Science TEDTalks

Spotting neuro-fiction: A guide to dissecting overblown neuroscience headlines

Neuroscientist Molly Crockett has a secret to share: if you want to make better decisions, eat a grilled cheese sandwich.

In today’s talk, filmed at the TEDSalon in London, Crockett shares how she accidentally had a part in circulating this message. Several years ago, Crockett and her fellow researchers set out to study how serotonin would effect reactions when a person felt that they were treated unfairly. They manipulated serotonin in a study by giving participants a beverage designed to deplete the brain of the amino acid tryptophan, which gets converted into serotonin. The study found that, when tryptophan was low, people were more likely to seek revenge when they felt mistreated.

“That’s the study we did. And here are some of the headlines that came out afterwards,” says Crockett, revealing these doozies:

“At this point you might be wondering, ‘Did I miss something? Cheese? Chocolate? Where did that come from?’” says Crockett. “I thought the same thing when these things came out, because our study had nothing to do with cheese or chocolate — we gave people a horrible-tasting drink. But it turns out that tryptophan also happens to be found in cheese and chocolate. And when science says that cheese and chocolate help you make better decisions, well that’s sure to grab people’s attention.”

This kind elision happens all the time as the press reports on neuroscience. From there, manufacturers latch on to overblown claims as they develop new products.

“Neuroscience is turning up more and more in marketing,” says Crockett. “Do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.”

Crockett stresses that neuroscience is advancing quickly and leading to some truly amazing discoveries.

“I am more excited than most people for the potential of neuroscience to treat mental illness and even maybe make us better and smarter,” says Crockett. “But we’re not there yet … We have to be careful that we don’t let overblown claims detract the resources and attention away from the real science that’s playing a much longer game.”

For a primer on how to spot what Crockett calls “neuro-bunk,” “neuro-bullocks,” or “neuro-flapdoodle,” watch her engaging talk. And below, a selection of headlines that readers should be wary of. Note: Inclusion here doesn’t mean that the science behind a study is bad, or that a news source intentionally overstated a claim. It’s simply that these pieces give conclusive answers to concepts that scientists are only beginning to understand. As Crockett says, “The answers shouldn’t be simple because the brain isn’t simple.”

You Love Your iPhone. Literally,” The New York Times (Sept. 30, 2011)

In her talk, Crockett debunks this op-ed, about a study in which 16 subjects were shown audio and video of a ringing iPhone while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to map their brain activity. The article notes a “flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion.” Crockett says to be very skeptical of claims that a brain scan can show emotions or thoughts. Yes, there might be activity in the insular cortex — but this region is also associated with memory, language, attention, anger, disgust and pain. Says Crockett, “By the same logic, I could equally conclude, ‘You hate your iPhone.’ When you see activation in the insula, you can’t just pick and choose your favorite explanation off the list.”

Study: ‘Love hormone’ roused by social media,” Fox News (July 12, 2012)

Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love molecule” or “moral molecule,” because it’s associated with trust, cooperation and bonding. But any articles that refer to it as such should be taken with a grain of salt, says Crockett. According to Crockett, studies on oxytocin “are scientifically valid and they have been replicated, but they’re not the full story.” She explains, “Other studies have shown that boosting oxytocin increases envy, it increases gloating. Oxytocin can bias people to favor their own group at the expense of other groups.”

Hormone Oxytocin May Keep Men Faithful,” ABC News (Nov. 14, 2012)

Last month, a flurry of articles appeared based on a study in which male participants were given “a sniff” of oxytocin before being introduced to an “attractive” experimenter. The study found that men in monogamous relationships who received said sniff kept their distance from the researcher. The hormone didn’t appear to have an effect on single men. So what’s the problem with this study circulating in the press? That it is a very big leap to say that oxytocin might “keep men faithful.” Keeping physical distance from an attractive woman in a single situation is hardly a measure of fidelity.

Neuro boosts minds, moods and more — A drink review,” Lifenut.com (Sept. 26, 2011)

Neuro is a brand of beverages that makes bold claims on its bottles. “Using the power of science, each Neuro enhances the body’s reaction to all the ways you live your life in color,” reads their website, “from providing the spark that ignites your passions and stimulates your mind, to the fuel for your dreams and inner peace.” Naturally, Crockett is skeptical about this brand and, with it, any positive reviews. “When this came up in my local shop, naturally I was curious about some of the research backing these claims. I went to the company’s website looking to find some controlled trials of their products — but I didn’t find any,” says Crockett. “Trial or no trial, these claims are front and center on their products.”

Brain scans can detect lying,” PreventDisease.com (undated)

This article quotes research that could “put the lie detector machine out of business.” It shares the results of a study in which fMRI was used to scan students’ brains as they were asked to lie and tell the truth in a lab setting. And when they were lying, subjects showed increased brain activity. While this study is interesting, much more research needs to be done before this headline could be considered true. Jumping to this conclusion is dangerous, as the issue of whether to use brain scans as evidence courtrooms is currently being debated.

Red wine and chocolate can boost your brain power,” The Telegraph (May 6, 2011)

As Crockett notes in her talk, the media flocks to science that says decadent food and beverages have benefits for the brain. The claims are usually overstated — or made through tangential facts — as happened with Crockett’s study that morphed pro-chocolate in the press. In general, headlines like these should always set off warning bells.

Below, a few other recent headlines which have us wary of neuro-bunk:

And some more great reading on the bounds of extrapolating from neuroscience research: