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
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
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
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
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
"Pictures of brains have special properties. Brains sell," said
Crockett, citing a
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
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. New York Times,
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.