Brain scans and buyer beware

Jonah Lehrer reviews new popular neuromarketing book Buy-ology in the Washington Post and notes that the book itself is a shining example of marketing but without a good grasp of what the neuroscience studies actually show.

If one of the greatest ironies of public relations is that it has an image problem, one of the greatest achievements of neuromarketing has been the self-promotion without having demonstrating any material benefit to the approach.

That’s not to say there’s some respectable science being undertaken to understand the neural basis of commercial reasoning and buyer decision-making, but so far, no-one has demonstrated that any of these approaches actually provide a more effective way of marketing.

In other words, we’re still waiting for a single study that shows that any measure of neural activity predicts actual purchases or sales better than existing methods.

It’s quite amazing to think that there are now numerous multi-million dollar ‘neuromarketing’ companies that are providing services without having any evidence for their effectiveness.

Their success is likely because, as we know from recent studies, attaching bogus references to the brain or irrelevant images of brain scans, make explanation of behaviour seem more credible to non-neuroscientists.

One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.

In fact, it’s just a form of marketing first developed by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud, back in the 1920s. The secret, Bernays said, was not to appeal to what people need, but to what they desire – in this case, to seem cutting edge.

UPDATE: I really recommend reading the two comments below in full, but this snippet from Neuroskeptic is a particular gem:

“One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.”

It’s not just ironic, it’s fascinating. It shows that marketing people – who you might expect to be “immune to their poison” – are vulnerable to marketing gimmicks too.

Link to WashPost review of ‘Buy-ology’.

2008-10-31 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Mind Apples is a site that aims to share and develop ways of maintaining mental health in innovative ways. A community-based knowledge sharing community focused on mental well-being. Yay!

To the bunkers! Scientific America has a piece on how one research team are trying to personify evil in an AI programme.

Technology Review has some beautiful diffusion spectrum imaging pictures of the brain that illustrates the white matter tracts in glorious technicolor.

Men were better than women at judging infidelity, but are more likely to guess at cheating when there is none, according to research reported by New Scientist. The old high sensitivity, low specificity problem.

The New York Times follows up with an interesting piece asking whether these sorts of studies that rely on people honestly reporting their infidelities are reliable and looking at the changing rates of infidelity.

Guest blogger Becca Trabin writes an interesting piece about body dysmorphic disorder on The Trouble With Spikol.

The BPS Research Digest has a thought-provoking piece questioning whether brain-injured patients who confabulate, who seemingly produce false memories without intending to deliberately lie, are actually attempting to remember at all.

A brief tour through the comedic history of the US military’s attempts to create an ‘amnesia beam‘ is provided by Wired.

Neuroanthropology has an interesting piece on the influence of psychologists on the political messages of the belligerents in the US presidential election.

The recent study on the cognitive neuroscience of hate is dryly dissected by The Neurocritic.

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on the neuroscience of self-control and describes the cool 4-year-olds and marshmallows experiment.

“Eunoia is the shortest word in English containing all five vowels – and it means “beautiful thinking”. It is also the title of Canadian poet Christian Bok’s book of fiction in which each chapter uses only one vowel.” BBC Radio 4 has a sample of each chapter. Reminds me of Gadsby, a whole novel written without the letter e.

Psychology Today bloggers are asked which psychological tests they’d give the US presidential candidates. Strangely, no one mentioned the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Another good BPS Research Digest piece on research showing older people are less optimistic but more realistic.

Neuropod focuses on the autistic spectrum

I’m not sure if Nature’s Neuroscience podcast Neuropod is slightly irregularly timed or I am, but either way the October edition is available online and covers cyber-monkeys, steroids, Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

The stand-out feature is the piece on autism where researchers, including the well-known Temple Grandin, are interviewed.

One of the most interesting bits is where Neuropod talks to clinical psychologist Kathrin Hippler about her research where she followed up some of the children who Hans Asperger observed during the development of the syndrome diagnosis.

Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t so named until some time later, and at the time, the children were diagnosed as ‘autistic psychopaths’. Psychopath didn’t mean violent or dangerous in this context, it just implied emotionally disconnected.

Hippler’s study analysed the case records of ‘autistic psychopaths’ diagnosed by Hans Asperger and his team at the University Children’s Hospital, Vienna.

In a more recent study (which doesn’t seem to have been published yet) she followed up the children to see how they’re doing not, and it turns out that they’re actually doing pretty well.

She mentions about half are in relationships and many are in jobs that matched the ‘special interests’ they had as children.

If you’re interesting in reading more about contemporary kids with on the spectrum The New York Times had an excellent piece on the experiences of autistic teenagers.

Link to Neuropod homepage with streamed audio.
mp3 of October edition.

A slight return, again

I’ve just found another curious case report of complex movements in a brain dead patient, following on from our recent piece on the Lazurus Sign.

These reports are fascinating and bizarre in equal measure, not least when you try and imagine what was happening in the room at the time.

Uncommon reflex automatisms after brain death

Rev Neurol (Paris). 1995 Oct;151(10):586-8.

Awada A.

Two cases of unusual complex movements observed in brain dead patients are described. Rapid and sustained flexion of the neck induced slow abduction of the arms with flexion of the elbows, wrists and fingers over 5 to 10 seconds. These movements have been rarely described and although they have similar clinical patterns, they are pathophysiologically different from the Lazarus sign which is observed few minutes after respiratory support cessation. While Lazarus sign is supposed to be due to an agonal discharge of anoxic spinal neurons, the movements described in this article result probably from complex reflexes generated in a disinhibited spinal cord. It is however surprising that they have never been described in patients with high cervical spinal injuries.

For those of you not familiar with the medical terms for movement, I shall briefly translate. When the doctors rocked the dead person’s head side to side forward in a ‘rapid and sustained’ fashion, the body extended its arms to the side and waved them about.

I have two thoughts.

Firstly, isn’t it fascinating that such complex movements can be triggered solely by the spinal cord?

Secondly, what the bloody hell were they doing with that dead body?

Normally, these reports are of spontaneous movements in isolated brain dead patients, but on this occasion the medical team seem to have been rather more involved.

Unfortunately, the full text of the article is in French, so the exact turn of events (e.g. “hey looks what happens when I do this!”) shall have to remain a mystery.

UPDATE: Neuroshrink has added a fantastic correction and comment to this post that suggests what might have been happening and recounts his own experience of observing the Lazurus sign.

Link to PubMed entry for article.
Link to Mind Hacks on the Lazurus Sign.
Link to another Mind Hacks article on the moving dead.

Drug addiction and factory pharming

Scientific American has a slide show of classic photos from converted prison in 1950s Kentucky which was used as a massive addiction rehabilitation and research centre.

The pictures have a slightly surreal B-movie quality to them and I can’t help thinking of Philip K. Dick’s book A Scanner Darkly.

If that reference makes no sense to you, check out the book, or see the film, and you can see the sort of institution pictured by SciAm could have inspired the… well, you’ll just have to see.

According to the blurb the building “was a temporary home for thousands, including Sonny Rollins, Peter Lorre and William S. Burroughs as well as a lab for addiction treatments such as LSD”. The set even includes a picture of a jazz band consisting of patients.

Owing to the popularity of heroin in the 1950s jazz scene, it was probably a fairly impressive line-up.

Link to SciAm 1950s narcotics farm slide show.

In the age of paranoia, my MTV wants me

Psychotic delusions change with the times and a new study looking back over almost 120 years of hospital records has found that it’s possible to track how cultural upheavals are reflected in the themes of madness. Changes in politics, technology and psychiatry all seem to colour the preoccupations of the deluded as reported in the patient records.

A Slovenian research team, led by psychiatrist Borut Skodlar, discovered that the Ljubljana psychiatric hospital had patient records going as far back as 1881. They randomly selected 10 records from every 10 year period to see how delusions matched up to the society of the time.

One key finding was that paranoid and persecutory delusions seem much more common now, with a big jump after the 1960s, in line with other studies that have found that paranoia is much more common in the modern age.

Another interesting finding concerned the widespread availability of radio and television:

A very interesting finding was a significant increase in outside influence and control delusions with technical themes following the spread of radio and television in Slovenia. To the best of our knowledge, no such studies exist with which to compare our results.

Both of these new technical devices, which served as a means to powerfully and quickly disseminate information, apparently became appropriate for ‘serving’ as a means of influence and control in the eyes of schizophrenia patients.

We found this change much more expressed in the case of television, where the increase of delusions of outside influence and control was dramatic. Perhaps an accumulation of both television together stimulated the increase. Or perhaps the two-dimensional auditory and visual nature of television opened up more opportunities to perceive it as a possible source of influence.

One aspect of the study looked not at how wider cultural changes altered the theme of delusions, but how changes in the culture of psychiatry did the same.

Psychiatrist Kurt Schneider listed a number of symptoms which he argued were characteristic of schizophrenia and still form the basis of modern schizophrenia diagnoses.

They include audible thoughts, hearing voices arguing, voices commenting on your actions, feeling that your body, mind or emotions are being controlled by outside forces, thought insertion and withdrawal, thought broadcasting, or delusional interpretations of everyday perceptions.

Interestingly, these ‘first rank symptoms’ were reported much more commonly after they had become widely known in the psychiatric community.

This is one of the key issues in the epidemiology of psychiatry: when the rate of reported symptoms changes over time, is it because they’re just being noticed more, because psychiatrists have moved the goalposts, because patients are learning to report symptoms in the language that doctors use, or that the experiences are more common in the population with all things being equal.

Of course, it can be a mixture of all or some of the above, as culture is one of the key influences on how we experience and express our distress – both physical and psychological.

Link to paper on cultural influences on delusions.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Money on the brain

Tim Harford, who blogs as the Undercover Economist, presents a rollercoaster ride through the field of neuroeconomics, <a href=""'Money on the Brain' for Radio 4. The documentary is available via Radio 4’s Listen Again site for the next week, and reportedly via a podcast (which I unfortunately can’t find). This whistle-stop tour covers neuromarketing, behavioural economics and the possible effects of hormone levels on risk tasking among stockmarket brokers. The programme features great interviews with some top researchers, such as Paul Glimcher and, Glimcher aside, many of these researchers have an almost relgious optimism about the potential for fMRI-scanning, believing it will eventually tell us how economic decisions are made, why we follow crowds, what we’re thinking at any point in time, what age we should be able to vote and how much we value things like clean air. Admist this heady atmosphere the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer brings us back to earth again: “You can’t read the mind. We understand quite little about the brain.” he begins. And then,

A former chairman of the Harvard Psychology deptartment once asked me “Gerd, do you know why they love those pictures [the fMRI activity maps]? It is because they are like women: they are beautiful, they are expensive and you don’t understand them”

If you read a classical article on neuroeconomics what you will find is mostly results which have been already known and recycled, and very little new insight.


Link to Radio 4 documentary ‘Money on the Brain’
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