This is your brain. This is your brain on politics. Any questions?

November 17th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, cash-for-"stories", neurostuff | 18 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday November 17 2007

Obviously we’re all interested in who the next US president is going to be, since it affects our risk of being blown up on the bus to work. According to the New York Times – which has covered this story at least three times – a commercial company which specialises in giving brain images to advertisers has discovered which parts of a voter’s brain are most activated by different candidates, by taking pictures of their brains while they supposedly think about them.

Functional brain imaging is a great idea. Your brain is made up of lots of different areas, which often seem to do different jobs, and you can determine that in all kinds of different ways. For example, Broca’s area (near the front on the left) seems to be involved in generating language: it is often knocked out in strokes, and when it goes, you have difficulty speaking, but you can still hear and understand language fine, because the part of the brain that receives and decodes speech is still intact. The motor cortex (in an arc from above your ear to the top of your head) contains a map of all the parts of your body, and if you stimulate it, by taking your skull off with a circular saw and giving it a small electric shock with a battery, the associated part of your body will twitch.

Brain imaging is a less destructive way of examining the brain: you perform a task, while lying inside a scanner, and the parts of your brain which are most active during that task light up, because they are doing more work, and so receiving more blood flow.

Brain imaging experiments are designed to constrain activity in the brain, so that the results are meaningful: for example, you might give two tasks where the only difference between them is the use of one faculty. You might compare “lift each finger in order from left to right” against “lift each finger in whatever order you fancy” as a basic microcosm of which bits of the brain become more active when you have to make a decision. But if you just show someone the word “republican”, God knows what’s going on in their head. They might be smirking with schadenfreude at how loopy the Christian right are. They might be feeling angry about them. They might be rehearsing the word repeatedly and determinedly on their internal phonological loop, thinking that they’re being helpful.

In fact, lots of parts of your brain will light up in brain imaging studies and it’s tempting to over-extrapolate, selling activation locations as supporting your favoured hypothesis, while ignoring all kinds of alternative interpretations.

And that’s in proper research. Here, they showed people a picture of Democratic nominee John Edwards. “Subjects who had rated him low on the thermometer scale showed activity in the insula, an area associated with disgust and other negative feelings.” But the insula is a large area, with different bits activated in many tasks, including balance, pain, all kinds of stuff.

“The good news for Mr Edwards is that the swing voters who did not give him low ratings, when looking at still photos of him, showed significant activation in areas of the brain containing mirror neurons – cells that are activated when people feel empathy. And that suggests these voters feel some connection to him.” This is a fanciful view of mirror neurons (I wish I had space to tell you about them; they’re more interesting than anything in any newspaper) but even if we leave that aside, there are several regions containing mirror neurons, and those areas also contain lots of other neurons which, well, do not respond like mirror neurons.

They don’t tell us how many subjects were in each group, what the tasks were, how they correlated with scores on their preferences, or indeed anything useful. With science, you publish a description of your experiments, in an academic journal, so that people can see what you’ve done, not your interpretation. That is why academic journals exist, instead of just newspapers, and that is why a huge posse of proper professors of cognitive neuroscience have waded in and sent a long, angry letter to the NYT, not over politics, or a view, but simply over the importance of ideas.


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18 Responses



  1. whimbrel said,

    November 17, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    This is a nice writeup of some truly terrible science. There’s a reason that article was published as an opinion piece in the NYT; the science it describes is so god-awful that it would be unpublishable in even fourth-rate journals.

    Something that’s probably not obvious to the layman is just how big a deal the opposing letter to the editors is. The list of authors isn’t just a random group of neuroscientists; it’s some of the biggest and most influential names in the field. Many of those authors are editors of top journals in this field (at a glance, the editors of _Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience_ and _Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience_ are authors), other authors literally wrote the software that the rest of the field uses to analyze fMRI data.

    As a casual read, that response is just a strongly-worded piece of an argument between scientists. To insiders, though, that response is an academic bitchslap stronger than any I’ve ever seen.

  2. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 18, 2007 at 12:17 am

    Interesting. I’m a spectator at a discussion online of race and IQ, where one citation was to a letter and/or editorial in the Wall Street Journal, with fifty-three people apparently signing it as real scientists. It’s this minute occurred to me that maybe someone thought that having the word “journal” in the title was special. It even could be a huge joke.

  3. Paul said,

    November 18, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Spot on Whimbrel – this is the equivalent of having your epaulettes torn from your uniform , your sabre broken and then being marched from the parade ground as your former comrades avert their eyes.

    What’s also noteworthy here is that one or two of the authors of the original article are pretty serious scientists (certainly Iacoboni has done sterling work) but the driving force seems to be FKF Applied Research: (www.fkfappliedresearch.com/FKF.html) – self-styled “Leaders in Neuromarketing”.

    Groups like this seem to be springing up a bit since the advent of functional neuroimaging – making promises that the technique can be used to look into the minds of prospective customers and offer big advantages in the market place. Anyone interested in this might want to take a look at an editorial in Nature Neuroscience (entitled “Brain Scam”) here:
    www.neurosense.com/pdf/nn0704-683_editorial.pdf

    or at an exhaustive look at this field hree:
    www.neurosense.com/news_archive.html

    I’m glad Ben drew attention to this – functional neuroimaging is trying to establish its credentials as a serious, though limited, neuroscientific approach and can do without some of this quackery.

  4. Teek said,

    November 19, 2007 at 8:40 am

    good stuff – i went to the Society for Neuroscience conference in san diego ten days ago, there was a neuro-ethics lecture given by an eminent ethicist where she extensively covered the fMRI-based neuro-marketing field.

    it is incredible how large institutions, corporations and organisations buy the “oooh, look, fancy sciency thing” fallacy – i.e. some nerd in a white coat says look, the pre-frontal parietal amygdylificatory lobe is lighting up, so this person favours coke over pepsi/votes republican/has leadership qualities etc. seriously, according to this lecture the US army and police use fMRI as a rectuiting age. sheesh.

  5. ShatterFace said,

    November 20, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    Mark Thomas used fMRI last night in his otherwise excellent ‘Dispatches’ programme on Coca Cola.

    The images looked pretty though.

  6. TheBigCheese said,

    November 20, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    The fMRI stuff on Mark Thomas last night was very poorly explained which made it particularly pointless. The group have at least published some data on this (Neuron, Volume 44, Number 2, October 14, 2004, pages 379–387.) but I don’t really know enough about the subject to say whether there data are up to much.

  7. ShatterFace said,

    November 20, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    I think the programme would have been more effective had Thomas used Coca Cola’s dabbling in neuromarketing to demonstrate that they are *foolish* rather than granting neuromarketing the status of rocket science and using it to make Coke look *sinister*.

  8. diceman said,

    November 20, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    they had a TV show using MRI on RTE 1 over here in ireland a few weeks back.

    They kind of did an experiment design using an acupuncture proponent, a couple of neuroscience types and somebody with a big MRI machine (manchester hospital?)

    The idea was to show which areas were activated when inserting needles etc. unsurprisingly it showed an increase in certain areas when needle was inserted to shallow depth (just below the skin) but also seemed to show a deactivation in other areas when needle inserted to normal accupuncture depth.

    Unfortunatly i didn’t catch all of it but it might make interesting viewing if anybody wants to find it on RTE’s website.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 20, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    I am interested all over again to find that Mark Thomas’s [Dispatches] used Bad Science. Haven’t they got a record? I know I’d decided to pick an interesting worthwhile programme in the series and deliberately not watch it, to punish them for past crimes. Although their Madeleine McCann number was also on my list. But anyway, I guess now I have to wait all over again for them to make an editorially valid document that I can wilfully ignore. This one didn’t qualify.

    Is “Big Tobacco” in the brain-imaging business, at all? (I guess autopsies…)

  10. Jessica said,

    November 21, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Once upon a year ago, I worked for the dying dinosaur of North American broadcast television advertising. The industry was crumbling around my ears, and for a great reason: it doesn’t work, or at least it’s impossible to prove it works to the companies who are asked to pay for it, and there are more and more alternatives to it that common sense informs you would be more effective. In the months preceding my ditching of the industry, people were getting very, very excited about neuroimaging because they thought they could sell it to their clients as proof broadcast TV commercials worked on viewers. They didn’t care whether it was good or bad science or even if it reflected the reality of people’s reactions or decisions to buy stuff; they cared about it as an argument that advertising dollars shouldn’t go elsewhere, and hoped their clients wouldn’t look too hard at it and see the massive vagueness of it all.

    The fact it got called into play for the US presidentials in the same sort of way is, to me, a nasty testament of the nature of the US presidentials – the hope being nobody looks too hard at the story beyond getting the impression people don’t trust John Edwards, or whoever. Wasting marketing budgets is one thing but using bullshit marketing techniques to sway the voting public is another.

    Thanks for taking a break from the homeopaths to write about it, and I wish you would more often and more critically. British alt-med is a study in dangerous exploitation, but at least it’s exploiting a need that it can’t be blamed for; people’s alienation, for good or bad reasons, from proper medicine. Neuromarketing is part of an effort to create AND exploit needs; a dynamic that’s even more sickening in politics than commerce. And while for the moment it’s just bad science, the prospect of neuroimaging techniques actually working for marketing or political purposes needs a whole new negative adjective.

  11. Paul said,

    November 21, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    Just to let you know that Nature are taking up the cudgels with an editorial

    www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7169/full/450457a.html

  12. mjs said,

    November 22, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I am so glad this article was covered by BadScience. This “study” read like a horoscope.

    www-psych.stanford.edu/~span/Press/bk091007press.html
    This is a decent news item that includes a revealing quote from Dr. Freedman on fMRI use:

    “Through his work with FKF, Mr. Freedman said he’s confirmed a consistent reality about human behavior: People tend to lie. “The ads that evoked the strongest emotions and are really firing up their brain, they tend to be relatively dismissive of,” he said. “Ads that are pleasant pabulum, they’ll say they are great, but their brain isn’t lighting up at all. That’s the problem with focus groups: People don’t really bare their soul. They are trying to protect their souls.””

    I would not be surprised if Dr. Freedman feels completely comfortable supplying his own reactions in place of what any subjects might tell him.

    As mentioned above, FKF is a neuromarketing firm. Run by Dr. J. Freedman, Mr. T. Freedman (Dr’s brother, perhaps?) “who has published opinion articles in a variety of publications including The New York Times,” William Knapp (“a senior media strategist for three U.S. presidential campaigns”), and a few others.

    Gosh. Convienent.

  13. Dan Kimberg said,

    November 22, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    As an fMRI researcher, I’m used to ridiculously bad reporting of imaging studies in the popular media. But when it’s real scientists doing the damage, the offense goes far beyond bad reporting.

    There are indeed some heavy hitters on the author list of the reply, and perhaps that’s the only way to make the point, given that you can’t give everyone a graduate education in a few paragraphs on the Op/Ed page. (Although as Ben Goldacre demonstrated in a recent entry here, you can try.) However, for good measure, they weighed in not just with their authority, but with a very concise explanation of the two most important problems.

    I think what elicits such strong emotions here is that this really reinforces negative views of scientists. It’s frustrating but not surprising when science journalists sensationalize even the most inconsequential work. But when scientists behave this way themselves, it makes it much more difficult for those of us who want to present our work honestly. Worse yet when they do it with work that hasn’t even been published or reviewed, and that can’t possibly have really been honestly intended. Honest reporting of the results (”we carried out a study we knew was meaningless, and got uninterpretable results”) wouldn’t pack quite the same punch, but dishonest reporting isn’t the second best option.

    While it hurts to have it made so public, the truth is that even highly credentialed, respectable fMRI researchers draw a lot of conclusions that aren’t justified by the data they’ve collected. And they do it in Neuroimage and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, not just in the New York Times. And I don’t give them credit, as scientists, for their bad judgment. But at least there, reviewers have had a chance to weed out the worst of it, and the audience is, on the whole, a little less gullible.

    My last attempt to comment on this story vanished into a bitbucket, so I’ve tried to keep this briefer.

  14. rainman said,

    November 23, 2007 at 8:23 am

    From what I read in Nature, John Edwards is either deplorable or a chocolaty orgasm.

    I tend to get a “we are science, and what we say is the definitive truth QED” sense from the NYT.

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