Thinking critically about neuroscience

A few years ago, an article was published about the « Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations« . Many people cited it, or talked about it on blogs and social media.

So what was it about?

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The authors of this paper did several experiments to test how people evaluate explanations of psychological phenomenon. They gave them bad explanations, and in some cases they added (useless) neuroscientific explanations. They found that people thought bad explanations were better if they were accompanied by neuroscientific jargon. Only experts in neuroscience recognized that the extra information was not important.

Two other studies at that time showed that adding fMRI images to texts had the same effect. People were more ready to accept an explanations if there was a 3D picture of the brain instead of a graph showing the same information.

These finding could have a big effect on many fields. For example, are juries biased by this effect when shown brain images as evidence?  What does this say about media reporting of scientific discoveries? How easy is it for us to believe what we are told?

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Later, though, another paper was published, the « Seductive Allure of the Seductive Allure ». This paper contradicted the claims that neuroscientific explanations bias people’s thinking. The authors said that the explanations in the first experiment were more convincing because they were longer, and not because of the effect of neuroscientific jargon. And they said that scientists had not been able to replicate the second experiment. So we know we should look out for biased thinking. But should we also be careful not to be biased in our critiques of biased thinking?

Why were so many people ready to believe in the ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscience?

Maybe it’s because of recent fashion for neuro-everything. Neuro-marketing, neuro-economics, neuro-law… Magazines and media love to talk about finding the « center » of certain behaviors or emotions. It’s sensationalist, and seems « science-y ». And many people try to use (pseudo)neuroscience to sell games, books, tools meant to « improve our brains » or « unlock our potential ».

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In a similar way, we sometimes see the same people who are  usually very critical of biological reductionism, pointing at the latest neuroscience finding that confirms their theories. In a way, neuroscience can be seen as a way to make psychology look « more scientific », as though psychology couldn’t be a legitimate science by itself. It can seem tempting to use physical indicators of something that is often seen as only subjective. But this doesn’t show how far experimental psychology has come.

Finally, people might have believed in « the seductive allure » because it seems so plausible. There is so much misinformation about the brain. So when you think about it, it really sounds like people just aren’t critical of neuroscience, and pseudo-neuroscience. For example, maybe you’ve heard that people only use 10% of their brains? That some people are « right-brained » and other people are « left-brained »? That we have specific learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic…) and should favor the style we prefer? That sugar can make children hyperactive? These beliefs are common, even in teachers, but they are not true.

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So we have to be careful when we evaluate the information we learn, and the things we believe. I am not saying that neuroscience does not produce valuable knowledge, or that we shouldn’t learn about it. And I am not saying that psychology and neuroscience should not work together – there are so many interesting fields of study when they do! We  should just be careful when we read about neuroscience, and be careful not to over-simplify things. And also we can remember that psychology does not have to depend on neuroscience in order to be a legitimate science.

So maybe when we quote a neuroscience study, or read an article that uses neuroscience to support a point, we can ask ourselves : why is that information there? What was the author’s goal when they talked about it? Is it relevant, useful for the argument? Is there a confusion between correlation and causation? Is the evidence solid enough to support the conclusion? That way, we can engage with and have a balanced understanding of the information we consume.

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