Archive for March, 2009

It would seem that the concerns depicted in our previous post are widespread indeed!

Martha Farah

Martha Farah

The last issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, published by the MIT Press, is just out. Martha Farah introduces it with an editorial, basically a two-page warning. Abstract:

Unrealistic, financially motivated claims about functional brain imaging can have a negative impact on society at large and on our field. If too much is promised and not delivered, funders may become wary of cognitive neuroscience and skeptical about its genuine potential. Bad advice given to businesses concerning marketing and personnel selection could lead to expensive mistakes, and bad advice given to governments concerning security screening and interrogation could lead to far worse. Yet imaging is being offered for these applications now, with scant evidence of validity.

NeuroFocus CEO displays an examinee's brain waves chart as she watches a commercial film wearing a EEG headset. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

NeuroFocus CEO displays an examinee's brain waves chart as she watches a commercial film wearing a EEG headset. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Pr. Farah, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at U Penn, recommends several tactics to the neuroscientists eager to stand up against bad neuroscience, suggesting to “inoculate our students against brain imaging overclaim” or “blogging and posting reactions to blogs“. And I imagine that implicitly, this editorial will also act as a stop-sign to those neuroscientists who entertained the thought of doing profitable consulting jobs for neuromarketing private firms.

I don’t have a clear enough view of the fields of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing to be able to judge if commercial uses of fMRI / EEG have already proved harmful in any manner to scientific research. Has any grant application been rejected with referee reports mentionning the wrong commercial uses of brain scans? Is there any informal, unexpressed mood in scientific circles that “cognitive neuroscience” is somewhat dodgy, because of the bad press it is given?

What are your experiences in your universities, in your research labs? (you can post your reactions to this post, as recommended by Martha Farah, or contact me privately to help me in my research!)


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Two days ago, I attended a conference by brand-guru Martin Lindstrom where he developed the themes of his last book, Buy-ology. The audience was principally made of business executives and marketing agencies, but you could also find a few academics (from RSM, and I’ve also seen some from Tillburg), plus a couple of journalists.

Buy-ology, published in Sept 2008

Buy-ology, published in Sept 2008

The guy Lindstrom is clearly talented. For a day-long he talked about branding with about two bright ideas per minute, illustrating them with TV ads or Youtube clips. The topic of the day was how fMRI (brain scans) and EEG (measurement of the electrical field at the surface of the scalp) can reveal hidden truths about consumer attitudes towards the brand.

Tricky business, since right from the start Lindstrom cautions the audience that he is not a scientist. At the same time, he also boasts his collaborations with professors and doctors, and his discussions with this guy from Oxford, etc. And obviously, there are plenty of brain images on his slides. Interestingly, the pictures reflected the ambiguous scientific legitimacy of the talk: they varied from actual scans, to the most freely interpreted pictures of what a brain would look like.

At the end, with a panel discussion, a discussion engaged with Ale Smidts (who directs the Erasmus Centre for Neuroeconomics, which I am a member of).

Ale Smidts

Ale Smidts

Smidts criticized the shaky scientific foundations of the results, questioned the usefulness of fMRI when traditional behavioral experiments would have been enough, and last, suggested that the book was dangerous for future scientific research – because it would associate the field with spurious claims, making neuromarketing look bad and suspicious to the public opinion.

What are we to do with that? Is Lindstrom to be morally condemned for his pseudo-scientism, or is Smidts idealistic when he posits that a profit-driven industry should comply to academic standards?

I have no definitive answer, but some tentative ideas. It seems to me that neuromarketing is a two-way road, with a traffic of several types of scientific and non-scientific actors.

In one direction,  you have specialists of the physiology of neurons, who look in the direction of cognitive neuropsychologists, and are suspicious of the inflated claims that these guys make. For example, neuropsychologists discuss the role of “the amygdala” in psychological processes, when the physiologist knows that the amygdala is a gathering of sub-nodes, each with complex and differentiated cell structures. How scientific is it to discuss “the amygdala”, questions the physiologist?two-way-road

Still down in the same direction, in turn, cognitive neuro-psychologists are sometimes suspicious of the claims made by neuroeconomists. Take the amygdala for example. Cognitive neuropsychologists know that amygdala is related to fear reactions, but also that it is much more complicated than that: it could be also that the amygdala activates when the individual is faced with novel situations, or confronted with a particularly salient information. So neuroeconomists are a bit too quick to simplify when they summarize rapidly in amygdala = fear in their articles, or so think the neuropsychologists.

Keeping driving in the same way, neuroeconomists are suspicious of neuromarketers in the business industry, who tend to pay too much attention to the wonders of the technique (“a 7 million dollars study, with fMRI and all”), the power of the images, and tend to inflate scientific claims in order to sell them more easily. Take the amygdala, and its role in fear. Yes amygdala is involved in fear reactions, knows the neuroeconomist. But is it valid to say, as Lindstrom says, that as we are hard-wired for fear, it can be used to induce a reaction in the consumer and trigger a buying decision? Where is the evidence? (Lindstrom’s example was Colgate advertising on health issues – buy Colgate or else you’ll risk terrible gum diseases and much worse).

And as I said, this road has a two-way traffic, so that the inverse chain of attitudes co-exists: Neuromarketers in the industry think that neuroeconomists are annoying scientists clinging to unnecessarily strict standards, neuroeconomists think that cognitive psychologists neglect important social phenomena, and cognitive neuropsychologists see neurophysiologists as producing precise knowledge but of an exceedingly narrow scope.

At each level of the creation of knowledge, the actors stick to their standards of what constitutes a legitimate claim. They are respectful of their neighbors situated higher in the natural science pecking order. Indeed, they rely strongly on them to build their own legitimacy. But they also question the applied relevance of this form of more fundamental knowledge.

food-chainConversely, each level looks a bit down at their next neighbor, a level down in the traditional order of scientific knowledge. Yes this neighbor is closer to the practical interests of the broader society, but is it not achieved at the price of unwarranted simplification and generalization?

In the case of neuromarketing, I would argue that the field is made of all the links of this food-chain. Neuromarketing is made of those interrelated and yet sometimes incompatible knoweldge claims. Every field is animated by these tensions between theoretical and applied forms of knowledge (just think about financial economics – this field must have experienced strong internal tensions those last few months, or so I hope).

The question is, for neuromarketing, whether those tensions will stabilize or stretch to the point of rupture – which was Smidts’s point. headlines-tv-science1There is a real possibility that the (spurious, unethical, or else) claims and activities of the industry of neuromarketing would backfire and deconsider scientific research in the field. It almost happened a few years ago, and might happen again.

A safe bet is that this is yet another animal which will have the decisive role in the destiny of this food-chain: the media. How will they report on neuromarketing? On which tone? Check your newspapers!

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