Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Book review: "Sum" by neuroscientist David Eagleman

I just read the book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife by David Eagleman, and what an enlightening read it was. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, is known for his work on time perception, synesthesia and neurolaw. His literary career is also well underway, as Sum has achieved bestseller status and received many awards. Eagleman has shown in this book that brain science has much to offer to literature, and I hope to see more neuroscientists dabble in works of fiction in the future.

Sum, categorized as “speculative fiction,” is a series of short stories that takes the reader on a journey through possible circumstances that can arise in the afterlife. Most of these possibilities are not even remotely close to what people typically consider when pondering about the afterlife.

Combining scientific knowledge with creativity and an inventive imagination, Eagleman suggests that in the afterlife you could find yourself learning that all possibilities exist at once, and you can live multiple lives in parallel. Or you could end up existing in a place much like Earth, but only the people you remember exist with you. Sum is as witty and comedic as it is creative. The book can be seen as a collection of forty poems, a set of forty essays, or forty premises for sci-fi films.

Eagleman has created an original piece of work that deals with questions that we all face. This is probably why the book has been so successful. The book was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Barnes and Nobles in 2009. Despite some its controversial ideas, the book has been acclaimed by both atheists and religious groups.

In relation to Sum, Eagleman has defined a new philosophy he calls Possibilianism, a topic he is currently writing about for a new book. In an interview with the New York Times, he offered the following explanation for Possibilianism:

“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I'm hoping to define a new position -- one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

Are you a possibilian?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Neuromarketing: subliminal advertising reinvented?

The idea that advertisers and salespeople can successfully persuade us by taking advantage of our ignorance has always been haunting. Subliminal messages that don’t reach our consciousness but supposedly affect our decisions have been controversial throughout their rich history. Governments have been accused of using subliminal stimuli to brainwash societies, and suicides have been blamed on messages in heavy metal songs that don’t surpass the subconscious. Because of their perceived danger, subliminal ads have previously been banned in Canada and denounced by the United Nations.

Yet despite the panic induced by these Big Brother-style advertising strategies, evidence from scientific studies suggests that subliminal messages are not nearly as effective as they are perceived to be. Indeed, scientific interest in subliminal advertising has effectively died out. Could recent advances in neuroimaging technology change this?

Dan Ariely and Gregory S. Burns discuss the hope and hype of “neuromarketing” techniques in an interesting, recent Perspective paper in the high impact journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They define neuromarketing as “[t]he application of neuroimaging methods to product marketing.” In the paper, the neuroimaging method they mainly discuss is functional MRI (fMRI), which can potentially be used for consumer feedback during product development and to investigate the effectiveness of advertising strategies. The authors review the very limited body of studies on fMRI and neuromarketing, and they discuss the great pragmatic and ethical challenges that neuromarketing research will face before it can become regularly used by corporations seeking to create the perfect product and ad agencies looking to craft the ideal commercial.

One of the main issues that Ariely and Burns discuss is whether fMRI can reveal “hidden information” about consumer preferences that cannot be obtained from conventional marketing study methods. Do we have thoughts about products that are below the threshold of our awareness? And if so, can we see these thoughts by scanning a brain with fMRI? How can/will advertisers use this information? The answers remain to be seen, as there is currently a dearth of research in this area.

The hidden information that neuromarketing enthusiasts hope for reminds me of subliminal persuasion. If brain activity can teach us more about the subconscious than traditional study methods can, it is possible that new insights on subliminal advertising will spark a renewed interest in the technique. However, as history has taught us, accompanying such an enthusiasm will likely be fear, protest, and new regulations.

Ariely and Burns, admitting to be inherently optimistic about neuromarketing, believe that “neuroimaging will soon be able to reveal hidden information about consumer preferences.” They do think, however, that this information will probably help product design processes more than it will help advertising. But given that advertising effectiveness is such a poorly understood area of marketing, it is hard to fathom that advertisers will not jump on the opportunity to try neuroimaging on consumers.

Whether neuromarketing will lead to better product design and more effective advertising depends on a myriad of factors. Perhaps the greatest hurdle at the moment is the cost-effectiveness of neuroimaging relative to traditional marketing tools. Functional MRI is far from cheap. Additionally, fMRI is far from flawless in its ability to accurately elucidate meaningful information about the brain. Will neuromarketing quickly become yesterday’s technological fad? Will neuromarketing give us tastier food, better movies, and more beautiful buildings? Or will neuromarketing violate us like we have never experienced before, robbing us of our privacy and freedom of choice, controlling our brains while we waltz about in ignorance?


Ariely D, & Berns GS (2010). Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11 (4), 284-92 PMID: 20197790

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Love, sex and nonsense: how "neuroscience" can be used to reinforce gender stereotypes

Biological differences define the male and female sexes. Since biology is not separate from psychology, it should be unsurprising that females and males exhibit different behaviours and abilities. Louann Brizendine, a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, has taken clever notice of this and has published a popular, accessible article on CNN titled “Love, sex and the male brain” to endorse her new book, The Male Brain.

The only problem is that her article is not at all about the male brain. It reads more like a dating/relationship advice column for a target audience of insecure women, and men who want to validate their aggressive and lascivious behavior with science that says they are not to blame. Brizendine argues that stereotypical characteristics of men, such as a lacking ability for empathy and a preoccupation with sex, are proven by neuroscience to be innate. She does this by speaking about how the “defend your turf” and “I feel what you feel” areas of the brain (areas that don’t actually exist) are different in males and females. Such claims hugely oversimplify the complexity of the actual data from studies that she is speaking of in order to make the article accessible to a lay audience. The danger in doing so is that she departs so far from the data that her claims are outright lies. The same could be said about her ridiculous insistence that men get stuck in a “man trance—that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts.”

Brizendine fails to acknowledge any stereotypes she discusses except when she speaks of love: “Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the male brain can fall in love…” really? The male brain can fall in love? Those who bought the stereotype that men can’t fall in love must be shocked to learn that the male brain can! And neuroscience can tell us it’s true? Cute.

Unfortunately the article does a much better job of reinforcing gender stereotypes than it does of providing useful relationship advice, or accurate information for that matter. To point out all the flawed statements would be an exhaustive exercise given the sheer number of flaws, so let’s focus instead on what is missing from the article. For starters, Brizendine doesn’t give the male brain any credit for its ability to learn and adapt. She speaks only about adults, but our brains are largely shaped during infancy, childhood, and youth. Experience plays a large role in shaping our brains, and it is in fact likely that many typical “male behaviours” are learned.

Lise Eliot has written a (much better) article in the May/June 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind arguing that psychological sex differences are not as large as they are perceived to be, and differences in brain structure and function do not necessarily account for emotional and cognitive differences. Eliot cites studies to back up all her claims, just as any mindful writer would. She focuses on reducing stereotypes rather than promoting them, stating that “[a]ppreciating how sex differences emerge can reduce dangerous stereotyping.” The how she refers to entails a combination of biology and environment, not just biology alone.

It is certainly important to discuss and study male/female brain differences. These differences can give insight to how the sexes experience mental health issues differently and respond to psychiatric treatments differently. Differences in cognition can give insight to education strategies (e.g. getting boys to read more, getting girls more involved in math/science). But sex differences should be discussed in such a way that is critical of our current Mars-Venus obsession. The general public deserves much better than inaccurate information and reinforced stereotypes. But if that is actually what you want, pick up a copy of The Male Brain. I sure won’t be reading it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Welcome to my new blog, Neuro Küz. Neuro because all the ideas I will discuss will at least somehow be related to neuroscience. Küz because that is the name of yours truly, the author of this blog. At least that’s what we’ll call me. I named this blog after myself not because I am a narcissist but because all the other cool suffixes for “neuro” were taken.

To me, neuroscience is one of the most interesting ways to ask life’s most interesting questions. A mentor of mine, who teaches an undergraduate course on neuroscience, always introduces his course by posing a question that was central to the sweeping success of the film The Matrix: what if the reality we perceive and believe is really some simulated reality? In other words, what if those “row, row, row your boat” lyricists are on to something, and life is but a dream? Or what if you’re merely an unwitting character in someone else’s dream?

There are obviously more “what ifs” that could be asked, but the point is that our brain has a known tendency to trick us at both sensory and cognitive levels. Magicians are easily able to deceive us with illusions, and we have all faced instances in which we were absolutely convinced that we were right until proven wrong. Furthermore, our brain only allows us to sense and perceive selective details in our environment while leaving others out. For example, bees are able to see ultraviolet light waves that we are unaware of until they give us cancer.

Perhaps what I have discussed so far can be categorized under the wing of “neurophilosophy,” a branch that commonly captures the initial intrigue of many neuro-enthusiasts. But there is now a growing interest in neuroscience at worldly, applicable and practical levels. Researchers and healthcare practitioners are no longer the only ones interested in neuroscience. Artists are increasingly incorporating neuroscientific ideas into novels, movies, and other creations. And if you have been keeping up, you may have heard of such terms as: neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurotechnology, neuroeconomics, neuroeducation, neurosociety, neuroquantology, or the neurorevolution.

In a world full of huge incentives to develop new products and validate claims about the quality of products, how much of what we’re being told is accurate? Neuroscience can be help us advance and progress, but it can also be highly misused and harmful. Undoubtedly, the study of neuroscience has led to improvements in approaches to stroke rehabilitation and neurosurgical techniques, and of course the ingenious invention of sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. However, to what extent has the attribution of psychiatric disorders to chemical imbalances in the brain led to the pronounced overprescription of antidepressants? How often do writers improperly use neuroscience to back up and sell their ideas, and can we trust advertisers who claim that their products will make you smarter and sharper?

I hope to comment on some of these ideas, current events, and innovations in neuroscience here. The reach of neuroscience is extending quickly. In the near future, we will likely see more and more impact of neuroscience on the practices of healthcare and law, our understanding of art, business, culture as well as social issues, and even the development of public policy. It is important to carefully ask questions in these times. I invite you to neuroquestion, neurocomment and neurocriticize.