Election brain scan nonsense

Neuropsychologist Martha Farah has written a highly critical commentary on a recent New York Times op-ed piece where neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni and colleagues used brain scans of people who viewed videos of US presidential candidates in an attempt to reveal voter reactions “on which this election may well turn”.

Farah quite rightly calls it “junk science” as it is a barely controlled study that relies on stereotypes and generalisation to infer that activation in one particular brain area means the viewers are experiencing a certain reaction.

So why do I doubt the conclusions reported in today’s Op Ed piece? The problems I see have less to do with brain imaging per se than with the human tendency to make up “just so” stories and then believe them. The scattered spots of activation in a brain image can be like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup – ambiguous and accommodating of a large number of possible interpretations.

For example, the story reports that “When we showed subjects the words ‚ÄúDemocrat,‚Äù ‚ÄúRepublican‚Äù and ‚Äúindependent,‚Äù they exhibited high levels of activity in the part of the brain called the amygdala, indicating anxiety”.

In brain-scanning studies, the amygdala is regularly found to be active in people who experience fear. But you can’t make the reverse inference, that amygdala activation equals fear, because it can be equally as active when people experience happiness or joy.

There’s plenty more where that came from, but what is most shocking is not that this junk made The New York Times but that it made it again, and again.

In fact, Iacoaboni’s team were on the front page of the NYT in 2004 with almost exactly the same stunt – attempting to use brain scans to predict responses when viewing political campaign ads.

The ‘study’ details have mysteriously gone from the web but are still archived if you want to see history repeating itself.

And as we reported in 2006, similar nonsense was repeated with the Super Bowl ads, by (guess who) the same team.

None of these studies have ever been published in scientific journals so why does Iacoboni, who does lots of respectable cognitive neuroscience, keep running these essentially meaningless studies?

All of these stunts are essentially PR for FKF Applied Research, a ‘neuromarketing company’ who will carry out bespoke brain scan marketing studies for a price.

Iacoboni is not listed as a staff member but he’s been associated with most of their previous media stunts and four out of five FKF staff are co-authors on the NYT article. We can bet there’s some pretty strong connection there.

Unfortunately, these sorts of stunts play on the excitement surrounding high-tech science and distort the public’s understanding of the significance of brain imaging.

They’re are neither informative nor truly newsworthy but have enough of a sugar coating to make them attractive to a media beguiled by the bright lights of brain scanning.

Link to Farah article on the Neuroethics and Law Blog.

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