Here is my blog post from the weekend on media coverage of a recent neuroscience study. The study purports to demonstrate an association between brain function and excessive internet use. It’s essentially a cross-sectional study, so we cannot know if abnormal brain function causes excessive internet use, or if excessive internet use causes abnormal brain function (or, indeed, if some other extraneous factor causes both). Nonetheless, the media seemed pretty confident of the direction of causality: almost as one they reported the study as showing that excessive internet use causes abnormal brains. Given that the underlying finding is ambiguous, I argue that this reflects their value-systems rather than their capacity for scientific insight.

Incidentally, today the media are at it again. The Independent (UK) report on a neuroscience study that is claimed to reveal that people’s capacity to “sell out” on expressed beliefs if given enough money is somehow “wired into” the brain. This seems like something of an extravagant interpretation. The study appears — simply — to show that people process ideas such as “I am a tea drinker” in one part of the brain and ideas like “I support gay marriage” in another. Unsurprisingly, the researchers also found that when people were offered cash to disavow the latter type of idea, then (a) they tended not to do so readily, and (b) when considering it, the part of the brain devoted to ethics tended to become activated (or “lit up” in sci-fi parlance).

Why exactly is this news? Well, in short, the media are obsessed with brains.

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About Brian Hughes

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