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I never stop being amazed by the pure aesthetics of data output.

I especially favour the non-directed output that’s originally intended for nerdy observation. I guess having a wife that is an artist helps having an alternative eye on visual input (and, by all means, other sensory input)

The above example is taken from the “simple” preprocessing step of co-registering two kinds of MRI images; the EPI series (fMRI) and the structural scan. It is taken from an fMRI study I’m doing on the effects of brands on the responses of the brain’s valuation system.

The pictures display the result from a basic step of fMRI preprocessing in SPM8. Nerdy output used to check computation success…but it’s interesting to see how aesthetics can unfold like this. I bet there are many people who find this somewhat gloomy. My mind forcefully tells me that there are faces there, torsos at the least.

Does the beauty of a sky full of star go away just because you learn more about the stars, that some are planets, others galaxies? IMO, knowledge most often enriches those aesthetic experiences.

Beauty can indeed be in a grain of sand.

-Thomas

As you may have heard, we are currently opening a business network, entitled iDECIDE. The aim of this forum is to provide the latest news and views from the scene of neuroscience, applied to a business framework. We provide a network of selected likeminded companies from various disciplines (finance, marketing, communications).

iDECIDE is non-profit, and a membership fee is used to cover expenses for running iDECIDE, and to provide the basic facilities for running related activities.

In particular, our focus is on bringing the latest research news (even before scientific publication), and to provide the means to move this research into scalable products, practices and services.

We now announce the iDECIDE Newsletter – June Issue (PDF), as a teaser to what the membership will entail.

The annual fee is 25.000 Danish Kroners (approximately €3.400), and will cover:

  • free access to seminars, workshops and courses for up to 5 people per membership
  • a newsletter providing the latest groundbreaking results from our own lab and international research
  • a network for likeminded professionals and scholars
  • a direct access to students being properly trained in neuromarketing, neuroeconomics and related disciplines
  • access point to collaborative research projects and R&D work

We believe that the iDECIDE network is unparalleled by current efforts anywhere on the globe.

I sincerely hope that you will be interested in joining iDECIDE.

I am of course available for any questions you may have. Please send me an email at tzramsoy@gmail.com.

-Thomas

Odysseus had himself tied to his ship’s mast and ordered his men to use bee wax in their ears and ignore his orders to free him. And so they did. Odysseus was curious about what the Sirens sounded like, and how the three bird-women seductresses were able to lure sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island.

In very much the same way, we should strap our minds to solid ground and avoid the lures of popular neuromarketing. Just as much as I am relieved to see basic cognitive neuroscience books being recommended as essential readings in neuromarketing, I am equally puzzled by recommendations of highly dubious books such as Lindstrøm’s “Buyology” and Pradeep’s “The Buying Brain” (book review upcoming soon to this blog).

Lindstrøm’s Buyology (just like his Brand Sense) is presented as a major book on neuromarketing. Building on proclaimed numerous brain scanning experiments, Lindstrøm presents the results of these studies, and how they provide new ways to understand marketing effects and consumer behaviour.

The problem is that the book is highly speculative and misinterprets and misrepresents neuroscience. Although it seems to be based on science, it is only indirectly so, and in a luring, invalid way. While Buyology has several problems of many kinds, I will here focus on one of the most telling ones.

Lindstrøm claims to have done over 1.000 brain scans. The vast majority of these were done in Richard Silberstein’s lab (about 90%) using his special take on EEG. The remaining 100 or so fMRI scans done were with Gemma Calvert at Neurosense. One of the problems with the book is that no information is given about the methods, the analyses or the detailed results from either of the studies. In other words, there are no ways we can check whether the results Lindstrøm claims to have had, are valid. To my knowledge, neither Calvert or Silberstein are happy with the way Lindstrøm has used the results and their names in Buyology. Calvert has stated that she will not use the results for publication.

Publication and documentation is key, especially when it comes to strong claims such as those made by Lindstrøm. Lindstrøm has responded to my criticism here in Denmark, by claiming that the results should be out soon. That was more than two years ago.

Most importantly, Lindstrøm makes several logical errors. For example, in the study of smokers, he claims that the warnings put on cigarette packages had the opposite effect of what was intended (to scare smokers). His reasoning is like this: the warnings produced stronger activation of the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens). Since other studies have demonstrated that this structure is involved in the expectancy of reward, it should be straightforward to conclude that the activation seen in smokers means that the warning signs made them expect a reward. In other words: warning signs make smokers think (positively) of smoking…right?

This is a prime example of a logical fallacy called “reverse inference“. Basically it means that explaining some brain activation with findings from other studies is wrong. In simplified terms, it goes like this:

Rule: When it rains, I open my umbrella
Valid use of rule:
- Observation: it rains — we can conclude that I will open my umbrella

Invalid use of rule:
- Observation: I open my umbrella — it rains

The invalid conclusion above is due to the fact that I can open my umbrella for other reasons. I could, for example, want to open it to let it dry.
If the rule was that “when it rains, and only when it rains, I will open my umbrella”, we would accept the argument. My opening the umbrella could only come to be if and only if it rained. We’ll get back to this.

In the same way, Lindstrøm makes the logical fallacy of reverse inference, in this way:
Rule: when the organism expects a reward, nucleus accumbens is activated
- Observation: nucleus accumbens is activated, hence we can conclude that the organism expects a reward

The problem is, the nucleus accumbens could be activated for other reasons. Indeed, this structure is involved in many other functions, and not particularly to reward expectancy. In fact, in a study by Levita et al (2008) it was reported that the nucleus accumbens was activated when subjects expected a punishment. This makes the argument made by Lindstrøm fall apart. We don’t really know what his smokers did and why their brain responded in the way they did.

Assigning strict brain structure to functional neuroimaging results is hard. Suffice to say that most researchers are much more careful with assigning strict labels to such small structures as the nucleus accumbens. Due to the data preprocessing steps in fMRI and the large individual variability in brain morphology, one should rather prefer to use the vague term “ventral striatum”.

Indeed, if top researchers and journals make categorical mistakes in pointing at key brain structures, why should be trust an undocumented claim by a non-neuroscientist such as Lindstrøm?

As I will report soon at this spot, Pradeep does not fare much better. His book “The Buying Brain” is one long presentation of  how immensely better we can be at measuring communication effects, preferences and purchase intentions, and how good his own company is in this respect. But, again, there is no real documentation for this claim. There are developed tools and tests from the NeuroFocus group, but if there is no external validation of such tests, why spend thousands of dollars on this?

Is it, then, not time for us to take an odyssean approach to neuromarketing? Sirens abound, leaving no other options but to tie ourselves to the mast and aim for the horizon.

-Thomas

Here it is, the BrainEthics podcast is now available through iTunes. Subscribe now!

Other ways of subscribing to the podcast is through podcasting directories such as Podcast Alley

Or you can subscribe through our direct feed: http://brainethics.org/?feed=podcast

Point your podcasting software to any of those links and subscribe now.

-Thomas

You cannot have failed to notice one of the top stories these days: Oprah Winfrey has held her last talkshow…ever(?). Everywhere there is praise for her talkshow, her style, her persona…basically nice and good praise. We’ll miss her etc.

I beg to differ, and know that I’m in sync with skeptics around the world. She’s been #1 on the most wanted list of celebrities who promote pseudoscience.

Why? Because Oprah has been the single most powerful source of communication of pseudoscience babble, ranging from anti-vaccine proponent Jenny McCarthy, praising scientology, healing, alternative medicine, non-proven diet schemes, and obscene tweaks of positive wish-yourself-healthy-and-prosperous psychology. Some warnings of this can be found here and look specifically here.

I mean, listen to this:

Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever!

Newsweek did a good job in both presenting the ridiculous claims made by Oprah, her style of argumentation and reasoning (and lack thereof) and they evenmade it to their front page (see image above).

So now Oprah has decided to step down, the show will not go on. Should we cheer? Or should we fear and loath what’s and who’s next? As studies of aversion and the brain have demonstrated, ambiguity/uncertainty is among the worst fear of them all. This is the time for being up no the beat, reclaim rationalism, lobby for skepticism and science!

Today’s morale: keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out!

-Thomas

Here’s a heads’ up for some recent/new books that might be of your interest.

First, I’m finished reading, and will soon provide a review of Pradeep’s “The buying brain“. Pradeep is the CEO of NeuroFocus Inc., a neuromarketing company, and as the description of the book says, he provides the secrets for selling to the subconscious mind:

Each year a trillion dollars is spent on communicating to and persuading the human brain, yet few understand how the brain really works—what’s attractive to it, how it decides what it likes and doesn’t like, and how it chooses to buy or not buy the infinite variety of products and services presented to it every day. Dr. A.K. Pradeep, in his new book THE BUYING BRAIN: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind (Wiley, August 18, 2010, $27.95), reveals a myriad of fascinating information that he and his cutting-edge team of neuromarketing experts at NeuroFocus have discovered and developed to help improve the effectiveness of every aspect of clients’ brands, products, packaging, in-store marketing, advertising, and entertainment content.

The book has already been received a positive review here, but my take will be somewhat more critical (as you may expect)

_______________


Just got an email of two other recent publications. One is “Beyond the Brains: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds” by Louise Barrett.

From the book page on this:

When a chimpanzee stockpiles rocks as weapons or when a frog sends out mating calls, we might easily assume these animals know their own motivations–that they use the same psychological mechanisms that we do. But as Beyond the Brain indicates, this is a dangerous assumption because animals have different evolutionary trajectories, ecological niches, and physical attributes. How do these differences influence animal thinking and behavior? Removing our human-centered spectacles, Louise Barrett investigates the mind and brain and offers an alternative approach for understanding animal and human cognition. Drawing on examples from animal behavior, comparative psychology, robotics, artificial life, developmental psychology, and cognitive science, Barrett provides remarkable new insights into how animals and humans depend on their bodies and environment–not just their brains–to behave intelligently.
Barrett begins with an overview of human cognitive adaptations and how these color our views of other species, brains, and minds. Considering when it is worth having a big brain–or indeed having a brain at all–she investigates exactly what brains are good at. Showing that the brain’s evolutionary function guides action in the world, she looks at how physical structure contributes to cognitive processes, and she demonstrates how these processes employ materials and resources in specific environments.
Arguing that thinking and behavior constitute a property of the whole organism, not just the brain, Beyond the Brain illustrates how the body, brain, and cognition are tied to the wider world.

Hmm, sounds “holistic” to me, but let’s see how this evolves once I get to read it

__________________


Then we have one of my favourite scientists, a scholar who has been essential in our understanding of brain asymmetry, modularity and how the mind works. Michael Corballis has published several books on these topics, many of which have been influential in the education of scientists like myself.

Corballis’ latest book is entitled “The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization“, and I expect it to be somewhat of an eye opener and challenge to current thinking:

The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. “I think, therefore I am,” is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental “time travel”–the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species’ supremacy over the physical world.

_____________________


The book I’m currently reading is “Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality” by my favourite philosopher, Patricia Churchland.

Churchland has been highly influential on both the philosophy of mind and philosophical foundations of neuroscience, especially from her early book entitled “Neurophilosophy“, a beloved target for scholars with a strong antagonism for naturalism or reductionism. Suffice to say, this book made me decide for my career in neuroscience.

I interviewed Churchland for the Science & Consciousness Review in 2004, just after her release of “Brain-Wise“, a more popular and updated version of Neurophilosophy.

In Braintrust, Churchland tackles the difficult science of morality, and adds to the mix how a neurobiological can help us understand our moral perception and behaviour:

Progress in the neurosciences is profoundly changing our conception of ourselves. Contrary to time-honored intuition, the mind turns out to be a complex of brain functions. And contrary to the wishful thinking of some philosophers, there is no stemming the revolutionary impact that brain research will have on our understanding of how the mind works. Brain-Wise is the sequel to Patricia Smith Churchland’s Neurophilosophy, the book that launched a subfield. In a clear, conversational manner, this book examines old questions about the nature of the mind within the new framework of the brain sciences. What, it asks, is the neurobiological basis of consciousness, the self, and free choice? How does the brain learn about the external world and about its own introspective world? What can neurophilosophy tell us about the basis and significance of religious and moral experiences? Drawing on results from research at the neuronal, neurochemical, system, and whole-brain levels, the book gives an up-to-date perspective on the state of neurophilosophy–what we know, what we do not know, and where things may go from here.

____________________

Finally, a book very much related to the work I do in understanding biased behaviour and deviations rom rationality. Bazerman and Tenbrusel have just published the book “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It “. It goes straight into the discussions I alluded to in my previous blog post: is it possible for us to debias decisions, improve our ways of making decisions and to alleviate decision making related disorders? I expect this book to provide new insights and ideas to this end:
When confronted with an ethical dilemma, most of us like to think we would stand up for our principles. But we are not as ethical as we think we are. In Blind Spots, leading business ethicists Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel examine the ways we overestimate our ability to do what is right and how we act unethically without meaning to. From the collapse of Enron and corruption in the tobacco industry, to sales of the defective Ford Pinto and the downfall of Bernard Madoff, the authors investigate the nature of ethical failures in the business world and beyond, and illustrate how we can become more ethical, bridging the gap between who we are and who we want to be.
Explaining why traditional approaches to ethics don’t work, the book considers how blind spots like ethical fading–the removal of ethics from the decision–making process–have led to tragedies and scandals such as the Challenger space shuttle disaster, steroid use in Major League Baseball, the crash in the financial markets, and the energy crisis. The authors demonstrate how ethical standards shift, how we neglect to notice and act on the unethical behavior of others, and how compliance initiatives can actually promote unethical behavior. Distinguishing our “should self” (the person who knows what is correct) from our “want self” (the person who ends up making decisions), the authors point out ethical sinkholes that create questionable actions.
Suggesting innovative individual and group tactics for improving human judgment, Blind Spots shows us how to secure a place for ethics in our workplaces, institutions, and daily lives
-Thomas

It’s all in the media, ethics discussions and blogosphere. Neuromarketing is a bad thing. It holds all the promises of using technology to improve marketing efforts, use covert persuasion and stealth marketing. As such, neuromarketing companies are providing the tools for companies to persuade consumers to choose their product.

Just as you can see neuromarketing companies popping up with the same message: we can predict liking, attention, emotion, consciousness, purchase intent…(use your own word), there is an equal share of people voicing their fear and skepticism agains this kind of neuromarketing. Suffice to say, most of those critics take the neuromarketing hype for granted.

Luckily, there are more sober treatments of neuromarketing. Take, for example, a listing of seven sins of neuromarketing. Indeed, the main problem with neuromarketing is that it is still untested! There is still no shared validation of the different methods, tools and analyses. As opposed to tests for the effectiveness of medication, or even the predictive power of neuropsychological tests, there are clear effect measures that one needs to address. If your medication does not work better than a placebo treatment, you’re not allowed to sell it. If your predictive test for Alzheimer’s Disease shows a low positive or negative predictive value, it won’t be used, let alone published.

None of this is yet happening in commercial neuromarketing. This is the real problem with the current debate on neuromarketing: companies claim effective measures, but users are not able to check the validity of such claims. On the other hand, the gross overstatements of neuromarketing tool efficacy, combined with the lack of proper information, leads to criticism, fear and skepticism.

But this is a wholly one-sided approach to neuromarketing. Just because these approaches are the loudest, they need not be the most representative. Here, I provide two alternative accounts of neuromarketing. Indeed, they may seem so different, that even researchers consider changing the name of such approaches to “consumer neuroscience”, “decision neuroscience” and the like. But at it’s core, it is still neuromarketing.

Academic neuromarketing

A different take than the “commercial neuromarketing” industry is stressing the scholarly values that neuromarketing can provide. At its base, marketing itself is often defined as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”. Moreover, marketing science is the attempt to understand the processes of such efforts, including how consumers attend to, respond to and are influenced by communication efforts.

For scientists in the cognitive neurosciences, this provides a wonderful model behaviour for research. Since we all make consumer choices each day, it is a behaviour that is easily understood during testing, and tests can be designed in such ways that subjects engage without much training, yet the test remains sufficiently controlled for empirical assessment. This is important when doing neuroimaging research, where the low signal to noise ration most often requires multiple repetitions of the same kind of behaviour.

In this way, neuromarketing is an academic approach to better understand how information leads to changes in attention, emotional responses, preference formation, choices and learning. While most discussions of neuromarketing is unidirectional – neuroscience tools being used to test marketing efforts – this take suggests that neuroscientists should cherish the golden opportunity to use marketing and consumer actions to better understand the human mind.

Debiasing aberrant behaviours

Much of the (neuro)ethics debate on neuromarketing suggests that it can affect consumer decisions significantly, possibly without subjective access to such effects. Prominent neuroethicists such as Judy Illes have debated the effects of “stealth marketing,” and this is indeed a valid concern.

However, much of this debate still seems to miss the major insights made through behavioural economics and neuroeconomics: subjects deviate from rational choices, are affected by information (overt as well as covert), and most decisions can be traced back to unconscious antecedents. Indeed, if our “normal” choices are based on processes in our minds that we are not ourselves privy to, why is “stealth marketing” a problem? This claim raises the bar for which consumer decisions can be considered valid, to a level that no normal decisions can be found. If the bases of your behaviours are not the result of conscious and deliberate processes, how can you expect to make rules and laws prohibiting communication efforts affecting your unconscious?

Put differently: should we ban facial expression, intonation and gestures? Maybe brands should be banned altogether, because the value they signify are not readily available to our awareness, yet affect our behaviour significantly.

Better than focusing on these pointless and anachronistic assumptions, is to use neuromarketing for the sake of improving the life of people. In the study of marketing effects and consumer behaviour, we learn how we are affected by information, how biological mechanisms change our motivations, and how our choices are biased and affected “naturally,” and without our awareness of such effects.

In particular, we also get to know how aberrant consumer decisions occur, ranging from impulse control disorders and behavioural addictions such as “shopaholism” and pathological/problem gambling, to other unhealthy behaviours such as obesity.

In this way, neuromarketing can be a window to new insights into many conditions. It is worth considering two approaches here:

Debiasing decisions – Given the insights provided by behavioural economics and neuroeconomics, we have come to realise that our decisions are not rational or optimal. Our choices are suboptimal and there is much room for improvement. With the knowledge gained from neuromarketing and related disciplines, we can ut this knowledge to use. Consumers can be trained in making better decisions, better at controlling the decision making process and having an improved insights into factors affecting one’s choices. Based on this, debiasing decisions is a means to improve overall wealth for each individual, and to take better control of one’s own mind and behaviour. If is anywhere the famous dictum dictum “know thyself” would make sense, this is it.

Improving health – Better insights into the factors involved in aberrant consumer behaviours will have three main effects, driven by the increased knowledge into its mechanisms, causes and effects:

  1. Improve detection – we will be better at picking up, defining and predicting aberrant behaviours, even before they manifest clinically
  2. Nuanced aetiology – our knowledge of a specific phenomenon will possibly provide sub-categories of a particular disease (e.g., there is a difference between being a pathological gambler playing slot machines, poker or online games)
  3. Better treatment – early detection and intervention and improved understanding leads to increased probability of improved and more specific treatment efforts

In sum, neuromarketing should be treated as a much more heterogenous concept. It does not – at least should not – belong to commercial parties alone. Just as marketing and medicine both host academic and commercial approaches, neuromarketing should have an equal share of both. Only through this realisation we will be able to grab the problem with over-commercialised neuromarketing by the root.

-Thomas

What is the effect of thinking about your mortality on your willingness to accept evolutionary theory? In a new study just published in PLoS ONE, researchers Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason Martens report that, throughout four different studies, reminding subjects of their mortality made them more prone to reject evolutionary theory, and/or accept claims of Intelligent Design.

The researchers suggest that the manipulation altered subjects’ search for meaning with their lives, making them more prone to accept a more teleological approach to life.

The abstract reads:

The present research examined the psychological motives underlying widespread support for intelligent design theory (IDT), a purportedly scientific theory that lacks any scientific evidence; and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (ET), a theory supported by a large body of scientific evidence. We tested whether these attitudes are influenced by IDT’s provision of an explanation of life’s origins that better addresses existential concerns than ET. In four studies, existential threat (induced via reminders of participants’ own mortality) increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET, regardless of participants’ religion, religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Effects were reversed by teaching participants that naturalism can be a source of existential meaning (Study 4), and among natural-science students for whom ET may already provide existential meaning (Study 5). These reversals suggest that the effect of heightened mortality awareness on attitudes toward ET and IDT is due to a desire to find greater meaning and purpose in science when existential threats are activated.

Although the study itself is interesting, I specifically dislike the way in which evolutionary theory (ET) is named in equal terms as belief in Intelligent Design, here entitled “Intelligent Design Theory” (IDT). This juxtaposition may give the impression that ET and IDT are comparable in many respects. Well, as any scholar knows, they are not. And the signal value of putting them on equal terms, even in a research paper not judging their content, is unwarranted.

-Thomas

In a recent article in Science (also reported here), researchers report that faces coupled with negative stories (e.g. having thrown a chair at a classmate) led to an increase in visual attention to that person. Other kinds of stories, from neutral to positive, did not produce such an effect. This is taken as an indication that negative gossip – and not positive such – is associated with the change in visual attention.

It also makes sense. Knowing who’s misbehaving is of great value in any kind of social interaction. You’ll know who to avoid. Gossip thus makes us learn, through others, who’s not trustworthy or who you should just avoid.

But hang on…would that not make sense for the reverse effect, too? Let’s not make logical fallacies of fitting nice evolutionary stories into evidence, disregarding problems with such interpretations. From an evolutionary approach, it would make just as much sense to say that gossip about who’s trustworthy and nice should also be important. Should your visual attention not be just as affected by positive gossip?

Going into the article itself, it struck me that there might have been a bias in the mere arousal one gets from reading the positive and negative stories. So the example given in the article (and in the media) was: “helped an elderly woman with her groceries”.

I’d say that there is a huge difference in mere arousal between the positive and negative examples: throwing a chair and helping with groceries differ more than the mere value of their action. They also differ in terms of the relative effect of their behaviour. Is throwing a chair equal to helping with groceries? I beg to differ, and there was no additional information in the main article. As a reviewer, I’d suggested seeing the full list of statements. The example is biased, and may be the cause of the difference seen between positive and negative gossip effects.

-Thomas

After thinking and talking about this for a long time, we have finally decided to do a podcast. What could be better to make use of the wonderful occasion of having an international researcher visiting us in Copenhagen?

Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist, has contributed much to the science of the brain, but also significantly to the emerging field of neuroethics.

Here we bring a comprehensive interview with Chatterjee, in which we talk about neuroethics, cosmetic neurology and neuromarketing.

-Thomas & Martin

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