Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Beware the Brain-Science Backlash

It’s official: After decades of watching neuroscience move from being a strange stepsister of psychology to cutting-edge medical research, the inevitable backlash is in full swing.

The year’s just half over, and already, such books as Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience; A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, and Brain Imaging: What it Can (and Cannot) Tell Us About Consciousness have hit the shelves. There are cheeky blogs debunking neuropsuedoscience, like NeuroBollocks. And in the ultimate proof that skepticism is top of mind, The New Yorker says it’s so. Check out Gary Marcus’ recent The Problem With The Neuroscience Backlash.

The reason there is such an onslaught of accusations about neuroscience overreaching itself is because so many people have, in fact, overreached. As this approach to thinking about people and human behavior grew increasingly popular, practitioners of neuroscience felt that natural urge to “run with the ball” – making increasingly expansive and provocative claims about the powers of the science . Most famously, neuromarketers informed Frito Lay that women looking at their snack packages felt “guilty” – based on observed activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex. Frito Lay reacted to this information by making major changes in its snack packaging. The problem was that academic neuroscientists will tell you that there is no area of the brain that can be associated with guilt – and that the anterior cingulate cortex has been associated with error detection – fairly different from the concept of guilt. Using “reverse inference” to translate FMRI patterns into psychological concepts such as guilt or desire can only lead to marketing conclusions that are neither certain nor credible. Brain scans don’t yet offer the insights we need to formulate marketing strategies. We are doubtless many years away – if it will ever be possible – from knowing which neurons govern such psychological phenomena as guilt or generosity or ambition.

Meanwhile, other practitioners of business research recognized that the neuroscience idea was “hot”, and soon it seemed that everyone has some type of “neuroscience” in their product mix. All of this naturally winds up with trouble. As legitimate practitioners of FMRI research stretched the science beyond its current limits, and as faux “neuroscientists” with no basis for their claim crowd onto the stage, it is only natural that the term would begin to be attached to shaky or even completely bogus science. This activity is a natural target for a public backlash.

The customers of neuroscience have also played a role in creating the backlash against neuroscience. Many new technologies in science are initially greeted with over-strong levels of enthusiasm, as people hope that “finally” some of the frustrating inadequacies of current methods might be overcome – including the current heavy reliance on some form of self report to measure emotional enthusiasm. The business community pounced on brain research with delight as soon as it appeared: after all those years of parsing what consumers told us in subjective focus group results, there was suddenly science. This made for a very welcoming audience to those who might exaggerate the powers of the new scientific technology, and a potentially gullible audience for those attempting to masquerade as practitioners of the new. Overly enthusiastic individuals who climbed uncritically onto the “next new thing” were bound to get disappointed – and hence the fuel for the backlash.

The backlash raises important issues, and hopefully sends signals to practitioners and would-be customers alike about the importance of reasonable conservatism in making claims for a new science, and about the need for customers to exercise critical judgment in evaluating any new scientific technology as a possible solution to research challenges. Going forward it is critical that researchers eliminate any suggestion of smoke-and-mirrors from our claims, and resist the urge to hyperbolize in the face of public enthusiasm.
The brain is a wondrous organ, and the study of neurophysiology and neuropsychology represents a huge forefront in psychological science today. But right now, we don’t have a perfect map of what happens in the human brain. We barely have a map at all. President Barack Obama’s $100 million funding for the Brain Initiative earlier this year is great news for all of us who are interested in the brain. The more we know, the more inferences we will be able to make about human emotion, thought and behavior.

At this point, we need to move carefully so as to benefit from the promise of this new science without creating overpromise. For example, Sands Research uses EEG to measure increased attention and arousal. They found that ads that both build and sustain attention and arousal are more effective than those that fail to maintain this activity. In one famous study, this technique was used to evaluate a series of Super Bowl ads finding one ad in particular that was associated with stronger EEG responses than any previously had ever tested. This ad subsequently generated over 6.8 billion worldwide impressions, 50 million views online, massively increased traffic to the brand website, and directly contributed to North American sales. Using simple and straightforward neuroscience measures, and drawing conservative claims, Sands effectively used neuroscience to help the client.

Only with this kind of careful and conservative application of neuroscience in market research will we be able to ensure that marketers do not heave the baby out with the bathwater, as they react to disappointing results from claims that were wildly premature.

I believe the focus should be primarily on developing measures and methods that leverage the basic empirical findings of neuroscience (such as the neuropsychology of image processing) to craft emotional research tools that get beyond the problems of simple self-report. Attempting to stretch our understanding of functional neuroanatomy beyond the bounds of current scientific consensus will only lead to accusations of chicanery from the core of the scientific community.  Specific emotional phenomena that marketers seek to create in their audiences emerge from interactions among a massive web of neurons, with vast numbers of potential connections that are currently well outside our functional neuroanatomical understanding. (The latest count, in case you were wondering, is that the typical adult brain contains 86 billion neurons, and then about the same number of glial cells helping connect these neurons.) If we are ever able to point to the neurology of feeling the drive for achievement, or of experiencing the urge to nurture one’s family, that will be a very long way off.
So as with all science, we must temper enthusiasm with caution, we must push the envelope of our methods without tearing it wide open. Neuroscience will surely point the way to greater self-knowledge for the human race, and greater opportunities for the whole of human culture – including business and marketing. I close with somewhat famous watchwords that are appropriate for those who would practice (or purchase) neuroscience: “If your mind is too open, your brain may fall out.”


About the Author: David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University, and was a member of the faculties of Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Development before beginning his career as a business consultant. He founded Forbes Consulting over 20 years ago as a strategic market research consultancy dedicated to creating business advantage through psychological consumer insights. He has since built Forbes into a major resource for scores of major corporations in the CPG, Financial Services, and Pharmaceuticals industries, domestically and internationally. David is the creator of the MindSight® emotional assessment technologies, a suite of applied neuropsychological methods for understanding consumer emotion and motivation, without the distortions of conscious editing and self-presentation.  
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