Learning from TED: January 19, 2013

Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t say I would watch TED every day and post here because it has been more than a week.  Oh well…

This morning I watched Molly Crockett: Beware neuro bunk.  It was interesting.  Crockett, a neuroscientist.  I am fascinated by neuroscience — although I don’t understand it all, of course.  I think — at least I hope — that it can help us solve some of the problems we have such as mental illness and addictions and that it can help us understand why we do what we do.  Fortunately, though, this talk wasn’t designed to inform me about recent research.  It was designed to get to to be careful.  It was designed to get me to think about what I read and hear when the topic is the brain.  

Crockett talks about a study she did that led to headlines about cheese and chocolate when there was no cheese or chocolate involved in her study.  She said:

When this happened, a part of me thought, well, what’s the big deal? So the media oversimplified a few things, but in the end, it’s just a news story. And I think a lot of scientists have this attitude. But the problem is that this kind of thing happens all the time, and it affects not just the stories you read in the news but also the products you see on the shelves. When the headlines rolled, what happened was, the marketers came calling. Would I be willing to provide a scientific endorsement of a mood-boosting bottled water? Or would I go on television to demonstrate, in front of a live audience, that comfort foods really do make you feel better? I think these folks meant well, but had I taken them up on their offers, I would have been going beyond the science, and good scientists are careful not to do this.

Crockett goes on to cite a number of examples of what she calls neuro bunk or “neuro flapdoodle”.  These are interesting and fun. 

What I left the talk wondering, though, is why media and marketers think we are so stupid that they can misuse the results of studies for their own gain.  Actually, I am not wondering.  I know the answer: it is because many of us are stupid enough to believe what they tell us.  According to a study cited by Crockett in the talk, the brain — or an image of it — has special powers.  She said:

A couple of researchers asked a few hundred people to read a scientific article. For half the people, the article included a brain image, and for the other half, it was the same article but it didn’t have a brain image. At the end — you see where this is going — people were asked whether they agreed with the conclusions of the article.

The study results showed that readers who were shown the image agreed with the article at a much higher rate than those who saw no image.  As she says:

So the take-home message here is,do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.

I guess there are two things that I took from this talk.  One is something I already knew — that media corporations in general will use partial information and misuse facts to make money.  This is nothing new.  I have known this for a long time.  This just reinforced my beliefs/knowledge.

What I really too away from this, though, was the fact that people still think that there is a panacea out there for all our problems if we have enough money to through away.  A “neuro drink”

which according to its label helps reduce stress, enhances mood, provides focused concentration, and promotes a positive outlook

would be an easy way to accomplish those goals.  Much easier than slowing down your life, eating properly, exercising more, and focusing on family, friends and the positive things in our lives.  If it worked.  But it doesn’t.   And I guess that, until we can see how all this is just a more modern kind of snake oil, this stuff will continue to sell. 

Crockett concludes her talk like this:

So here’s where you come in. If someone tries to sell you something with a brain on it, don’t just take them at their word. Ask the tough questions. Ask to see the evidence. Ask for the part of the story that’s not being told. The answers shouldn’t be simple, because the brain isn’t simple. But that’s not stopping us from trying to figure it out anyway.

It sounds so easy — and it really is!  We just need to take the time to be informed citizens.  We need to be skeptical, in the best sense of that word.  Unfortunately, that takes more time and effort than some of us are willing to put in. 



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