Don’t believe the neurohype

Wired magazine has just published a must-read article on the hyping of neuroimaging technology by companies wanting to sell brain scans on the deceptive premise that they can tell you something about your mood and personality, the effectiveness of adverts or whether you’re being truthful.

Here at Mind Hacks, we’ve covered several highlights in the ongoing parade of brain scan powered bullshit in the past (FKF Applied Research I’m looking at you) but this new article, by psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, is an engaging guide that tackles many of these issues in one go.

Neuroimaging studies that measure brain function are almost always done on large numbers of people and the results are usually only reliable when average differences between groups are compared. This makes it difficult to make sensible judgements about any one individual.

Brain scanning is also often reported as if it is revealing exactly which parts of the brain do what, but it typically only reports associations.

For example, an experiment might find that fear is associated with amygdala activation. But it’s impossible to say the reverse, that every time the amygdala is activated, the person is fearful.

Here’s an analogy. On average, people from New York may be more impatient than people from other cities.

If you predicted that all people from New York were impatient on the basis of this, you’d be grossly mistaken so many times that it would make your prediction invalid.

In fact, taking the average attributes of populations and applying them to individuals is stereotyping, and we avoid it because it is so often wrong as to cause us to misjudge people.

Alternatively, if you met an impatient person and therefore concluded that they must live in New York, you’d be equally inaccurate.

But this is essentially what these commercial brain scan companies are doing, but they are selling it as if it is reliably telling us about an individual person or an individual product because people tend to be blinded by the fact it just seems more scientific. After all, it’s neuroscience right?

Scientists and responsible clinicians will know about these shortcomings and make sure they don’t oversell their findings, but commercial companies are not selling you the data, they’re selling you a way of make you feel better about your insecurities, whether they be commercial concerns or health worries.

Interestingly, the Amen Clinic comes in for criticism which seems to specialise in pushing and overinterpreting SPECT scans to patients.

These guys were the subject of a similarly critical article in Salon the other week and were pulled up the the Neurocritic blog last year for suggesting political candidates should be brain scanned to see what sort of people they are.

If you want to be immune to this sort of nonsense, the Wired article looks at some of the current commercial offerings and how they’re trying to sell you short.

Link to article ‘Brain Scans as Mind Readers? Don’t Believe the Hype’.

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