think that the knowledge I acquired during those years qualifies me to discuss how concepts from neuroscience have been mangled in consumer media, it's not the case. Actually, it's the brand of skepticism I adopted while a student of the brain (and a science undergrad) rather than any particular facts that even qualifies me to write this post.

The topic of my senior-year seminar course was Modularity. Roughly speaking, "modularity" is the theory that areas of the brain do certain things. Independent of the real academic evidence supporting it, this theory lends itself well to a laymen's understanding of the brain, as it mirrors the way non-experts can still classify parts of complex machines. You can look at a computer and accurately say that the disk drive stores data in the long-term information, and that the monitor displays information for input and output. That is truly what these things do.

Yet a lot of very smart people would tell you that the same kind of taxonomy can't be done with the brain. Otherwise put, no part of the brain does anything that humans could readily classify. To understand the problem space more deeply, you could read up on theories of "nonlinear dynamics" in neuroscience, but that would only leave you with Wikipedia-level knowledge of a topic that people spend their lives studying. And that's my point.

"How the brain works" is a really, really, really complicated topic that's still massively debated by the smartest people on the planet. Throw in the fact that much of what is published in medical journals today will eventually be discarded, and you may realize how shaky it is to trust any facts about how the brain works.

Let's run through a few topics on the brain that are oft-cited in media and yet aren't as useful or true as you might think.

fMRI (or, when brains light up)

Take the two images below — the fMRI illustration from earlier in this post and an image titled "Embryonic Stars Emerge from Interstellar 'Eggs'", via NASA:

What do these two images have in common?

  1. They never actually look like that in reality. In both cases, they've been massively color-enhanced to bring out detail.
  2. They'd be far less tweetable if the images were left in their raw form.

fMRI is an amazing and instructive technology, but it also has the benefit of looking totally awesome. And to the layman, it's grossly misleading. If the fMRI above is really "what the brain looks like when something interesting happens", can you guess what it looks like when someone sneezes? Or when someone yawns because nothing interesting is happening? Hint: It would be pretty indistinguishable from any other fMRI you've seen.

Dopamine and "The Pleasure Center"

Dopamine is a hormone/neurotransmitter related to the experience of reward. It's been linked to the sensation of pleasure and reward when experiencing music, drugs, sex and other activities we classify as hedonic, so much so that the brain systems where dopamine is involved is often called "the pleasure center". See also here, here and here.

Calling the secretion of dopamine the "pleasure center" is a convenient way to characterize it, surely more consumer-friendly than "the mesolimbic dopamine system". It lends itself well to unfortunate articles like these — "Are cupcakes as addictive as cocaine?":

"When they were shown pictures of their favourite foods, such as cake, a surge of the reward chemical dopamine hit the decision-making area of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex — the same section activated when cocaine addicts are shown a bag of the Class A drug".

Hopefully the sections before this one gave you enough pause to understand that "dopamine does pleasure stuff" is a vast oversimplification. Calling anything in the brain a "center" is dicey; like many brain functions, dopamine is also implicated in matters far less sexy (in this case, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and mammary lactation). Pity, then, that some are ready to jump on the role of dopamine in the consumption social media, or to name your digital agency after a hormone involved in the production of breast milk.

I'd refer you to this excellent article in the Guardian for a more accurate view from 10,000 feet of what dopamine really is and how it's often been mischaracterized in the media.


You've probably come across online personality tests like this one or this one, which purport to tell you if you're more of a "left-brained or right-brained" person.

To those who are even modestly in-the-know about how the brain works, or know how to exercise a modicum of skepticism, the "left brain/right brain" split is to the field of neuropsychology as "The files are in the computer?!?" scene from Zoolander is to computer science. So the theory goes:

"A person who is 'left-brained' is often said to be more logical, analytical and objective, while a person who is 'right-brained' is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective

Poppycock! While there are roots from Nobel Prize-winning research from which this myth sprung, the manner in which it's been perpetuated couldn't be further from the truth. The fact that self-help and business executives often invoke it with almost no sense of irony probably does mean that this unfortunate myth is here to stay.

Neuropsychology, Neuroeconomics, and why "my brain made me do it"

While we're on the topic of left-and-right, wouldn't it be neat if neuroscience could tell us why one person votes Democrat while another votes Republican?

In 2008 I had the good fortune to organize and moderate a series of roundtables on political psychology. Our second roundtable, "Left and Right: What Neuroscience is Revealing about Political Thought" dissected how burgeoning techniques in neuroimaging might inform political studies. This article in Science covers the work of one of our panelists.

In short, there's a lot to be encouraged about, and a lot to be skeptical about. Relative to deep-space optics in astrophysics and molecular analysis in biology and chemistry, neuroimaging is still a relatively new technique. Scientific research doesn't accumulate in a straightforward manner, and at this stage of the game in neuropsychology and neuroeconomics, it's safe to say that the short-term future will give rise to many well-meaning false starts.

If you're looking to neuroscience to answer real-world, practical questions — for example, how to better convert visitors to your website — then take heed of the fact that you're relying on a field whose findings haven't yet stood the test of time.

But then again, you may want to ask why are you looking to neuroscience to answer these questions in the first place.

Why do you need to know?

Let's run through some of the popular misconceptions in this post:

  • fMRI's are less revealing than they appear to be
  • It's only sorta, kinda accurate to call the flow of dopamine "the pleasure center of the brain"
  • People can't be classified at gross neuroanatomical levels (left brain/right brain)
  • Neuropsychology and neuroeconomics is still a fledgling, turbulent field — not the kind on which you'd like to base any conclusions

Does this mean that we should automatically dismiss any consumer media that invokes facts or ideas about the brain? I don't think so. The dopamine example in particular provides a useful metaphor through which you might be able to problem solve. A product creator might benefit from analyzing consumption of his product as if it obeyed the same dynamics which govern the consumption of junk food or addictive drugs.

I emphasize "as if" because in the end, it doesn't really matter if dopamine secretion has anything to do with the solution you're looking for. The dopamine metaphor might just help frame the matter.

Where you might go wrong, however, is trusting one source over another merely because it invokes the word "brain" or the prefix "neuro". Findings from neuroscience certainly distinguish themselves from armchair psychology, or even real, academic psychology. After all, isn't the brain the ultimate arbiter of what people do?

Yes, but accurate, applicable knowledge about the brain is rarely dispensed in popular media; even in scientific journals, I suspect it's also rarely made available in a way that could be applied to real-world problems. In many instances, invoking ideas about "the brain" just makes the source appear authoritative.

To illustrate, check out Shopify's blog post on "Using Behavioral Economics, Psychology, and Neuroeconomics to Maximize Sales. Skip to Section 2, on "How to Sell to 'Tightwads':

In nearly every industry that you can sell're going to have to deal with customers that neuroscientists have labeled as "tightwads". Don't worry, it's not an insulting term. It has to deal with how much "buying pain" these people receive versus the average consumer. Considering the fact that neuroscientists have labeled our spending habits as, literally, "spend 'til it hurts," it's important to understand what makes these customers respond the way they do. According to research... (emphasis mine)

I'll leave you to read on, but I'd encourage you to ask: Do you really need neuroscientific research to learn that "Changing 1 Word Can Make a HUGE Difference"? Or that "re-framing the value...can entice buyers into purchasing more expensive options"? These are concepts which Coca-Cola figured out in the 19th century, without the aid of neuroimaging. While the behavioral economics stuff presented in this post is great, the appeal to neuroscience feels gratuitous.

And what about the claim from the top of this post that "Facebook Home" has the potential to "change our brains"? Just hyperbole mixed with sleight-of-hand. Read closely and you'll see that there's nothing specific to the "Facebook Home" product that bears on the nature of our brains. The argument rests on the fact that "the human brain will adapt to whatever environment in which it is placed", which makes this "brain changing" notion as true of Facebook Home as it the iPhone, Season 6 of Mad Men, and anything else that wasn't around last year. Your brain is "changing" every moment of your life, and you don't need a reporter to tell you that a neuroscientist said so.

All in all, neuroscience holds endless promise to help us improve our lives and help us understand our world. But when you come across an appeal to "brain science" in popular media, you may just want to ask: What the heck does a brain have to do with it?