Posts Tagged ‘cognitive neuroscience’

It would seem that the concerns depicted in our previous post are widespread indeed!

Martha Farah

Martha Farah

The last issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, published by the MIT Press, is just out. Martha Farah introduces it with an editorial, basically a two-page warning. Abstract:

Unrealistic, financially motivated claims about functional brain imaging can have a negative impact on society at large and on our field. If too much is promised and not delivered, funders may become wary of cognitive neuroscience and skeptical about its genuine potential. Bad advice given to businesses concerning marketing and personnel selection could lead to expensive mistakes, and bad advice given to governments concerning security screening and interrogation could lead to far worse. Yet imaging is being offered for these applications now, with scant evidence of validity.

NeuroFocus CEO displays an examinee's brain waves chart as she watches a commercial film wearing a EEG headset. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

NeuroFocus CEO displays an examinee's brain waves chart as she watches a commercial film wearing a EEG headset. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Pr. Farah, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at U Penn, recommends several tactics to the neuroscientists eager to stand up against bad neuroscience, suggesting to “inoculate our students against brain imaging overclaim” or “blogging and posting reactions to blogs“. And I imagine that implicitly, this editorial will also act as a stop-sign to those neuroscientists who entertained the thought of doing profitable consulting jobs for neuromarketing private firms.

I don’t have a clear enough view of the fields of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing to be able to judge if commercial uses of fMRI / EEG have already proved harmful in any manner to scientific research. Has any grant application been rejected with referee reports mentionning the wrong commercial uses of brain scans? Is there any informal, unexpressed mood in scientific circles that “cognitive neuroscience” is somewhat dodgy, because of the bad press it is given?

What are your experiences in your universities, in your research labs? (you can post your reactions to this post, as recommended by Martha Farah, or contact me privately to help me in my research!)


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At the opening symposium of the Donders Institute (Netherlands) last November, Victor Lamme showed a video that fully grasped the attention of the packed audience. It was a filmed experiment in psychology where people were being fooled by simple, even obvious  tricks.

It introduced his discussion on the nature of consciousness and awareness, with difficult questions such as: can we say of someone who is not aware of what s/he perceives that s/he is still conscious? Or as Victor Lamme says it elsewhere: ‘In my research I want to separate becoming conscious of the outside world from the reporting on it’.

The talk was good, with Lamme suggesting a definition of consciousness that included functional and structural criteria of neural activity. However, at the very end a question from the floor completely destroyed his argument, when someone pointed that, according to the criteria developed in Lamme’s definition, neural activity during sleep would in fact also qualify for his proposed definition of consciousness – quite a problem !!

Anyway, I have found a similar video demonstrating how easy it is to trick conscious and fully aware people. It is less academic than the one presented by Lamme but it has the benefit of working on you, the viewer. So, will you be tricked? (please answer the anonymous poll thereafter).

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It would seem that using the language of neuroscience makes it easier to trick people into believing false statements. This argument was made by a group of psychologists in a celebrated paper from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience last year, but it deserves a third glance – at least for its ironic conclusion.

On irony… Think about it: If making something sound ‘neurosciency’ makes it easier to believe for others, how much easier is it to make people believe an argument about neurosciency appendages in a psychology / neuroscience peer-reviewed journal… In fact, every sucker around should be clamouring to believe that paper. I say sucker, and by that I mean myself – who liked the argument immediately, and I guess non neuro-scientists like the media, popular press… and psychologists?

This is where ‘celebrated’ comes in, as the paper was popularized in the media, and the paper spent quite a bit of time congratulating itself and the subject as “it is hardly mysterious that members of the public should find psychological research fascinating” (p. 470)

So are the results really good? Well, maybe… and maybe not. The authors noted old evidence that longer explanations seem more credible to the unsuspecting public, and the neuro-sciency explanations in the test were longer… Last week a neuroscience blogger noted that what “the authors have strictly shown is that longer, more jargon-filled explanations are rated as better – which is an interesting finding, but is not necessarily specific to neuroscience.” This point is also admitted in the original paper where the authors “believe that our results are not necessarily limited to neuroscience or even to psychology” (p. 476), and is really just what Kikas (2003) had already said.

Well, if the papers fundamental argument is weak, the popular reaction ironically  underlines its thesis but at the same time it questions the quality of the research… Then by extension, does it also question neuro-science research as a whole? or just the accompanying psychology?

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This is a fancy title to say that I’ll write here about a textbook, a PhD dissertation and a Powerpoint audio podcast, all on the topic of this blog. I found all the 3 very useful to get acquainted to social neuroscience.

First, Michael Gazzaniga et al. textbook on Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind (Sept 2008, 3rd edition). This textbook is worth presenting here because I found it poorly advertised on the web, despite its great value to the beginner in cognitive neuroscience (your Google search is most likely to turn up the previous edition, which is old from 2002).

This wonderful bookstore in Leiden, Netherlands

This wonderful bookstore in Leiden, Netherlands - pic by sprklg

Even if I picked it at random on the minuscule psychology section of my local bookstore specializing in egyptology and Asian cultures, it turned out to be the most relevant buy. As I learned in the first pages, Gazzaniga happens to be the guy who coined the term “cognitive neuroscience”, in the back of a New York cab in the late 70s.

Anyway, Gazzaniga et al. present in outstanding clarity all the broad topics of the field: basic physiology, memory, language, attention, emotion, control of action, sensory and motor systems. The textbook is intended, I suppose, for undergrad students in biology or psychology, and anybody who was taught in high school what a synapse is can follow it. It comes with plenty of illustrations, and special textboxes which highlight “toolkits” for the social neuroscientist. It is 666 pages long so you do spend some time on it, but always learning essential things.

But two things seduced me in particular.

First, this was the first textbook I ever read with such an engaging narrative line. In fact, the authors explain in the preface that the text was thoroughly polished by “Professor of Writing and Neuroscience” Megan Steven to make it like a conversation with the student.

Gazzaniga et al. (2008) - Cognitive Neuroscience

Gazzaniga et al. (2008) - Cognitive Neuroscience

Almost like:

“Ok, this brain area is thought to be involved in this and that cognitive function. But hey, how do we know whether these functions are independent from each other, or if they are co-dependant? Well, here is the clever experiment designed by Smith and al. in 2008 …”

Which brings me to the second point: the book has astonishingly up to date references. You can actually find some from 2008, and really a lot from 2005-2007. So that in reading this textbook, you feel like being introduced to the frontier of the discipline, rather than being patronized as a student.

Careful, this is not a textbook in neuroeconomics (they just have 3 pages on the topic, somewhere after page 600…). But this is a vital preliminary step to understand neuroeconomics: it teaches you what is the brain, and the basic functions it performs. After reading it, you are ready to go “social”!

Well, the two other items on the list will wait for the next post, because they desserve some extensive treatments as well!

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