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Neuroscience: Is it All in Your Mind?

Although it’s fun and science-y to know how the physical brain parses data, most of us really should be more interested in what the mind is doing.

“Brain’s God Spot Discovered By Scientists.”

That’s the headline the Huffington Post ran with after a team of neuroscientists discovered that profound religious and spiritual experiences light up discrete portions of the brain. That the media termed these chunks of mystical gray matter the “God Spot” was both clever and predictable; thus reduced, the research became instantly famous and immediately controversial: People didn’t want to see their deepest beliefs reduced to a simple biological explanation.

Neuroscientists are now able to use sophisticated technology to peer into the skull and study the brain in unprecedented ways, and the boom in neuroscience research over the past decade has captured the public’s imagination. But some scientists are worried that the public’s imagination, fueled by simplistic media reporting, has run away with itself.

In a newly published article in the journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Diane Beck, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, argues that the allure of many neuroscience studies is that they can be made to offer “deceptively simple messages” about human behavior. She also says that their popularity is partly based on a “sometimes misguided confidence in biological data.”

Articles trumpeting new neuroscience research have become a reliably popular subject for newspapers and magazines. They might be called There’s a brain area for that?! stories. Typically, a headline will advertise, implicitly or explicitly, an “objective” new explanation for some common form of human behavior. Underneath the headline, however, the startling information the reader has been promised turns out to be not so startling. We “commonly see statements such as ‘Chocoholics really do have chocolate on the brain,’’’ Beck writes. “Do people really doubt that chocoholics love chocolate? … This is probably something most people already believe without the need for a corroborating brain scan.”

Likewise, that spiritual feelings can be localized to specific parts of the brain is important to neuroscientists. But how important is it to you? Put another way, is it really surprising that religious and spiritual feelings occur in the brain? It shouldn’t be: If it was the spirit that moved you, the spirit can still do it in a way that affects your brain.

There’s a brain area for that?! stories can also be misleading, either because of flaky science or careless reporting, or both.

Last fall, a brain imaging study out of Syracuse University produced the memorable headline “Brain Takes Less Than Second To Fall In Love.” That’s not a typo. A 2007, pre-election article in The New York Times reported on 20 people who had their brains scanned while viewing photographs and videos of the major presidential candidates.

“It was really closer to astrology than it was to real science,” Russell Poldrack, director of the Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Austin, later told Science. “It epitomized everything that a lot of us feel is wrong about where certain parts of the field are going, which is throw someone in a scanner and tell a story about it.”

Even when an article about neuroscience is a carefully reported account of a valuable study, confusion remains about to whom the study is actually valuable. If a study reports that religious feelings occur in the brain, most people wouldn’t care if they occur in the temporal lobe instead of the parietal lobe and for good reason: They aren't neuroscientists.

So why do readers seem to find articles about neuroscience more fascinating and convincing than studies that examine behavior without biology? One explanation is that people can connect what they learn in a neuroscience study to visual images of the brain.

Recently researchers at Colorado State and UCLA asked a group of undergraduate students to assess the following (spurious) argument: “Because watching television and completing arithmetic problems both lead to activation in the temporal lobe, watching television improves math skills.”

There were two groups of subjects; for one, the argument was accompanied an uninformative bar graph, and for the other an uninformative brain scan. The brain scan offered no new or relevant information — it was just a picture of a brain with some colors superimposed. Yet participants who saw the brain scan rated the argument as more convincing.

“Part of the fascination, and the credibility, of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images themselves,” the researchers concluded.

There is also evidence suggesting that people are impressed by the language of neuroscience itself, even as its references to Latinate sections of the brain can be difficult to understand. It seems science-y in a way that calls to mind biology and physics. There may be other reasons too.

What seems certain is that people want certainty, and they believe that neuroscience provides them with a kind of certainty that social sciences do not.

This faith in neuroscience over social science can have consequences. Does a teacher need to know what neurotransmitters are involved in spelling, for example? Or what brain areas are involved in learning times tables? Not really.

Scientific evidence can be used to guide the teacher. But the key science is the science of the mind, not the science of the brain. What the teacher needs is good old-fashioned studies that compare different approaches to learning, using randomized samples, measuring long-term outcomes and suggesting pedagogical approaches the teacher can actually implement. Yet educators who are making consequential decisions may pay attention to brain-based studies even if other studies would be more appropriate.

An imperfect analogy can be made to computers. Brains are a bit like hardware (e.g., microprocessors, hard disks, etc), and minds are something like software. The circuits do control the software. But if you want to figure out how to use your computer to do your taxes, you should look for tax software. The last thing you should do is open up your computer and start digging through silicon looking at circuits.

If there is a large gap between computer hardware and software, there is a giant chasm between the science of the brain and the science of the mind. Neuroscientists are starting to build bridges, but the gap remains, something most neuroscientists would hasten to concede.

In the media, though, you get the impression that the gap barely exists at all. This impression can be admittedly enjoyable. Who can pass up an article about the brain’s “love center”? Maybe it will finally explain why life is a war between men and women. But we would learn more by examining the warriors’ minds than by looking at their brains.