The last of the neuromercials?

One of the most interesting things about the recent election brain scan nonsense is not that it got to the front page of The New York Times, as that’s happened several times before, but that the slap down from the scientific community has been remarkably strong and public.

The media is obsessed by neuroscience but in a very odd way. This means that sometimes complete nonsense gets published, like on this occasion, or the focus is on the least important thing.

For example, there have been many reports during the last few days about a study on people with migraines.

Almost all the headlines are variants of the ‘Migraine Sufferers Have Different Brains’ line. This just isn’t news. We know migraine sufferers have different brains because they have migraines and its a brain difference. It’s like reporting that ‘taller people have different heights’.

What the study actually found was that the somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain that is involved with representing body sensation, is thicker in people with migraines. Most interestingly, this was most pronounced in the section of this brain area that maps to the head and neck.

It was a correlational study, so it’s impossible to say whether these differences cause, or are caused by, migraine, but it’s a fascinating finding. Isn’t this so this much more interesting than repeating the obvious?

The media love stories about the brain because they often sound like explanations even when they’re nothing more than descriptions.

This is why nonsense like the ‘election brain scans’ gets media attention. In this case, it wasn’t even as if the ideas were distorted in the retelling, it was clearly nonsense from beginning to end. But because it had all the trappings of science, it made headlines.

This time, however, the size of the backlash from the scientific has been unprecedented.

It got plenty of negative attention in the blogs, but it also inspired a list of leading neuroscientists to write to the NYT to criticise it, it got featured in The Guardian’s ‘Bad Science’ column and has just been roundly condemned in the editorial from this week’s Nature.

If brain scans could really predict how people will react when they encounter advertising, you’d think that FKF Research would use it on their own material.

Ironically, for a company that supposedly specialises in neuromarketing, they just got themselves some incredibly bad press.

Link to Nature editorial.

2 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2007 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    Well written! It’s odd that when really exciting stuff is published in the scientific literature, it rarely makes it to mainstream media. Take almost all the findings about pain and the brain – not a murmer despite there being some awesome findings! Perhaps it is because (a) it’s not political and (b) it doesn’t sell drugs?

  2. Posted November 26, 2007 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Might be worth noting that both the election brain scans and the Super Bowl brain scans came from the lab of Marco Iacoboni at UCLA. He seems like he ought to be smart enough not to believe this BS, so why does he keep spouting it?


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