Avoiding Neurobabble

100 years ago, a Spanish histologist took a lump of custard-looking-stuff, colored it in with a special kind of stain, slipped it under a microscope, and — hunched over with a 12:30pm shadow covering his face — took a look into the human soul.

Neuroscience has come a long way since the days of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. As fellow blog contributors Alex and Greg noted earlier in the week,  the field has made leaps and bounds in the last century, but with it has come the spread of Neurobabble. That is the problem I see most pervasive today with regards to brain science and the public’s understanding of how brain science works. Can you spot the neurobabble in the following claim?

The right kiss boosts feelings of euphoria stimulating pleasure centers in the brain leading me to suspect there’s something to kissing that goes beyond social mores. While it may have evolved from primates feeding their babies mouth-to-mouth (I know, how terribly unromantic!), other scientists suggest it’s crucial to the evolutionary process of mate selection… Ever notice the way a bad first kiss can stop a relationship cold? It may very well be a subconscious cue that a pair is not well suited to produce offspring.

Or, it may very well not. Here is a wonderful example of an author appealing to a reader’s intuition of a good or bad kiss in order to build an imaginary “a-HA!” bridge between that kiss and our genetic fitness. Evolutionary psychologist Steve Pinker calls this the “Straw We” —  fooling the reader to agree with small, slightly implausible claims, one after the other, so that by the end you’ve arrived at a wholly unrealistic claim but didn’t even realize it. (For the record, I would get roundhouse kicked in the cerebellum if I ever cited “How Stuff Works” as a legitimate source.) The goal of my posts in this blog is to prevent you, dear reader, from being wooed by shoddy science reporting. It is to inoculate anyone against neurobabble, which is the overly simplistic appeal to neuroscience jargon to promote one’s point. (“Improve your memory with this herbal supplement!” “This brain region is active both when you are in love and when you look at your iPhone! Therefore, you are in love with your iPhone!”)

When most neuroscientists read these claims, they immediately want to punch the computer screen with their face. As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne reminds us, the purpose of science is to see the world for how it is, not for how we’d like it to be. Science works because data points are independent of the coffee we didn’t have this morning or what side of the bed we woke up on — in short, our emotional contingencies. So, I have a simple formula: assume that the brain is the most complicated lump of meatloaf that we know of in the universe, and if a claim about its function sounds too simple to be true, then it probably is. Show me someone who says that one brain region is solely involved in one behavior or one kind of process, or that one brain region is the center of anything, and I will show you a glioma-sized liar. Not all, but nearly every cell in your brain — all 100 billion of them — can receive thousands of inputs from other brain cells. Ramon y Cajal was the first to image the brain at the level of individual, interacting cells. There was no room for neurobabble yet. It turns out that these cells talk to each other at different times for very good and very different biological purposes. Indeed, neuroscience has blossomed as a legitimate branch of biology since Ramon y Cajal’s inspiring sketches of brain cells, but with this blossoming came an equal amount of elegant discoveries, neurobabble, and everything in between.

Absorbing material osmotically can have serious consequences. One is that healthy skepticism gets elbowed out of the room, and a primary function of science is to prevent that passive acceptance of hearsay. Did neutrinos really travel faster than the speed of light? The entire physics community was up in arms chanting for the replication of the experiments — all of this to find out if the data truly stepped beyond the edge of what is known and into the unknown. This kind of skepticism should be music to the Odysseuses of science (strapped down to the mast of a ship that is graduate school, but I digress).

When you are neuroscientifically literate, the brain looks very different to you. It is my hope that through this blog, post by post, the brain will begin to look like a tractable problem rather than a heaping lump of impossible. Like a ball of rubber bands, each brain strand can be unwound, one by one, to ultimately reveal the stuff that makes all of us tick. For example, wanna change a robust behavior by deleting a single gene? Done! Wanna control neurons and behavior with light? Check! How about changing people’s judgements regarding a moral dilema by transiently manipulating the activity of specific brain regions? Wonderful. Neuroscience isn’t just cool. It also works damn well. 

To end, if you ever hear a claim about the brain’s functions — and any science-y claim for that matter — the knee-jerk response should look like this: is there evidence, and what would the evidence look like? Can you be wrong, and how would you know you were wrong? Can you measure it, and what measures would you take? Does it make testable predictions, and what would they look like? If someone can answer these four questions in the affirmative and provide an example of each, then his or her claims become empirically testable. They might even test positive for establishing contact with reality. Such is the reality that Ramon y Cajal discovered about the brain, and it revolutionized the way we approached the mind because, for the first time in our history, we hooked the human soul by the side and turned it into the flesh that it is.

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