The Really Stupid Hype About Neuroscience

These days, neuroscience is considered the sexiest thing ever. Any mentioning of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or anterior posterior cingulate cortex automatically puts people in a premature intellectual erotic fit.

I literally just made the second term up. Anterior and posterior completely negate each other in describing one region and make no sense considering they mean front and back. I could say the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which adds a Y-dimensional description, but to the average non neuroscientist, this doesn’t matter and the original is still considered sexy as hell.

Neuroscience is a young science, and it is still flawed. The hype behind it is completely due to the public’s lack of knowledge of basic latin terminology and even basic critical thinking and math as well as the very bad science communication by many “science writers”.

Neuroscience the way it is explained is not that great. And the public glorifies it to be this wholeheartedly awesome thing based off of false understanding. I have already written about the sexist and ageist discrimination I experienced at one of the largest international neuroscience conferences. But there are even flaws with the methodology and the public’s understanding of it, not just the inside people.

First off, neuroimaging technology produces associative findings. Associations are great, they are necessary as a first step. But the fancy technology is not doing a huge amount for your data. fMRI measures the blood oxygen level dependency that occurs within regions that are apparently being active during a task (if you are doing task-based fMRI). What does this mean? It means that scientists believe that when a brain region is being used, there is more blood that flows to that area (and more oxygen being released, and more complicated stuff that is beyond the point needed here). If that is true, that could possibly indicate that that region is associated with that task. And then they show you a big fancy screen of the brain with some colors of the supposed active regions.

That is great and all, but you cannot just stop questioning there. At the expression of any statement like “the amygdala is associated with emotional regulation” in popular media, the same level of excitement is given as if people discovered the existence of the Higgs Boson again. No, people. We have not reached any substantial claim from this single associative finding, okay? I get that the first stage of science is to measure associative findings, but the public really doesn’t need to be as hyped up about this first line of conceptual findings.

The statement above does not mean that doing those tasks would necessarily cause the same regions to be active all the time. Or even between everybody. We still don’t know what it means that specific regions are active, or what about certain tasks make those regions active. If a person is, say, raising their right hand in a task-based fMRI and the back top mid-brain (or the posterior parietal cortex) of the brain shows it is active, does that mean that the right brain is associated with decision making? With motor control? With listening to directions? What the hell does it mean? The excitement cannot just stop there.

The way to overcome these overblown findings is to replicate similar tasks and achieve the same results. The findings should only be substantial when the great majority of literature repeatedly produces the same associative findings with the same or similar tasks.

However, how can one rely on the reproducibility of such findings when a recent 2016 article published in a highly esteemed journal criticized the use of fMRI and its flawed ability to make reproducible findings based on the difference of statistical and correcting methods between scientists (linked here)?

I am not trying to undermine the power of associative findings (as some people are starting to point out). But having the public ooh and ahh over associations and basic terminology as they would with fundamental ground breaking concepts with the entire criticism that the associative findings from fMRI based data are unreliable to begin with completely misses the point and undermines the real productivity of the field neuroscience, critical thinking, and scientific exploration. The real excitation is not to be prompted at single associative claims and fancy terminology and equipment. Associations and complicated tech need to be done in order to do more substantial work. It is like buying the crib for your first baby. It’s exciting and necessary, but the baby hasn’t come yet and you have no idea if you will have a miscarriage or physical defect or what. Then you have the baby, which will bring on a whole set of emotions. But those sets of emotions should not be the same.

As it currently is used in institutions, the technology is so expensive and heavy and clunky. The technology is like computers in the 60s. It is only now that there are innovative companies starting to just introduce lighter, more portable, user friendly technology to the scene. There are some philosophers and technological developers now writing theoretical works about neuroimaging technology in order to improve the power of brain technology even more.

As well, the view of the brain is getting incredibly complex, and this is the stuff the public does not know about. One of my favorite topics of the conference concerned Connectomics, the idea of viewing the brain as whole network of regions and neural connections. In addition, there are people looking at epigenetic factors and how they influence neural plasticity. That is a little more cutting edge. Some may say that it is unrealistic for the public to be so advanced that they should understand the cutting edge stuff, but the simplistic thinking of the public and the communication style of the media ruins the chances of the public even trying to.

The second major problem has to do with the semantics and definitions used in the literature. Terminology between studies are widely undefined, unregulated, and hardly agreed upon. This occurs mostly in behavioral neuroscience. We spent 45 minutes in one of my behavioral neuroscience courses about how scientists define “emotion”, and there were literally like 20 of them. Why is this bad? Well, because these scientists are going off and claiming they are making brain region findings based off of un-agreed terminology.  The scientist then publishes the findings, but others have to do so much extra work and research to figure out what the hell the scientist even means and then science communicators end up writing some vague statement like “gray matter is associated with higher angry outbursts” on Buzzfeed or some shit.

What the fuck does that even mean? How did they define anger? What the hell does gray matter even indicate? Gray matter can mean so many different things depending on the region and thickness of it, and sometimes scientists only report the traits that are related to their own topic of study. Anger according to different scientists can mean things like physical assault, verbal remarks, hostility, etc. This is dangerous, because people will then conflate and reduce their specifications ability, when the entire discipline of any sophisticated field of study is to be as specific and consistent as possible. That is another thing unspecified. This is partly why the fields of psychology and behavioral neuroscience are so horribly fragmented, because people are just not using the same terminology, and even with the same terminology, they neglect to use the same definitions! Scientists are just as intellectually dishonest and lazy, they are just more fancy about it all.

I have a solution to address this. And what is it?

You will have to read my book, working on it now 🙂

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