Debunking Neuroscience Myths

Tinfoil hats, while fashionable, is no defence against Neuroscientists. Mainly because they were never able to read your thoughts in the first place.

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Will neuroscience help reduce personal bias and disprove myths by telling you exactly what goes on? No. It probably won’t. In fact, the field has plenty of myths of its own.

Psychology is probably the most myth-susceptible science. After all, it is about us. Our mind and behaviour. That makes it personal! It is then only natural to apply psychological findings to oneself and to personal experiences. From here we contemplate and further the narrative. This is where myths are born.

The mystic psychology

Often, psychological states and processes are portrayed as something mystical -What is the mind Really?- It all gets very essentialistic. Everything that is psychological still has its biological underpinnings. It has to. Behaviour is a function of the body of which the brain is an integral part. 

The most important job of a scientist is to separate solvable problems from these mysteries, and to test them. Regardless of this, many assume psychology to be less accessible than ‘the hard sciences’, as most psychological phenomena are not directly observable. As neuroscience is intertwined with ‘the hard sciences’, some might assume that neuroscientists have better access to these unobservable processes. That a neuroscientist knows what happens in your head when it happens. Sadly, it is not that easy. Even if it would be nice to be a mind-reader…

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Myth 1: You know what I am thinking

Too often psychologists get the following responses when telling strangers what they are doing for a living: “you must be a mind reader”, “can you see into my head?”, “what number am I thinking of right now?” Neuroscience is susceptible to the same assumptions. Isn’t looking at the brain and recording its behaviour just another word for mind reading, only now with 70% more science? 

The idea that images of the brain tell you exactly what you think can be dangerous, it gives the field an authority that it does not possess. It’s all part of the inverse inference fallacy, of which you can read in our previous article. Neuroimaging has weaknesses and fMRI still doesn’t stand for fancy Mega Reliable Imaging. Electrodes placed on the scalp do not tell you exactly what’s going on inside your head (1)Purves, D., Cabeza, R., Huettel, S. A., LaBar, K. S., Platt, M. L., Woldorff, M. G., & Brannon, E. M. (2008). Cognitive neuroscience. Sunderland: Sinauer Associates, Inc. And hormones’ long term effects’ effects and chain reaction are complex and confusing (2)Kolb, B., Whishaw, I. Q., & Teskey, G. C. (2019). An introduction to brain and behavior (5th ed). New York: Worth.. In sum, rest assured; neuroscientists can’t tell exactly what you think.

Myth 2: You know exactly what, when and where things are happening in the brain

It would be nice, if we knew everything about the brain, but most of the work within neuroscience is still focused on establishing how this extremely complex structure works. The possibility of exactly locating specific functions or behaviours is more often the exception than the rule (3)Poldrack, R. A. (2018). The new mind readers: What neuroimaging can and cannot reveal about our thoughts. Princeton University Press., but simply furthering our understanding of the brain’s functioning and behaviour is still an exciting and worthwhile endeavour.

The fact is that we are somewhat limited by the tools we use (4)Purves, D., Cabeza, R., Huettel, S. A., LaBar, K. S., Platt, M. L., Woldorff, M. G., & Brannon, E. M. (2008). Cognitive neuroscience. Sunderland: Sinauer Associates, Inc.. fMRI lets you see where things happen down to a few millimetres (which is still pretty big when we’re talking cellular level), but the time aspect? There’s definitely a delay of the blood flow to previously activated regions, and you only see the consequences of activity, not the activity itself. EEG on the other hand allows us to know when things happen, but not so much where. Single cell recordings give a perfect understanding of that one cell which is being recorded, but every neuron is part of a network and a cell rarely acts on its own. 

Myth 3: Neuroscience delivers clear and indisputable answers

A researcher working with fMRI might get a query from the commercial sector along the lines of “I want you to have person X do this behaviour, and tell me what happens in their brain.” This would, in fact, be mind-reading. It is the same as saying “I want you to have this person take this stimulant/drug, and then just generally tell me what he does.” Is the behaviour because of the stimulant, or something else? Like all science, neuroscience needs comparable and controllable conditions, underlying theory and testable predictions (5)Stanovich, K. E. (2013). How to think straight about psychology. HarperCollins Publishers.. In fact, when testing confirmatory hypotheses you need to have an assumption about what is happening and optimally where it’s happening before you start measuring, so that your hypotheses can be falsified. The answers you get will only be as good as the questions you ask.

Myth 4: We can make you stronger, smarter, better

“They scanned his brain and found that cough syrup made him a genius for a day!” Did it though? Many avant-garde claims about bettering your performance lean heavily on (often sparse, biased or inconclusive) neuroscientific evidence regarding their effectiveness. Some even use neuroscientific methods to push the idea of enhancement. There is definitely some evidence suggesting that electrical stimulation can enhance cognition (6)Coffman, B. A., Trumbo, M. C., & Clark, V. P. (2012). Enhancement of object detection with transcranial direct current stimulation is associated with increased attention. BMC neuroscience, 13(1), 108.; (7)Falcone, B., Coffman, B. A., Clark, V. P., & Parasuraman, R. (2012). Transcranial direct current stimulation augments perceptual sensitivity and 24-hour retention in a complex threat detection task. PloS one, 7(4), e34993.; (8)Coffman, B. A., Clark, V. P., & Parasuraman, R. (2014). Battery powered thought: enhancement of attention, learning, and memory in healthy adults using transcranial direct current stimulation. Neuroimage, 85, 895-908.. But we strongly advise against following YouTube tutorials on using car batteries to stimulate your brain (9)Don’t!. Why? Because the brain is delicate and you might get burns on your head. There’s a chance that ‘ST1MUL4T0R2447’ doesn’t know what he’s doing, even if he did read the Wiki.

A far more common type of stimulant, often used by students,  are various drugs such as Adderall or Ritalin (10)Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R. C., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. J. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456(7223), 702-705.; (11)Outram, S. M. (2010). The use of methylphenidate among students: the future of enhancement?. Journal of Medical Ethics, 36(4), 198-202.; (12)Singh, I., Bard, I., & Jackson, J. (2014). Robust resilience and substantial interest: a survey of pharmacological cognitive enhancement among university students in the UK and Ireland. PloS one, 9(10), e105969.. The belief is that the drugs can be used as enhancers to improve executive functions such as the ability to focus or to retain information. There is some evidence for it for certain drugs (13)Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R. C., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. J. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456(7223), 702-705.. However, interactions between neurotransmitters are complex, and they rarely do only one thing. Moreover, individual differences play a role in how drugs work and we have much more to learn at this point. (14)Greely, H., Sahakian, B., Harris, J., Kessler, R. C., Gazzaniga, M., Campbell, P., & Farah, M. J. (2008). Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy. Nature, 456(7223), 702-705. On top of this, US over-the-counter neuroenhancers might not even hold the promise of what’s inside (15)Cohen, P. A., Avula, B., Wang, Y. H., Zakharevich, I., & Khan, I. (2020). Five unapproved drugs found in cognitive enhancement supplements. Neurology Clinical Practice. 10(5)..

The conclusion is that nothing’s conclusive

The thing about neuroscience, and science in general, is that most times it is not very flashy, splashy, or even clear. Findings often tend to generate moderate answers: either technical data, a “maybe”, or “we don’t know yet.” Given that science is about finding new questions just as much as it is about generating answers to them, we can live with these answers. Can you?

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