Fascinating – press release
We will all be flooded with claims for products that promise to improve brain function as the population ages and brain science grows — through it’s infancy. In fact, most brain function is genetically set at birth and age related. Exercise apparently helps along with sleep and maybe relaxing.
“There is good evidence that some activities help maintain mental processes. But many of these are cheap or even free, such as getting regular physical exercise, eating healthily and having an active social life.”
While product claims may be scientifically dishonest, there is intense and likely growing demand so they will sell. If the products reduce anxiety, that may be their best benefit.
The media, because we pay them time and attention, love these claims and they make attention grabbing headlines.
Here are excerpts from a good discussion of these kinds of claims:
Chilling Warning To Parents From Top Neuroscientist – Bad Science
Ben Goldacre – The Guardian – 16 May 2009
You will be familiar with the work of Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield. She is head of the Royal
InstituteInstitution of Great Britain, where she has charged herself with promoting the public’s understanding of science, of what it means for there to be evidence for a given proposition. This is important work.
You will also doubtless be aware of her more prominent activity on the many terrifying risks of computers, exemplified in the Daily Mail headline “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”, “Computers could be fuelling obesity crisis, says Baroness Susan Greenfield” in the Telegraph, “Do you have Facebook flab? Computer use could make you eat too much, warns professor” in the Mail again, “How Facebook addiction is damaging your child’s Brain”, and so on.
These stories arise from a string of lectures, public meetings, pronouncements, and articles in the popular press, generated by the Baroness over the past few years. They are never set out as a clear hypothesis, in a formal academic publication, with the accompanying evidence and a clear suggestion of what research programmes might be planned to clarify on any uncertainties. She has explained, when criticised for a lack of clarity, a lack of evidence and an excess of panic, that these are merely ideas, speculations, hypotheses.
However it might be useful to walk through the most recent example, from this week, where we learn about her concerns on obesity, through the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. “Computer games, the internet and social networking sites may be fuelling the obesity crisis” is the theory. By encouraging kids to sit around? No: “by changing the workings of the brain, an eminent scientist has warned.”
There is much talk of the “prefrontal cortex”. Regular readers will remember fascinating research from Yale in 2008 showing that the use of neurosciencey language can make an uninformative and circular argument appear more plausible to a lay audience. But do Greenfield’s ideas have substance beyond this? Let’s see.
“While a child who falls out of a tree will quickly learn not to repeat the mistake, someone who goes wrong on a computer game will just keep playing.” It seems to me that experimenting in a safe environment is one of the key, enduring, almost definitive features of all “play”.
Perhaps I am wrong and this is entirely new. Moving on. “Computer use could be cutting attention spans, stifling imagination and hampering empathy, she said.” “As a result, the parts of the brain involved in these traits will not develop properly.”
Neuroscienciness aside, again, with the best will in the world, this seems slightly foolish, simply because there are so many different things you could do with a computer, some of which would probably enhance attention span, imagination, and empathy.
In fact, those with long memories may be doubly confused here, because Professor Greenfield herself personally endorses a computer games product called MindFit, which is supposed to keep you clever. Greenfield launched this product – using Baronial privilege – two years ago in the House of Lords, to much media fanfare in the Times,Telegraph, BBC and more.
MindFit’s games were supposed to exercise “short-term memory, spatial memory, visual perception, scanning, divided attention, shifting, awareness, hand-eye coordination, time estimation, planning and inhibition.” So do lots of computer games and activities. When Which magazine investigated the company’s claims they were sent three studies. Two had basic design flaws, and one they reported as being well designed, with some positive results, but this had not been formally published.
“There is good evidence that some activities help maintain mental processes,” said Which, and I agree. “But many of these are cheap or even free, such as getting regular physical exercise, eating healthily and having an active social life.” Baroness Greenfield’s personally endorsed product, MindFit, costs £88. That’s quite a lot of money.
Let us be clear. It is possible that much of the Baroness’s output on this topic is speculative flim flam, dressed up in an unnecessarily expensive and sciencey “gloss”. And perhaps it is dangerous and unhelpful for one of our most prominent science communicators, whose stated aim is to improve the public’s understanding of science, to appear repeatedly in the media making wild headline-grabbing claims, with minimal evidence, all the while telling us repeatedly that they are a scientist.
by Peter Kalivas:
Most of us understand that neither dopamine nor glutamate explain addiction. Two points to make along these lines:
1) The day we understand the brain as an organ in reductionist terms, we might be able to provide a tight linear cause and effect analysis from gene to transmitter to circuit to a complex behavior like addiction. That holy grail is slipping through the fingers of my generation of scientists, it’s a long game. However, I think those of us trying to explain behavior from the bottom up believe that unlike the search for the holy grail, our journey will eventually get us an explanation that is workable in terms of explaining human behavior and curing behavioral pathologies.
2) The reason behind our penchant to build magic molecular bullets to explain complex behavior is simple and political (sounds depressingly like a Tea Party). We are trying to find a pharmacotherapy, and the current FDA-approved state of the art is usually a single molecular target. Do we believe that a single molecule defines a behavior like addiction, of course not. Do interest rates define an economy, no, but adjusting them can fix a problem (perhaps not with the current economy, bad example).
A final thought on learning and memory, and neuroanthropology. I think that the most accurate and utilitarian understanding of human behavior in our lifetimes will arise from iterative processing between fields like anthropology and neurobiology. Learning and memory is in the gun sights of reductionist experimentation, and we are likely to have some pretty solid molecular/circuitry explanations in 10-20 years (maybe less), perhaps at the level we now understand the heart.
However, even a process like learning is little more than an automatic function, largely pre-programmed as a tool to help us navigate. By developing more accurate top-down models of the development and expression of integrated behaviors, an anthropological context gives neurobiologists the framework by which we will design experiments to determine how learning and memory underpin complex behaviors and behavioral pathologies. Conversely, I like to think that our ill-formed certitude of how one or another highly reduced process in the brain influences behavior might help frame complex behaviors
From Scientific American article:http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=reviving-consciousness&print=true
[In 1996], compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most:
- populist (have the most positions for elections and the most frequent elections, although have among the lowest voter turnout rates)
- least class-conscious
- most churchgoing in Protestantism, and the most fundamentalist in Christendom
- more likely than others from Western industrialized countries to see the world in absolute moral terms
In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the United States had the:
- highest crime rate
- longest working hours
- highest divorce rate
- highest rate of volunteerism
- highest percentage of citizens with a post-secondary education
- highest productivity rate
- highest GDP
- highest poverty rate
- highest income-inequality rate
- least supportive of various governmental interventions. …
In a survey of people from six Western countries, only Americans preferred a choice from 50 different ice cream ﬂavors compared with 10 ﬂavors. Likewise, Americans (and Britons) prefer to have more choices on menus in upscale restaurants than do people from other European countries. … Americans respond more defensively to death thoughts than do those from other countries.
American society is also anomalous, even relative to other Western societies, in its low relational focus in work settings, which is reflected in practices such as
- the encouragement of an impersonal work style
- direct (rather than indirect) communication
- the clear separation of the work domain from the non-work
- and discouragement of friendships at work.
[Consider] the relative strangeness, in a broad global and historical context, of modern middle-and upper-class American beliefs, values, cultural models, and practices vis-a`-vis childrearing. … These practices impact cognitive, linguistic, and motor development, including long-term cognitive outcomes. … We speculate that in the context of mobile, meritocratic societies, … cultural evolutionary processes rooted in our evolved tendencies to imitate successful and prestigious individuals will favor the spread of child-rearing traits that speed up and enhance the development of those particular cognitive and social skills that eventually translate into social and economic success in these populations. This kind of cultural evolutionary process may be part of what is driving the dramatic increases in IQ observed in many industrialized nations over the last century, along with increases in biases toward analytical reasoning and individualism. It would also explain the obsession with active instruction of all kinds shown by middle- and upper-class Americans