Neuro de change: A brief note on the neuroscience backlash

28 June 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in Bad Psychology


Does neuroscience have an image problem? Recently, we’ve started to see a number of articles and books lashing out at neuroscience. This backlash seems to be based on the fact that it’s apparently all too easy to overstep the explanatory boundaries of brain imaging studies, resulting in overhyped concepts such as neuromarketing and, er, neuromanagement.

The problem with this is that the backlash itself is going too far; by zeroing in too much on the limitations of neuroscience, the field as a whole is misrepresented as something that has no explanatory power whatsoever. It’s the same problem that we often see elsewhere when scientific disciplines are generalised in the media; critics cherry-pick their examples of some dodgy neuroscientific reporting, and make out as if it represents the entire field.

In a recent excellent piece for the Guardian, Mark Stokes outlines why this backlash is unreasonable.Yes, the brain is a hugely complex organ, and we’re only just really getting to grips with it - but that doesn’t mean that it’s too complex to ever understand. That would be like saying that if you can’t answer a research question in one study, or one paper, then it’s not worth doing any research at all. And yes, there are some limitations to what we can learn from fMRI studies, but competent neuroscientists know that, and it’s not the only tool at their disposal. What scientists often look for is convergent data - results that can be verified based on a wide variety of techniques, such as EEG, genetic studies, behavioural studies, and more recently optogenetics. These aren’t areas that work in isolation - by combining different techniques to mitigate relative weaknesses of individual approaches, the hope is that more robust conclusions can be made about what’s actually going on in the brain.

I do, however, have one little request to add to the whole debate. Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, can we stop using ‘neuro’ as a prefix? Neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolinguistic programming, neuroadvertising, neurodoping - please, it has to stop. It plays into the misperception that neuroscience is a cowboy science, and lends an air of credibility to some awfully ropey concepts. It's almost as annoying as every single scandal ever using a watergate reference. And no, no neurogate jokes please. Oh, wait.


Addendum: I asked people on twitter what their favourite/worst words were that use 'neuro' as a prefix. Here's what ensued.


3 Responses to “Neuro de change: A brief note on the neuroscience backlash”

  1. Kevin. Denny | Permalink

    So is neuroeconomics allowed? Although I'm not a huge fan, much of it looks fairly respectable to me -as an economist.

  2. martin lavin | Permalink

    Like most ideas there is value but it is not infinite.
    In point of fact turning to the content (vs. the issue of prefix), it has been said that we have learned more about the brain in the last five years than the previous five thousamnd. it makes sense that the greater culture would take what emanates form this revolution and create context, and entertainment.

    nonetheless, in doing so (like an observer in the quantum world) we cannot expect thei observation won't change the spin.

    It is incumbent on us as the neuro cogniscentii to do our best to observe and direct, both of which will be inadequate but likley more value than none.

    it is certain that mega groups (corporations, governments, ngos, religions, academia et al.,) will all have in common the developed appetite for adherents. Neuroinformation provides the holy grail of recruitment.
    If you are delivering a good (or goods) that benefit mankind why not use the most informed methods of dissemination and deliver in a biologoical way to expose the new opportunities.

    Anyone who is in his or her own mind will always see the manipulation of neuro data as either a necessary evil or a logical tool.

  3. Fred | Permalink

    Hi Pete. I understand the sentiment in your post, especially towards the field as a whole. Some comments in support of the field as a whole may indeed be necessary:

    1. I am quite certain that the neuroscience criticism is aimed at a specific community, to give a hint: neuroscience ≠ traditional psychological science. The critiques are aimed at scientists using expensive measurement instruments without having a clue about a proper (measurement) theory that links neuronal oscillations to their hypothesised cognitive architectures, like statistical mechanics links particle ensembles to thermodynamics (such theories do exist of course, in neuroscience, they are ignored by this community). Averaging, subtraction of conditions, ERPs, i.e., a linear additive component idea about the mechanisms of brain and behaviour.

    2.This criticism is not new at all. I could even go back before the age of noninvasive measurement, when scholars were discussing whether the "oxygenation" associated with brain activity. Below is a biased selection of alternative perspectives in the literature 'till about a decade ago.


    Read some:
    Edelman, G. M. (1987). Neural Darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection. Basic Books.

    Freeman W J (1959) Distribution in time and space of prepyriform electrical activity. J. Neurophysiol. 22, 644–665.

    Freeman W J (1975) Mass Action in the Nervous System. New York: Academic Press.

    Freeman W J (1987) Simulation of chaotic EEG patterns with a dynamic model of the olfactory system. Biol. Cybern. 56, 139-150.

    MacLennan, B. (1999). Field Computation in Natural and Artificial Intelligence Extended Version. Information Sciences, 119(1-2), 73–89.

    Rombouts, S., Keunen, R., & Stam, C. (1995). Investigation of nonlinear structure in multichannel EEG. Physics Letters A, 202(July), 352–358.

    Tononi, G., Edelman, G. M., & Sporns, O. (1998). Complexity and coherency: integrating information in the brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 2(12), 474–84.

    Van Orden, G. C., & Paap, K. R. (1997). Functional neuroimages fail to discover pieces of mind in the parts of the brain. Philosophy of Science, 64(S1), 85–94.

    Van Orden, G. C., Pennington, B. F., & Stone, G. O. (2001). What do double dissociations prove? Cognitive Science, 25(1), 111–172.

    Van Orden, G. C., & Kloos, H. (2003). The module mistake. Cortex, 39(1), 164–166.

    Varela, F., Lachaux, J. P. P., Rodriguez, E., & Martinerie, J. (2001). The brainweb: phase synchronization and large-scale integration. Nature reviews neuroscience, 2(4), 229–239.


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