Big question for anyone who neuro-anythings you

Posted by on Jan 19, 2009 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


New Scientist refers to a recent review by Hal Pashler and co at the University of California, San Diego of 50 neuroscience papers which try to claim areas of the brain to specific emotions and behaviours.

Pashler and co suggest that the method used to identify these kind of links inflates the probability of them being more than noise in data…

Nice provocative language like "voodoo correlations"

At the heart of the matter is the problem of using the same scan to both:

i. identify brain regions in which the correlation between voxels and the emotion being considered is above expected levels
ii. assess the strenght of the correlation

It's not yet clear how much published work in modern neuroscience falls prey to this error, but
As the wise owls of NS put it:

"It is two centuries since the birth of Charles Darwin, but even now his
advice can be spot on. The great man attempted a little neuroscience in
The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in
1872, in which he discussed the link between facial expressions and the
brain. "Our present subject is very obscure," Darwin warned in his
book, "and it is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."
Modern-day neuroscience might benefit from adopting a similar stance."

So next time you some vendor or other promises to offer you neuro-economics, neuro-marketing or neuro-anything, and talks about specific parts of the brain "lighting up" ask their basic claims are based on Pashler-proof methodology?

NB New readers might care to consider why we are looking inside people's heads to understand the behaviour of a super social ape, anyway…

Hey but I always loved space-age stuff


  1. Very Evolved
    January 19, 2009

    Excellent advice. I myself am a neuroscientist and I think that brain scanning is pretty neat, but clearly in it’s infancy.
    If we consider the practice of marketing, then that is a discipline that has been practiced for centuries. In this light then countless millions of marketing experiments have been conducted across time to sort out what works to get the human brain to buy.
    Now considering neuroscience of all kinds: a relatively young discipline with maybe 60 good years of experimental work.
    Clearly us neuroscientists have more to learn from marketing than the other way around, for now.
    PS just wrote a piece on pull not push with regard to crowd dynamics – thanks to you and Alex for the inspiration!

  2. Justin
    January 1, 2010

    Happy New Year!
    Any chance of some constructive feedback on a video I put together on the above study please?