Push my brain button

You can promote almost anything with a few words about the brain because it sounds like science. This week’s Bad Science column takes a close look at ‘Brain Gym’, a scheme introduced into large numbers of UK schools that attempts to boost brain function by getting the kids to do, well, complete nonsense.

For example, a “back and forward movement of the head” apparently “increases the circulation to the frontal lobe for greater comprehension and rational thinking”. According to this wisdom, a good clip around the ear has remarkable brain boosting properties.

One of my favourite examples of nonsense neuroscience is the use of the ‘explanation’ that an activity is pleasurable because it ‘boosts endorphins’ or ‘releases opioids’ in the brain.

Here’s a great example from the widely distributed and widely discarded London newspaper The Metro which managed to give a cod brain science explanation in a (NSFW but remarkably dull) article on bondage and whipping.

Apparently:

The person getting the flogging (the bottom) gets pleasure from natural opiates generated in the brain and the person doing the flogging (the top) gets pleasure watching their partner… Even a runner’s high after exercise is nothing compared with the boost of natural opiates that can be released in a flogging.

Apart from the fact that they don’t know the difference between opiates (derivatives of the opium poppy) and opioids (any substance that binds to opioid receptors, including the brain’s naturally produced chemicals) this really explains nothing about why being flogged is supposed to be pleasurable.

Opioids are definitely part of the experience of pleasure, but they’re also part of the experience of pretty much everything else.

Experiencing pain is one thing that definitely causes increased opioid activity, but if pleasure were that simple, we’d find fighting so much fun that Planet Earth would be be like Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a laugh track.

These attempts at an explanation are really nothing more than placebos that still don’t tell us how we experience pleasure as a result of the activity, or what role opioids play in this process.

Even if pleasure was purely opioid release, the trick with an explanation is to explain how and why this occurs, not just say that it does.

It’s not that these simple links aren’t important, but they’re not explanations in themselves, even though they’re often presented as such.

My other pet hate is when something pleasurable is described as having the same effect on the brain as one of the four dopamen of the neurocalypse: ‘drugs’, ‘sex’, ‘gambling’ and ‘chocolate’.

Almost any one is used to explain the effect of the others, and if you’re really lucky, all four will be invoked to make for an exciting-sounding but often scientifically empty article.

This is another example where the crucial information is how these activities have their effect on the dopamine system, not the fact that they do.

So, as with the faux science that supposedly supports ‘Brain Gym’, always ask yourself how it occurs, rather than relying on the illusion of brain magic.

Link to Bad Science article on why we fall for brain-based promotions.

2 Comments

  1. cura
    Posted February 18, 2008 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Speaking from experience and not much knowledge of the hard science behind it .. for some people, certainly not all, being beaten does cause pleasurable changes in your body, which is why a lot of people who play do so fairly gradually. Once whatever it is (I admit we do say endorphins, but that may not be correct) has kicked in through light pain, you’re far better able to take and enjoy harder levels of pain. It’s a reaction that differs enormously depending on the person involved though. Have there been any serious studies on all of this?

  2. Posted February 23, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    It is unfortunate that resources are being wasted on psueudo-scientific cures when there seems to be ample real evidence that vigorous physical activity is beneficial to both the mind and the body.


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