2009-09-21 Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings
2009-07-17 False Signals Cause Misleading Brain Scans
2009-06-16 Can monkeys mislead?
2009-04-10 Memories Slip, but Golf If Forever and Playing Nice: Teachers Learn To Help Kids Behave in School
2009-01-23 VooDoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience
2008-06-10 'Bypass Brain': How surgery may affect mental activity
2007-11-24 Review: Proust was a Neuroscientist
2007-11-16 I feel your pain
2007-07-11 The gregarious brain
2007-07-02 Duped: can brain scans uncover lies?
2007-07-02 Small-brained female seeks alpha male
2007-07-06 Study of kids' brains hopes to answer: What is normal?
2007-04-06 Neural Diversity
2006-11-03 A new twist for neurojournalism: Getting it right
Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings
By Alexis Madrigal, Wired.com, 2009-09-18
The NeuroMill is quite sure what to do with this particular piece of grist -- as it is neither wheat nor chaff -- but nevertheless appeals to neurocurmudgeons. All right - let's call it wheat for its sheer chutzpah. Who can resist the dead fish, social cognitive neuroscience, and functional imaging triad? (Although funders being hit up hard for magnet upgrades and new instruments might do well to keep in mind that there seems to be plenty of slack in the system -- if you didn't already know that from "scanning" the Mill.) Sure, imaging has its place in cognitive neuroscience -- but why do we cling to our belief that combining high-field magnets, terabytes of data, complicated computational protocols, and complex human behaviors adds up to 'fun and easy' science?
One can not help wondering --- how long was the salmon in the magnet? Perhaps we have finally found the decaying brain spot? Ok - laughs aside -- isn't is time for the field to stop defending a lot of the junk, some carried out at very good institutions - that gets done and gets published because it fits a social or ideological agenda? Can it finally be time to stop imaging geeks, sociopaths, liars, cheats, monks, altruists, mothers, babies, frat boys, and teenagers in a silly attempt to prove that there is no free will, no intent, and no reciprocal influence of behavior on brain? Does it really have to come to imaging dead fish? Hopefully this will not become a social cognitive neuroscience stalwart. The field has the tendency of not yet having met a bandwagon it doesn’t mind jumping on - dead salmon decision making, dead salmon musicality, and dead salmon politics. Although we agree it is hard to find a more compliant subject.
False Signals Cause Misleading Brain Scans
By Joe Hamilton, National Public Radio, 2009-07-07
The neurocurmudgeons take a summer break and NPR tries to put us out of a job! We suspect some idle googling by an intern found The Mill. Then an astute reader had several synapses connect and voila! The truth is revealed: understanding the brain is hard. Could the sheer weight of nonsense being published from certain groups of neuro-imagers finally crush the "brain bits that light up" genre under its own weight? We can only hope. We have noticed that the "gotcha journalists" are making it increasingly hip to snipe at functional imaging. While part of our neurocurmudgeonly hearts are glad - it does take the fun out of our own snipe-fest. It is simply not curmudgeonly to be part of the mainstream. Of course there is LOTS of bad neurojournalism that does not depend on functional imaging... Watch out all you press-release axing autism mouse modelers and gene hunters. Be careful what you claim!
Can monkeys mislead?
By Jef Akst, The Scientist.com, 2009-06-03
Well, the neurocurmudgeons are grudgingly calling this 'wheat" - although at best it qualifies as gleanings. We like it because it acknowledges the difficulties of inferring intentions from observing behaviors. It also should give pause to those who are quick to impose on animals all kinds of human traits. Or those who like to infer mountains of meaning from molehills of fMRI data. SO why can't we just be cheerful for once and not complain? Here's the rub. So... subordinate monkeys hiccup - a call used to signal danger (or at least that is how we humans interpret it) - to make the bigger, mean monkeys leave the food table so the littler monkeys can eat. Or maybe they hiccup because they are stressed because they see the food going away fast - like the anxiety a hungry postdoc feels watching the chip bowl at a party from across the room as the faculty bore you are stuck with drones on and on... Or maybe it’s a learned response - hiccup, the big monkeys flee, and the little monkeys eat. But sooner or later wouldn't the bigger monkeys also learn that the little monkeys are crying wolf (the NCs apologize for the mixing of animal metaphors)and ignore the hiccups? Heck - even the Aplysia eventually stops withdrawing its gill. So -- while this piece struck us as making some good points -- we are still left wondering why The Scientist even bothered. Slow science news week? Hopefully, all the stimulus funding will help with that.
Memories Slip, but Golf If Forever
By Matthew Futterman, The Wall Street Journal, 2009-04-08
Playing Nice: Teachers Learn To Help Kids Behave in School
By Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal, 2009-04-08
The neurocurmudgeons think the front page of the Wednesday April 8 WSJ Personal Journal scored an eagle. Although the journalists responsible for the 2 stories did not explicitly emphasize the usefulness of behavioral interventions over reductionist approaches to cognitive problems – they could have, and we neurocurmudgeons are willing to fill in between the lines. The story about Alzheimer’s patients and beneficial purposeful activity (like golf) was inspiring. Hopefully individuals with Alzheimer’s, their loved ones, and caregivers will demand to know why it is that we know so little about the optimal support we can provide patients with neurodegenerative diseases. While we chase the magic pill and applaud each basic finding we achieve in flies and rodents – there is SO much we could be doing to support cognitive function, and help people stay functional longer. Engaging in physical activity has beneficial effects on physiology, metabolism, neurotransmitter levels, and yes, gene expression. We need a serious attempt at multi-level systems approaches to understanding devastating human conditions. It is unfortunate that we rarely invest in studies that use behavioral or cognitive interventions with the financial enthusiasm we throw at cellular and molecular approaches. The other story, about helping kids learn to behave was remarkably clear headed. Yep – kids are not born with their brains’ social graces module just waiting to switch on. And labeling kids with pseudo-diseases so we can load them with pharmaceuticals is not the answer. Social skills, culture, formal learning – our brains have the amazing ability to adapt – but yes, developmentally appropriate instruction is needed. Granted – these two stories are not as sexy as mice made smarter with the tweak of a single molecule or stories about epidemics of ADD. But, the two stories report on meaningful interventions that makes lives better. Maybe it is time to redefine sexy.
VooDoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience
By Edward Vul, Christine Harris, Piotr Winkielman, & Harold Pashler
Wheat from the mill. At this link, the researchers explore mysteriously high correlations between individual measures of personality or emotionality and evoked BOLD activity, and then go on to show that these correlations are systematically produced by a flawed method of adopting the same criteria for sample selection as for the subsequent correlation measure. They are the Neuromill's newest neuro-heroes!
'Bypass Brain': How surgery may affect mental activity
By Melinda Beck, The Wall Street Journal, 2008-06-10
'Bypass Brain': How surgery may affect mental activity, the Tuesday, June 10, 2008, WSJ Health Journal column by Melinda Beck passes muster as a rare germs of wheat according to the neurocurmudgeons hanging around the Mill.
The long-term cognitive effects of bypass surgery have not received the level of interest and study one might think would be warranted. Rather than just sensationalizing "bypass brain," Beck does a good job with a complicated subject, acknowledging that it can be hard to assess cognitive decline following surgery in aged or chronically compromised patients because of a host of confounding factors. A similar story can be told about "chemo brain." The medical profession should investigate rather than dismiss cognitive effects of treatments and think about how such effects could be prevented, minimized, and treated. Difficult to study does not mean impossible to study. Cognitive loss, might be considered "mild" or "moderate" by the surgeons and thought of as a reasonable trade-off for prolonged life. Unfortunately, cognitive loss can also be devastating to individuals and their families. The medical profession needs to acknowledge the possibilities of problems and investigate.
By Matthew Hutson, The New York Times, 2007-12-09
Well, well, well - the neurocurmudgeons are not feeling quite so all alone in the world (although we wish these researchers had acknowledged that the science of what they are reporting in not precisely "news", either). Now - will neurojournalists get the message - or do their brains just find writing stories about behavior attached to neuroimages (so we can invoke the powerful brain storyline) too rewarding?
Review: Proust was a Neuroscientist
By Germaine Greer, NewScientist, 2007-11-24
The neurocurmudgeons had heard about Proust was a Neuroscientist, the new book by wunderkind Jonah Lehrer and thought to ourselves – another opportunistic repackaging of what are essentially behavioral observations as neuroscience. We are stuck living in a time when for various reasons – the brain sells. Most of the greatest novelists and artists are great observers and raconteurs of human behavior. Big deal. Still, Lehrer sounds like a smart writer with a clever marketing twist. In the spirit of the season we wish his book well. For non-neuro readers it should come with a warning sticker (not really about neuroscience) – or maybe a copy of the thoughtful book review by Germaine Greer appearing in the 24 November 2007 NewScientist. The review earns the label of wheat and we encourage you to take a look at it. It brings up a number of important issues we think the neuroscience and psychology communities should talk about more, including why neuroscientists seem to ignore aspects of human behavior we know to be true.
A sentence that caught our curmudgeonly eye reads: “What artists tend to know about is the mind, not the brain…” Mostly, the mind is what non-neuroscientists want to know about. Much of what gets passed off as “brain science” today is not neuroscience, but psychology. The neurocurmudgeons think levels of analysis are important in the construction of explanations. We’re just funny that way.
PS - It is too bad that Elaine Morgan didn't read Germaine Greer before reviewing (the 2 reviews are a page apart in NewScientist) another recent entry in the "get brain or neuro into your title regardless" genre - On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Small. Based on Morgan's review we can admire Small's willingness to breach disciplinary boundaries. The neurocurmudgeons are all for challenging assumptions - but we are not so sure we are ready for "neurohistory." Perhaps disciplinary boundaries serve a purpose?
I feel your pain
By Gordy Slack, Salon.com, November 5, 2007
Sensitive to the criticism that the Mill seems to turn out more chaff than wheat (although we don't see this as our fault...) we neurocurmudgeons are looking harder for good things to highlight. So, although we are put off by the style of this Salon piece brought to our attention and we could find much to quibble with regarding the science, we're going to call it "wheat". Why? We think the total package including understandable enthusiasm from Ramachandran, sound caution from Allison Gopnik, and some very good letters (such as the one by someone named Joe Buck) adds up to a good discussion of controversial findings about topics (empathy, altruism, nose-picking) that receive a fair (may we suggest too much?) amount of coverage. The original Rizzolatti work was intriguing – but then mirror neurons quickly became too easy a metaphor to invoke, which then, per usual, spawned an industry. Now it is almost to the point where one starts to wonder if mirror neuron is not just code for neuron. But hey, with Thanksgiving around the corner, the neurocurmudgeons are in a generous mood.
The gregarious brain
By David Dobbs, The New York Times, July 8, 2007
It is getting scary...this is also fairly well done. The neurocurmudgeons have a few quibbles (it's not us its our cingulate) particularly when it comes to the willingness of journalists to parrot the assertions of the self-declared "social neuroscientists" floating free of the scientific tethering to caution one might expect of a line of research still trying to find its way. But the explanations of biological and behavioral interactions was among the most sophisticated we have seen. Bravo Mr. Dobbs.
Duped: can brain scans uncover lies?
By Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, July 2, 2007
Small-brained female seeks alpha male By Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon.com, July 2, 2007
Study of kids' brains hopes to answer: What is normal? By Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2007
Maybe the increasing number of vocal neurocurmudgeons and BNJ spotters is having an effect - recently we've read a few stories where journalists are making a serious attempt to get a little deeper into the complexities of mind/brain. We applaud their efforts (even if we will take an opportunity to quibble a bit...)
Margaret Talbot's piece on the problematic nature of lie-detecting with functional magnetic imaging (Duped: Can brain scans uncover lies? in the July 2 The New Yorker) is terrific. The neurocurmudgeons wish Ms. Talbot had used a few more column inches to explain what fMRI actually measures - as we think this is where the public is really being led down a rather weedy garden path, but she does do a masterful job at explaining much of what is most disturbing about the popular use of pseudo-color brain images devoid of experimental context and caveats. Ms. Talbot hits all the neurocurmudgeonly highlights - (need a refresher course - take a quick scroll through the BNJ archives). For us, the most distressing part of this article was the embarrassment we experienced when we read what some of our colleagues said to Ms. Talbot. We wonder if they would have been willing to be scanned during their interviews?
2) Tracy Clark-Flory, writing in Salon.com (Small-brained female seeks alpha male posted July 2) made as good an attempt at writing a BNJ posting as we neurocurmudgeons have read...except, we think she might be willing to give the original study more credit than it deserves. There are so many things wrong with extrapolating from species-specific changes that we're pretty sure whatever is going on with the mice ends with the mice - and this story should never have left the cage floor.
3) The neurocurmudgeons generally find that the Wall Street Journal does a credible job reporting on science and medicine EXCEPT, oddly enough, in the Friday Wall Street Journal column dedicated to writing about science. So we were pleased to see that the July 6th Science Journal column (Study of kids' brains hopes to answer: What is normal? ) reporting on the design of a large study of children's brain development passed muster. We do however, have a small quibble. Columnist Robert Lee Hotz falls into a common trap when he writes "Boys perform better at analyzing and manipulating shapes and patterns, while girls perform better on processing speed and motor dexterity". Statements like this one give the impression that ALL boys are better than ALL girls or that ALL girls are better than ALL boys on the tasks being tested. In reality, if you plot the performance of all boys and all girls there is tremendous overlap of the curves. What really matters is this observation: healthy boys and girls do equally well on most cognitive tasks. But don't expect to see that headline any time soon.
By Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Observer: March 2007, Volume 20, Number 3
Getting it right. Morton Ann Gernsbacher, President of the Association for Psychological Science, has written an excellent article clearly illustrating why certain types of brain-imaging studies are misdirected.
A new twist for neurojournalism: Getting it right.
November 2, 2006
A new twist for neurojournalism: Getting it right. Well, unfortunately it is not really neurojournalism but we're getting tired of being so negative all the times. So we are highlighting a book review by 2 academics that will really help you understand why bad writing about the brain is not harmless - no matter how nobel the author's intentions.
Many of our deputized neurocurmudgeons have asked us to please post a commentary on any one of the various popular articles inspired by The Female Brain by Louann Brizedine but ...Maybe its our darn female brains, or our hormones, or maybe our metabolism but we have this innate reluctance to keep repeating ourselves. Visit our archives for our remarks on prior her brain/ his brain oversimplifications. We've said it before and we'll say it again - sure there are anatomical differences between male and female brains. So what. We were unable to muster the energy to go over the issues again.
Thankfully, someone else has masterfully taken on the task. So before all of you fighting the good fight become tempted to throw in the towel, read Young and Balaban's review in the Oct 12, Nature. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7112/full/443634a.html They are our Neuro-heroes.