Journalists and marketers must be careful not to let overblown claims about neuroscience detract from the real science playing the longer game, argued neuroscientist Molly Crockett speaking at TEDSalon.

Crockett studies how the chemicals in the brain influence the choices we make. "According to scientists, a cheese sandwich is the solution to all your tough decisions," said Crockett, referring to media reports about a study that she had worked on.

Crockett and colleagues had given participants a drink containing and amino acid called tryptophan to manipulate the levels of brain chemical serotonin. They found that when serotonin levels were high, people behaved in a more rational level-headed fashion when making decisions. When serotonin levels were low, participants were more likely to make impulsive, emotionally-led decisions. 

Following the publication of the study, many media outlets led with headlines referring to cheese and chocolate. "The study had nothing to do with cheese and chocolate. We gave them a horrible lemon artificial drink." It just so happens that high levels of tryptophan are also found in cheese, meat and chocolate among other things.

After the paper was published, Crockett was approached to provide scientific endorsements for "mood-boosting bottled water". "They meant well but had I taken them up on their offers I could have gone beyond science."

She added that neuroscience is increasingly turning up in marketing materials, with drinks such as Neurobliss promising to reduce stress, enhance moods and promote positive outlook. "It sounds awesome, but I was curious about the research. I went to the company's website looking for controlled trials of their product and couldn't find any. Trial or no trial, these claims are front and centre on their label next to a picture of a brain." 

"Pictures of brains have special properties. Brains sell," said Crockett, citing a Colorado State University study that found that putting a brain image in an article meant people were more likely to agree with the arguments made in the text. "If you want to sell it, but a brain on it."

Crockett explained a number of ways to spot classic "neurobollocks". The first unproven claim was the idea that you can use brain scans to read people's thoughts and emotions. She mentioned an article written in the New York Times, which claimed that a study had shown that people loved their iPhones in a literal sense. This is because a study had shown an area of the brain called the insular cortex that is also associated sometimes with positive feelings of love and compassion. What the article failed to mention, was that the insular cortex is active in as many as a third of all brain imaging studies and is more frequently associated with negative than positive emotions. "So based on the same brain activity you could equally prove you hate the iPhone," Crockett said.

She also debunked the idea of a "moral molecule", proposed by "Dr Love" Paul Zak. "He bases his argument on studies that show that oxytocin increases trust, empathy and cooperation, but that's not the whole story. Other studies show that boosting oxytocin can increase envy, gloating, and bias people to favour their own group."

"I could say that oxytocin is also an immoral molecule and call myself Dr Strangelove," she concluded.

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