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The Allure of Neuromyths & Brain Science

August 28, 2020

The media have become fascinated with brain images—and the use of those images to explain almost everything. Neuroscience (the scientific study of the nervous system, in many cases focusing only on the brain) has made a mark in mainstream media and everyday conversation. You have probably seen headlines such as “This Is Your Brain on Sugar,” “The Brain’s Evil Spot,” or “Brain Based Learning.” These phrases, and the stories associated with them, generally hold some truth but at the same time are misrepresented and often fuel false beliefs and misconceptions. As an example, consider the implications of the so-called “Sugar Brain.” Proponents claim that consumption of sugar can activate the same brain reward mechanisms (dopamine pathway referred to as mesolimbic dopamine system) as those activated when consuming addictive drugs. Some of the same brain areas are activated (varying in strength and intensity) when consuming sugar and drugs, but other stimuli also activate the mesolimbic dopamine system. The mesolimbic dopamine system is rich in dopaminergic neurons. Dopamine cell bodies (parts of brain cells where dopamine is synthesized) are located in the brainstem.  

Objects, stimuli, activities, or internal physical states can serve as rewards for humans and non-human animals. Rewards have positive value and facilitate feelings of pleasure and positive emotion and act as positive reinforcers. Not only do rewards lead to the activation of brain reward mechanisms, but so does expectation or anticipation of rewards; indeed, “[T]he flow of dopamine is set off by the simplest expectation of pleasure, even though the pleasure may not materialize” (Kandel 2012). The brain’s reward mechanisms are activated when we enjoy art, experience beautiful scenery, are exposed to attractive faces, listen to pleasant music, are exposed to humor, drive a sports car, and experience romantic love. The “Sugar Brain” could easily be called the “Love Brain.” 

I often require my students to review and report on popular brain science articles. As with most popular science articles, there is usually some good information in the article, but often the article leads readers to form false beliefs. Frequent myths students report include the claims that there are 100 billion neurons in the human brain; that we only use 10 percent of our brains; that some people are right brained while some are left brained; and so on. I highly recommend Great Myths of The Brain (Jarrett 2015) as an excellent source for a detailed discussion of brain myths. Jarrett investigates forty-one primary myths, while addressing a few other myths that may be considered as subcategories of the main myths. 

Defending Yourself against Neuromyths

There are several ways to mentally arm yourself against these neuromyths. Don’t be overly impressed by references to neuroscience. Neuroscience references are often used to make something appear more real or a behavioral problem as more serious. As an example, stating depression is real, that it has negative biological impacts on the brain, or stating benefits of brain-based learning. Various behaviors show that depression is real: withdrawal from social activities, lack of motivation, decreases in memory performance, and so on. Regarding redundancy of a brain-based learning statement, it is important to note that all learning involves brain changes. News media often claim an activity is good or bad by referencing a brain scan that showed changes associated with an activity. In reality, the brain is plastic; it is highly modifiable and changes often. In any case ask yourself: Does a neuro reference add to what we already know?

Beware of conflicts of interest. Often those spreading the wonders of neuroscience have an agenda. Why is it that this brain training game changes the brain, but other activities involving learning and higher cognition do not? Why does a specific form of therapy lead to changes while other similar forms do not? If this supplement has the same ingredients as similar supplements, why is this one claimed to be so much better? Look for independent evaluation of these claims. Those with vested interests in claims and/or products are often biased, and sometimes this bias is unconscious (below their awareness). 

Identify quality research. Become familiar with basic terms and methods and have at least a general knowledge of relevant scientific literature. Consider the reliability and validity of the studies being referenced. Refer to research from top people in the field. Not all research is the same; peer-reviewed publications are the preferred source, but they are not infallible. Learn to be critical of all papers, but in general expect peer review to be higher quality than popular media publications. 

Don’t mistake correlation for causation. Media often report cause and effect relationships based on correlational studies. This is problematic because with correlational studies (associations between variables) it is difficult to determine the causal direction. As an example, headlines may read “People who do activity A have a larger brain area B.” If the study is correlational, we don’t know if activity A caused brain area B to be larger. It could be people with larger B are more likely to engage in activity A. Another problem with inferring causation from correlational studies is there may be other factors involved that determine the relationship; this is called the third variable problem.

Neuroseduction

Neuroseduction reflects the tendency for people to accept unsupported, unclear conclusions when those conclusions are accompanied by neuroscience explanations. In a study conducted by Weisberg and colleagues (2008), it was found that simply inserting the words “brain scans show” can lead undergraduate students to accept logically flawed explanations from neuroimaging studies. Fernandez-Duque and colleagues (2015) reported that including unnecessary neuroscience information in the descriptions of studies influenced participants to be more likely to accept redundant explanations as logical. The neuro prefix in many contexts demonstrates persuasive power of a high magnitude, even when it shouldn’t. Neuroscience isn’t the only field that demonstrates the persuasive power that occurs when a specific term is attached. It isn’t unreasonable to compare neuroseduction with science seduction. Science seduction occurs when the term science is used only to increase persuasive value, even when the person using the term has little to no interest in (or knowledge of) science.

It is important that neuroscience researchers not exaggerate their claims and misrepresent neural correlates as indicators of cause and effect relationships. As an example, researchers have suggested a lack of development of prefrontal cortex causes adolescences to take risks or that a dysfunctional mirror neuron system causes autism (Ramachandran 2011). In some cases, the media misrepresent imaging studies as showing a causal link between the size or activity in specific brain areas and a specific abnormality such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As an example, a press release for a study published in the British medical journal Lancet, which reported differences in the volume of specific brain areas in individuals with and without ADHD, claimed in the title of the article that “Brain-imaging study sheds more light on underlying cause of attention-deficit hyperactivity syndrome” (EurekAlert 2003). This causative claim is overly speculative. It is unclear whether these differences contribute to ADHD, result from it, or are due to other unidentified factors. 

Conclusion

Neuroscience is important. It allows us to understand brain mechanisms, the effects of brain damage on various biological outcomes, some types of cognition and behavior. It allows us to investigate brain regions associated with specific behavioral and mental activities. Neuroscience studies are very important to clinical psychology, which focuses mostly on functional problems associated to damage in specific areas of the brain (Schwartz et al. 2015). We now have a clearer picture of how alcohol and drugs damage the brain thanks to neuroscience research. Findings from neuroscience have led to a better understanding of how cultural beliefs and customs shape the brain; the brain is influenced by the environment. This influence reflects the brain’s dynamic status as it changes and indicates it is “soft-wired” as well as “hard wired” (structures that are genetically and evolutionarily determined). 

It is important that we be careful to distinguish between good neuroscience and neuromyth. In addition, it is important to appreciate the role of the environment and the importance of the body outside of the brain (body proper) in determining brain processes and our sense of who we are. Your brain, body proper, and environment interact to make you who you are. As Schwartz and colleagues (2015) note, “[N]euroscience must be humble in its aspirations, and not advance claims or make promises that go well beyond the extant data.”

References 

EurekAlert. 2003. Brain imaging study sheds more light on underlying cause of attention-deficit hyperactivity syndrome. Retrieved on August 20, 2020, from     https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-11/l-bss111903.php.

Fernandez-Duque, D, et al. 2015. Superfluous neuroscience information makes explanations of psychological phenomena more appealing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 27, 926–944.

Jarrett, C. 2015. Great Myths of The Brain. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell. 

Kandel, E. 2012. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind and Brain. New York, NY: Random House.

Ramachandran,V.S. 2011. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Schwartz, S.J., et al. 2015. The role of neuroscience within psychology: A call for inclusiveness over exclusiveness. American Psychologist 71(1), 52–70.   

Weisberg, D., et al. 2008. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20, 470–477.