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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Neuroscience: Let the machine read your mind! (We offer an installment plan ... )

Stephanie West Allen over at friendly blog Brains on Purpose draws my attention to this example of neurobullshipping (ridiculous claims for neuroscience's ability to "read minds"):
In recent years, the development of new brain-imaging technologies has prompted many physicians and neurologists to forsake the rather dreary study of nerve cells in favor of a far more glamorous arena: feelings, thoughts and political attitudes. Some of them assure us that with the advanced instruments, we will be able to understand what goes through people's head, read dreams as though they were a written text, and decide questions of guilt and innocence in a court of law.


The article quoted, "Of Two Minds" by Ofri Ilani and Yotam Feldman in Haaretz Magazine is an excellent read, which offers the suggestion that at least some of the neurobullshipping is generated by people who sell the machines used in neuroscience:
Prof. Chris Frith, a brain researcher from University College, London, one of the letter's organizers, told Haaretz Magazine in a telephone interview that it later turned out that a number of the researchers who took part in the study have ties to a company that markets brain-imaging machines. He assails the attempt to seek this type of explanation for complex social phenomena, and notes that the public is very attracted to the idea of "reading minds." One sees the images of the brain with the colored regions and thinks one is seeing what happens to people in their thoughts, which is something no one was able to do before, Frith explains. But what people are not told is that these colors are simply numbers, representing levels of blood flow or electrical activity. There is no way to look at these images and know what a person is thinking.

Sometimes the misuse appears to be manipulative:
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty," the authors write in the abstract to the article. They found that "greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern."

Dascal believes that the value of such studies is very limited. "It is completely unreasonable for something as complex as a political attitude to find expression in a particular place in the brain," he says. "The only way studies like this can be conducted is by radically simplifying the concept of the 'political attitude' they are trying to locate, to a degree that renders the study uninteresting."

Yes, it smells fishy to me too. Many people simply inherit their political affiliation or acquire it on the job. Consider, for example, the relationship between unionized labour and our Canadian socialist party, the New Democratic Party. People may vote for that party because they are union members and are canvassed at meetings. However, I often find that those same people have very conservative attitudes on many questions. And of course it works the same on the other side of the political spectrum.

I would not envy the neuroscientist whose job was to try to make something like this simple, when political loyalties are - by their very nature - not simple at all.

In any event, friends who work in the criminal justice system tell me that a key difficulty with this "mind reading" thing - if applied in the courts - is that many offenders actually don't have clearly defined motives. I told Stephanie, based on my friends' comments,
In fact, that’s 90 percent of the routine offender's problem. He doesn’t THINK. He doesn’t PLAN. He doesn’t have strategies for AVOIDING trouble.

Finding out what’s going on in his head isn’t much use because it isn’t valuable to him. He needs to change it, not study it.

To my mind, a justice system should help people voluntarily learn life skills, not fritz their brains.

I mean skills like: Finish high school, keep your job or find another one, pay your bills, learn anger management, don't make friends with people who lie or cheat, especially avoid people with a criminal record or a drug habit, and always avoid places that get raided by police.

Half the secret is just not being around when the police raid. (Because if he's been in the slam before, police assume he's guilty.)


Stephanie agrees, from her own experience. And I am NOT saying that neuroscience couldn't help. Mario's team, for example, did excellent work helping people get over spider phobia, as we recount in The Spiritual Brain. But I think it's important that any neuroscience work should be be voluntary, with informed consent.

Anyway, the article is a most interesting update on the whole "mind reading" controversy.

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