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If you watch or read much science fiction, you know that all it takes to suspend disbelief about fictional science is an explanation that sounds good on the surface and makes use of terms and ideas that your audience doesn't fully understand but does find emotionally compelling. It's why "radioactive spider" made sense in 1960s.
Apparently (and unfortunately) this effect is true for actual science as well.
This slide comes from a lecture given by Oxford University neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop. Basically, it's showing that an explanation of a psychological phenomenon became more believable if you added in some hand-wavey neuroscience and pictures of brain scans. Suddenly, an explanation of human behavior that's based on circular reasoning and poor logic changes from something lay people won't accept to something we're happy to buy into.
Bishop's entire, hour-long presentation on the science of bad neuroscience is available to watch online for free. If you don't have time, check out this summary of the key points at the Neurobonkers blog.
Via Mind Hacks
The New York Times has an op-ed out today, which claims that fMRI studies show that, when people are exposed to a pretty, shiny, ringing iPhone, the experience lights up the part of their brains that signifies a deep, compassionate love for something. iPhones trigger the same brain activity that your parents and loved ones trigger, writes branding strategist Martin Lindstrom.
Clearly, this was going to turn out to wildly misleading. You love your iPhone like you love your mother is just not the kind of statement that passes a cursory bullshit inspection. And lots of people have handily debunked it, including a couple of actual nueroimaging specialists, Russ Poldrack and Tal Yarkoni.
So, how wrong was the NYT op-ed? Pretty damn wrong. Turns out, the part of the brain Martin Lindstrom identifies with lovey-dovey emotions is a lot more complicated than that. Here's Russ Poldrack:
Insular cortex may well be associated with feelings of love and compassion, but this hardly proves that we are in love with our iPhones. In Tal Yarkoni's recent paper in Nature Methods, we found that the anterior insula was one of the most highly activated part of the brain, showing activation in nearly 1/3 of all imaging studies! Further, the well-known studies of love by Helen Fisher and colleagues don't even show activation in the insula related to love, but instead in classic reward system areas.
... the insula (or at least the anterior part of the insula) plays a very broad role in goal-directed cognition. It really is activated when you’re doing almost anything that involves, say, following instructions an experimenter gave you, or attending to external stimuli, or mulling over something salient in the environment.
So, by definition, there can’t be all that much specificity to what the insula is doing, since it pops up so often. To put it differently, as Russ and others have repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a given region activates when people are in a particular psychological state (e.g., love) doesn’t give you license to conclude that that state is present just because you see activity in the region in question. If language, working memory, physical pain, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval all activate the insula, then knowing that the insula is active is of very little diagnostic value.
I'd recommend reading Yarkoni's full post, because it also gets into some really fascinating nuance behind the neuroscience of addiction. Shorter version: We don't have a clear biomarker that signals addiction, or addictive behavior. You couldn't even diagnose an obviously addicted individual using neuroimaging. So you should beware of anybody who tells you that an fMRI study demonstrates that people are addicted to anything.