Thursday, November 13, 2008

Leave the Brain Out of It

The November 13th issue of Nature has an opinion piece detailing some behavioral economics experiments, entitled ‘The Innovative Brain.’ It’s part of a essay series on innovation that I’ve found enjoyable so far.

The problem is, the research it talks about has nothing to do with the brain, other than all the subjects having one. This theme has been harped on in several other blogs I read, but it’s just annoying to me when such a big name journal puts out articles that throw in brain words to make things seem more interesting.

Although they claim to present ‘neurocognitive’ data, the piece is actually describes is a tendency in for entrepreneurs to be more prone to take a risk than managers in the Cambridge Gamble Task. Both groups, with mean ages slightly higher than 50 years old, differ in gambling behavior from their age matched controls. Managers gamble less money while entrepreneurs offer up more money. In a task that doesn’t assess risk taking, they are similar to their age group.

Adapted from B Sahakian et al.

I doubt many people will find this to be a shocking result. The article goes on to speculate that it may be possible to train young adults to be more innovative, or at least risk-tolerant, in entrepreneurship classes. Ok, maybe you can.

So what does this article have to do with the brain?

There are only a few parts of the article that mention it:

cold processes … are dependent upon the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex


hot processes are dependent on the medial and orbital sectors of the prefrontal cortex


These cognitive processes are intimately linked to brain neurochemistry, particularly to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Using single-dose psychostimulants to manipulate dopamine levels, we have seen modulation of risky decision-making on this task

There are a lot of things I could say about this. First of all, there is not a double dissociation between the areas of the prefrontal cortex that the authors mentioned and these tasks. I feel that a neuroscientist making such a claim is either being dishonest or, well, not really a neuroscientist.

Second, the ‘single-dose psychostimulant’ experiment the authors cite involves children diagnosed with AD/HD, not cognitively normal 50 year old businessmen. The stimulant they used was methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, which is well known to exert opposite effects when administered to AD/HD children versus normal adults. So they gave it to AD/HD kids, and the kids bet less; adults could be expected to bet more money on Ritalin.

That is all, however, beside the point. An essay about the ‘Innovative Brain’ would talk specifically about how brain structures or nuclei are thought to contribute to innovation. It would discuss neuroscientific techniques like EEG, MRI, PET, or MEG in humans and perhaps more invasive procedures in animals. It would be much closer to this New Yorker article or even this Nature essay (requires subscription).

I’ll conclude with this: If you’re not really talking about neuroscience, leave the brain out of it, because you’re probably making gross generalizations and leaving out a lot of relevant information. The truth is, we don’t really know how any of these complex behaviors come about, it’s not honest to pretend we do, especially when talking to a lay audience.


B Sahakian et al. doi:10.1038/456168a

EE Devito et al. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.04.017

1 comment:

Neuroskeptic said...

My thoughts exactly. In fact I have a blog where I pretty much just elaborate on that theme all day long. neuroskeptic.

I get quite upset when neuroscientists talk nonsense about the brain. With journalists and other laymen it's not surprising, but we should know better...