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©2018 by Merle van den Akker

Neuro Nonsense


Neuroscience is cool. It just is. It is amazing. Uncovering the secrets of the brain. Reveling in its power and complexity. Seeing how sometimes it’s not us, but it’s our own brain guiding our behaviour. Just so cool.

Neuroscience itself, however, is not nearly as cool when it boils down to doing the actual research. The endless hours that it takes to run one study. The vast amount of studies it takes to replicate, reject, establish or falsify the role of one small part of the brain, such as a neurotransmitter. This stuff is complex. Research on mapping the many functions and workings of serotonin has been going on for decades and serotonin is still not well (enough) understood. But small changes and foundational developments aren’t sexy. They don’t sell. And if that’s what companies want, we’re at a slight impasse. Or not?

Not so much an impasse as a tub full of snake oil (or baked air, for my Dutchies). The reason I’m writing this article is because of an exam question that showed up two years ago in my Neuroeconomics class in the MSc BES. BES students I’d pay attention if I were you because this question, sometimes in a slightly different form, keeps popping up in these exams. This is the question, as grabbed from my memory:*

“Your friend contacts you, as he knows you are a talented cognitive neuroscientist. His company wants to bring out a new shampoo. This shampoo is supposed to revolutionize the business. Not only does it promise silky smooth hair, but it also helps promote dopamine production and re-uptake. It’s a shampoo that will make all its consumers happy and experience a neurological reward during each use. (Of course, the company also wants the added value of dopamine being associated with developing addictions, to sell its product). What would you advise your friend?”

Now leaving the obvious lack of morals within the company aside, what does this question ask? Pretty much: can dopamine be promoted with something as external as a shampoo. Answer: absolutely not. When I first read the question, I thought it was funny. But doesn’t this remind you of something? Like, every marketing campaign involving neuroscience ever? I’m looking at you, SmartWater… There are whole ranges of products out there promising that they will help you study, work harder and/or faster, keep you awake, put you to sleep, improve your life, do your taxes, walk your dog etc. by stimulating your brain. And most of it (close to 98%, a number my brain stimulator just made up) is rubbish! So, keep your money in your pocket and move on.

Issue is, it can be so much more dangerous than a marketing campaign blatantly lying about what their product can do for you and your brain. There are a lot of stories, faked research and campaigns out there that tell us about our brains. About what type of brain you need to be a successful CEO. Whether your brain functioning makes you more likely to be an alpha or beta type (whatever that means…). About what makes for differences between men and women. And more worryingly, about the “knowledge” that is ingrained in our brains for some genders to perform one role in society, and nothing else but that role. Because we are biologically (read: brain-wise) designed to do so.

This stuff is dangerous. People who seemed authoritative, smart and worthy of our listening ear and faltering attention span, have fed us information that has little to no scientific basis. And we have lapped it up as gospel. A lot of “findings” in “science,” and I actively use those quote marks, have been used to manipulate, segregate and maintain a status quo that is beneficial enough to some to maintain. If you don’t know the science, your ignorance will be used against you.

What can we do? Get to the science yourself. If it’s a company selling it to you, go through the marketing campaign, if there is no science mentioned, run. But don’t think that just because there is one scientific source we’re out of the woods. No. Science has had some scandals of its own, facing increased pressure to publish, some researchers have faked data, p-hacked values or just scrubbed data until some shocking result came out. So that rash statements could be made such as “Poor people do have inferior brain capacity,” or God knows what else. Be smart about it. Not all science is good science. And that rule extends way beyond the neuroscience community.

Maybe the easiest solution is to just open Google Scholar, or any other type of collective science archive. Type in the key words. Read through the struggle that is neuroscientific research. Don’t be scared by the absolutely impossible literature review and result section, there is hope. The abstract, introduction and discussion/conclusion (often merged) are explained in non-technical, people-friendly terms. It tells you why the study has been done, what was found and most importantly, what the implications of that are. Often, you’ll see that several studies and authors have looked at similar things. How do their studies compare? Contradicting each other? Supporting each other? Complimenting each other? Expanding on previous work? This is what science looks like.

So don’t let some old white dude in a lab coat tell you that you are neurologically pre-programmed to stay in the kitchen if you are a woman, or that you are inferior on a neurologically level if you don’t belong to rich elites. If I ever come into touch with someone like that, I’ll whoop their ass with a rage caused by increased levels of testosterone previously unknown to the brain of a woman! This does not represent neuroscience any better than IS represents Muslims.


Now after all that, have a sip of SmartWater, grab your other brain stimulators and let’s cut through the neuro nonsense together, shall we? The next article will attempt to cut through the crap by showing us how marketing can literally change how we experience something as simple as a beverage. Stay tuned!





* I would like to state that I really did try my best remembering this as accurately as possible. But it has been a while and my nickname is Goldfish, for good reason.