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TEDSalon London Fall 2012

Molly Crockett: Beware neuro-bunk

November 7, 2012

Brains are ubiquitous in modern marketing: Headlines proclaim cheese sandwiches help with decision-making, while a “neuro” drink claims to reduce stress. There’s just one problem, says neuroscientist Molly Crockett: The benefits of these "neuro-enhancements" are not proven scientifically. In this to-the-point talk, Crockett explains the limits of interpreting neuroscientific data, and why we should all be aware of them.

Molly Crockett - Neuroscientist
Neuroscientist Molly Crockett studies altruism, morality and value-based decision-making in humans. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a neuroscientist, and I study decision-making.
00:16
I do experiments to test how different chemicals
00:20
in the brain influence the choices we make.
00:22
I'm here to tell you the secret to successful decision-making:
00:25
a cheese sandwich.
00:32
That's right. According to scientists, a cheese sandwich
00:34
is the solution to all your tough decisions.
00:38
How do I know? I'm the scientist who did the study.
00:42
A few years ago, my colleagues and I were interested
00:47
in how a brain chemical called serotonin
00:49
would influence people's decisions in social situations.
00:51
Specifically, we wanted to know how serotonin would affect
00:55
the way people react when they're treated unfairly.
00:58
So we did an experiment.
01:02
We manipulated people's serotonin levels by giving them
01:03
this really disgusting-tasting artificial lemon-flavored drink
01:06
that works by taking away the raw ingredient for serotonin
01:11
in the brain.
01:14
This is the amino acid tryptophan.
01:16
So what we found was, when tryptophan was low,
01:19
people were more likely to take revenge
01:21
when they're treated unfairly.
01:23
That's the study we did, and here are some of the headlines
01:27
that came out afterwards.
01:31
("A cheese sandwich is all you need for strong decision-making")
01:34
("What a friend we have in cheeses")
01:36
("Eating Cheese and Meat May Boost Self-Control") At this point, you might be wondering, did I miss something?
01:38
("Official! Chocolate stops you being grumpy") Cheese? Chocolate? Where did that come from?
01:41
And I thought the same thing myself when these came out,
01:47
because our study had nothing to do with cheese or chocolate.
01:49
We gave people this horrible-tasting drink
01:53
that affected their tryptophan levels.
01:55
But it turns out that tryptophan also happens to be found
01:59
in cheese and chocolate.
02:02
And of course when science says cheese and chocolate
02:05
help you make better decisions, well, that's sure to grab people's attention.
02:07
So there you have it:
02:12
the evolution of a headline.
02:13
When this happened, a part of me thought, well,
02:17
what's the big deal?
02:19
So the media oversimplified a few things, but in the end,
02:21
it's just a news story.
02:25
And I think a lot of scientists have this attitude.
02:27
But the problem is that this kind of thing happens all the time,
02:31
and it affects not just the stories you read in the news
02:35
but also the products you see on the shelves.
02:38
When the headlines rolled, what happened was,
02:40
the marketers came calling.
02:43
Would I be willing to provide a scientific endorsement
02:46
of a mood-boosting bottled water?
02:49
Or would I go on television to demonstrate,
02:52
in front of a live audience,
02:55
that comfort foods really do make you feel better?
02:56
I think these folks meant well, but had I taken them up on their offers,
02:59
I would have been going beyond the science,
03:03
and good scientists are careful not to do this.
03:06
But nevertheless, neuroscience is turning up more and more in marketing.
03:09
Here's one example: Neuro drinks,
03:13
a line of products, including Nuero Bliss here,
03:16
which according to its label helps reduce stress,
03:19
enhances mood, provides focused concentration,
03:22
and promotes a positive outlook.
03:25
I have to say, this sounds awesome. (Laughter)
03:28
I could totally have used this 10 minutes ago.
03:33
So when this came up in my local shop, naturally I was
03:36
curious about some of the research backing these claims.
03:40
So I went to the company's website looking to find
03:43
some controlled trials of their products.
03:46
But I didn't find any.
03:50
Trial or no trial, these claims are front and center
03:51
on their label right next to a picture of a brain.
03:55
And it turns out that pictures of brains have special properties.
03:59
A couple of researchers asked a few hundred people
04:05
to read a scientific article.
04:07
For half the people, the article included a brain image,
04:10
and for the other half, it was the same article
04:13
but it didn't have a brain image.
04:15
At the end — you see where this is going —
04:18
people were asked whether they agreed
04:20
with the conclusions of the article.
04:22
So this is how much people agree with the conclusions
04:25
with no image.
04:27
And this is how much they agree with the same article
04:29
that did include a brain image.
04:33
So the take-home message here is,
04:36
do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.
04:38
Now let me pause here and take a moment to say that
04:42
neuroscience has advanced a lot in the last few decades,
04:45
and we're constantly discovering amazing things
04:48
about the brain.
04:51
Like, just a couple of weeks ago, neuroscientists at MIT
04:52
figured out how to break habits in rats
04:55
just by controlling neural activity in a specific part of their brain.
04:58
Really cool stuff.
05:02
But the promise of neuroscience has led to some really
05:04
high expectations and some overblown, unproven claims.
05:07
So what I'm going to do is show you how to spot
05:12
a couple of classic moves, dead giveaways, really,
05:15
for what's variously been called neuro-bunk,
05:19
neuro-bollocks, or, my personal favorite, neuro-flapdoodle.
05:21
So the first unproven claim is that you can use brain scans
05:27
to read people's thoughts and emotions.
05:31
Here's a study published by a team of researchers
05:35
as an op-ed in The New York Times.
05:38
The headline? "You Love Your iPhone. Literally."
05:41
It quickly became the most emailed article on the site.
05:45
So how'd they figure this out?
05:50
They put 16 people inside a brain scanner
05:52
and showed them videos of ringing iPhones.
05:55
The brain scans showed activation in a part of the brain
05:58
called the insula, a region they say
06:02
is linked to feelings of love and compassion.
06:05
So they concluded that because they saw activation in the insula,
06:08
this meant the subjects loved their iPhones.
06:12
Now there's just one problem with this line of reasoning,
06:16
and that's that the insula does a lot.
06:18
Sure, it is involved in positive emotions
06:22
like love and compassion,
06:24
but it's also involved in tons of other processes,
06:27
like memory, language, attention,
06:29
even anger, disgust and pain.
06:32
So based on the same logic, I could equally conclude
06:36
you hate your iPhone.
06:41
The point here is, when you see activation in the insula,
06:43
you can't just pick and choose your favorite explanation
06:46
from off this list, and it's a really long list.
06:49
My colleagues Tal Yarkoni and Russ Poldrack
06:54
have shown that the insula pops up in almost a third
06:56
of all brain imaging studies that have ever been published.
06:59
So chances are really, really good
07:04
that your insula is going off right now,
07:06
but I won't kid myself
07:09
to think this means you love me.
07:10
So speaking of love and the brain,
07:14
there's a researcher, known to some as Dr. Love,
07:17
who claims that scientists have found the glue
07:21
that holds society together,
07:24
the source of love and prosperity.
07:27
This time it's not a cheese sandwich.
07:31
No, it's a hormone called oxytocin.
07:33
You've probably heard of it.
07:37
So, Dr. Love bases his argument on studies showing
07:39
that when you boost people's oxytocin,
07:41
this increases their trust, empathy and cooperation.
07:44
So he's calling oxytocin "the moral molecule."
07:49
Now these studies are scientifically valid,
07:53
and they've been replicated, but they're not the whole story.
07:55
Other studies have shown that boosting oxytocin
08:00
increases envy. It increases gloating.
08:02
Oxytocin can bias people to favor their own group
08:07
at the expense of other groups.
08:10
And in some cases, oxytocin can even decrease cooperation.
08:13
So based on these studies, I could say oxytocin
08:18
is an immoral molecule, and call myself Dr. Strangelove.
08:22
(Laughter)
08:26
So we've seen neuro-flapdoodle all over the headlines.
08:30
We see it in supermarkets, on book covers.
08:34
What about the clinic?
08:37
SPECT imaging is a brain-scanning technology
08:39
that uses a radioactive tracer
08:43
to track blood flow in the brain.
08:45
For the bargain price of a few thousand dollars,
08:48
there are clinics in the U.S. that will give you
08:51
one of these SPECT scans and use the image
08:55
to help diagnose your problems.
08:58
These scans, the clinics say, can help
09:01
prevent Alzheimer's disease,
09:04
solve weight and addiction issues,
09:06
overcome marital conflicts,
09:09
and treat, of course, a variety of mental illnesses
09:12
ranging from depression to anxiety to ADHD.
09:15
This sounds great. A lot of people agree.
09:18
Some of these clinics are pulling in tens of millions
09:21
of dollars a year in business.
09:23
There's just one problem.
09:26
The broad consensus in neuroscience
09:28
is that we can't yet diagnose mental illness
09:31
from a single brain scan.
09:34
But these clinics have treated
09:37
tens of thousands of patients to date,
09:39
many of them children,
09:42
and SPECT imaging involves a radioactive injection,
09:44
so exposing people to radiation, potentially harmful.
09:47
I am more excited than most people, as a neuroscientist,
09:53
about the potential for neuroscience to treat mental illness
09:56
and even maybe to make us better and smarter.
10:00
And if one day we can say that cheese and chocolate
10:05
help us make better decisions, count me in.
10:08
But we're not there yet.
10:12
We haven't found a "buy" button inside the brain,
10:15
we can't tell whether someone is lying or in love
10:18
just by looking at their brain scans,
10:22
and we can't turn sinners into saints with hormones.
10:26
Maybe someday we will, but until then,
10:30
we have to be careful that we don't let overblown claims
10:32
detract resources and attention away from the real science
10:35
that's playing a much longer game.
10:38
So here's where you come in.
10:42
If someone tries to sell you something with a brain on it,
10:44
don't just take them at their word.
10:48
Ask the tough questions. Ask to see the evidence.
10:50
Ask for the part of the story that's not being told.
10:54
The answers shouldn't be simple, because the brain isn't simple.
10:58
But that's not stopping us from trying to figure it out anyway.
11:03
Thank you. (Applause)
11:07
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Molly Crockett - Neuroscientist
Neuroscientist Molly Crockett studies altruism, morality and value-based decision-making in humans.

Why you should listen

Can what you eat influence your sense of justice? Will a simple drug make you more likely to help a stranger on the street? Neuroscientist Molly Crockett asks and answers these and many other fascinating questions about the influence of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, on altruism and decision-making. Neuroscience may hold the answer, says Crockett, but there are still limits to our ability to draw conclusions from neural research. Crockett received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2011, and she is currently working with support from the four-year Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship studying human altruism in labratories worldwide.

The original video is available on TED.com
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