Neuroanthropology

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How Bright Might A “Neuro Future” Be?

Posted by dlende on August 23, 2009

Neuro Revolution
By Stephan Schleim

Looking for a “Neuro Revolution”? Zack Lynch wants to offer you one in his new book.

With a title like Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World and the author celebrated as a leading technology consultant and market researcher in marketing blurbs, readers might expect the author’s opinion to be based on the state of the art of neuroscience. However, frequent mistakes and shortcomings in his presentation of the scientific findings and methodology seriously call into question whether Lynch is the right person to sketch a possible “neuro future” and to address the prospects and limitations of neurotechnology.

The first surprise comes on page 3, where Lynch describes his first experience with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, one of the most frequently-used research tools in contemporary cognitive neuroscience. He explains that “the machine’s computer had recorded and analyzed data about how those loud thumping noises had bounced back from the structures under my skin.” To uninformed people, the noise of high-field MRI scanners will indeed be one of their most salient features. However, it is a mere epiphenomenon subject to the sophisticated technology necessary to change strong magnetic fields in short intervals. The technique itself is based on inaudible electromagnetic waves (like those emitted by a cellphone) to investigate brain structure and function.

Out of the many other examples one could give for Lynch’s superficial misrepresentation of neuroscience, two cases related to important publicly discussed applications of neuroscience are presented here to demonstrate a lack of expertise.

First, when discussing the issue of psychopharmacological enhancement, he refers to “a 2005 survey of more than ten thousand college students” (p. 184). Although the author does not give the reference to this “survey” so that an interested reader might check his claims or read the study himself, a researcher familiar with the debate can guess from his description which academic source is meant (McCabe and colleagues, Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students…, Addiction 99, pp. 96-106).

First of all, the survey was carried out in 2001, and published only in 2005, which one can already read in the study’s abstract. Admittedly, this is just a minor point. What is more serious, however, is Lynch’s presentation of the outcome: “On some campuses more than 25 percent of students had used the pills”, he writes (p. 184). This is literally wrong, because at only one single campus of more than a hundred investigated colleges did researchers find numbers even as high as 25 percent – not more. The vast majority of colleges scored between zero and five percent.

When researchers find such an extreme outlier, it is common to question the validity of this individual measurement. Imagine a blind man were to shoot 119 times (that was the number of colleges investigated in the study) at a target; if he hit the bull’s eye once, how representative were that finding of his overall performance? And how honest would a report focusing on the single hit be?

On average, only four percent of the students stated that they had used such stimulants throughout the last year (i.e. at least once). Lynch commits another mistake when he writes that “between 4 and 7 percent of them had tried attention-deficit-disorder drugs for either all-night cramming sessions or to do better on their exams” (p. 184). The researchers of that survey actually had not asked the students for the motives of their behavior. By contrast, they found out that stimulant abuse was correlated with the consumption of other drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine, which suggests that many students had used the stimulants for “recreational” purposes, since some stimulants can also induce a “high”. This finding is already presented in the study’s half-page abstract. But Lynch just continues with “informal research”, quoting a nameless professor, one of his “experts”, stating extremely high numbers of stimulant abuse among her students (p. 184).

Second, Lynch devotes much space to the topic of MRI-based lie detection which already created at least two business spin-offs trying to market the technique: Already his description of polygraphy, the tool psychologists are developing since almost 100 years to detect deception, appears as outdated (p. 26f.). He seems to know nothing of the recent advances in that field which were enabled by digital technology. Nevertheless he holds the position that MRI-based methods fare much better. His opinion is based on one single study of Daniel Langleben’s, which Lynch refers to incorrectly, and neglects all of the experiments which were published after 2002. This is unfortunate since these experiments are superior to his example, because they are ecologically more valid and, for instance, employ a mock-crime task instead of Langleben’s abstract playing card paradigm (e.g. Kozel and colleagues, Detecting Deception Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Biological Psychiatry 58: 605-613).

To Lynch’s credit, he later summarizes that “more testing must be completed before any commercial firm can claim that it’s offering a valid truth-detection test” (p. 34), which is true. It would have been nice, though, if he had explained why “No Lie MRI”, the company he reports about, states a contradicting claim on its web page, calling its technology the “first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history” already on its entry page.

Unfortunately, the book does not fare better in its discussion of the ethical aspects related to neurotechnology. Although Lynch refers to incidents where governmental institutions had abused human subjects in the past, for example, when investigating the effects of LSD or high radiation in uninformed persons (p. 174), he does not make a suggestion how they could be prevented from similar abuse of potentially forthcoming neurotechnology developed to manipulate memories or to even control people’s minds. Actually, the author is very enthusiastic about such opportunities in “neurowarfare” (chapter eight) where he celebrates the possibility that neuroscience might soon allow to manipulate an enemy’s mind. If such a means existed, its potential for abuse are great. What the book lacks in terms of ethical considerations, Lynch compensates with his creativity to invent new concepts. Referring to “neuroarchitects”, “neuroenablement”, “neurofinance”, “neurocompetition”, “pleasureceuticals”, to give just a few examples, he demonstrates his creativity. This neuro-ful, sorry, colorful vocabulary marks his major contribution to the discussion of neuroscience, alongside his general and superficial praise of forthcoming neurotechnology.

Unfortunately, the book is not suitable to readers who want to verify its claims themselves or who want to learn more about the original studies. Lynch frequently hides his knowledge behind anonymous “experts”, “neuroscientists”, or “researchers” (e.g. p. 20, 21, 22, 33, 37, and so on), making it almost impossible to check their validity. If he nevertheless gives a reference, it is most likely not a scientific study, but a journalistic report published in sources like the New York Times or Scientific American. Readers already familiar with such reports thus will learn hardly anything new from “The Neuro Revolution”.

Scholarly speaking, Zack Lynch’s lack of scientific understanding, his lack of familiarity with the state of the art of neuroscience, and his neglect of the ethical where societal and military applications are impending, disqualify his book as the basis of informed decision making about the prospects, limitations and perhaps even dangers of future discoveries in neuroscience.

Editor’s Note: Stephan Schleim is at the University of Bonn. He also blogs for the German-language site Brainlogs. His most recent post is Psychiatrie-Bibel unter Beschuss. Last year he covered The Critical Neuroscience conference in Montreal in English.

9 Responses to “How Bright Might A “Neuro Future” Be?”

  1. originsg said

    As someone who’s been curious of the many glowing reviews out in the press, just wanted to say thanks for posting this review. Its tough to pan a book without seeming like you are bashing it, but I think you’ve been careful, fair and well justified in excluding the book as a source for valid information. Beware of “scammers with scanners” is how I’m beginning to feel about consultants/marketeers like Mr. Lynch.

  2. Mike said

    Ok I read the book. I found it to have a lot of interesting ideas, however it was definitely intended for the lay reader. I think the way Lynch worded certain passages in the book would make some neuroscientists cringe.

    However, this review could have been better. I’ll accept that Schleim is right about Lynch’s misunderstanding of the survey of college students. I don’t have time to look into it. However at the end Schleim says (Quote) But Lynch just continues with “informal research”, quoting a nameless professor, one of his “experts”, (End Quote). Schleim mockingly uses the scare quotes to suggest Lynch is just making these things up. Lynch is just mention a dialogue he had with an Ivy League college professor he spoke with. That is why he says informal research.

    Stephan Schleim says that Lynch claims an MRI works by sound. I think he is misrepresenting a colloquialized sentence that Lynch made. When I read that sentence, I didn’t take it to mean that he was actually referring to the machine working by bouncing sound waves off a person. If you look at some of Lynch’s posts about MRI technology on his blog, it is seems like he understands how an MRI actually works.
    http://www.corante.com/brainwaves/archives/2004/10/04/human_brain_imaging_advances.php
    It seems like Schleim is misinterpreting what Lycnh is saying.

    Schleim mentiones that Lynch doesn’t seem to be up to date with polygraph technology. Perhaps this is true, but again it seems somewhat nitpicky considering the book is mainly about technology related to the brain. I also think Schleim is misrepresenting pg 26. Zack Lynch refers to a 2003 study on that page that says close to half of the research presented on polygraphs is of low scientific quality. Lynch doesn’t mention more recent polygraph results that indicate around 90% accuracy, but that doesn’t mean he is not aware of them. He merely downplays the polygraph in favor of brain imaging technology. He is under the impression that scientists could push lie detection accuracy close to 100% with sufficiently advanced neurotechnology and computing power. When Lynch talks about the MRI lie detection study he says “published his early work with the test in 2001″. I think the fact that Lynch doesn’t mention more recent findings is not due to his lack of awareness of them. Lynch refers to the 2001 study saying the “report stirred tremendous interest”. The next thing he mentions is a 2006 article in the Journal of Psychiatry and Law that “reviewed advanced in lie-detection technology”. After that he merely goes on to the commercialization of the technology.

    Then Schleim says (Quote) “if (Lynch) had explained why “No Lie MRI”, the company he reports about, states a contradicting claim on its web page” calling its technology the “first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history” already on its entry page.” (End Quote)

    Well actually going to the homepage of that “No Lie MRI” site, it doesn’t actually say what Schleim says it does (at least not currently) http://noliemri.com/index.htm. Also it is downright absurd to think that Lynch should be making sure that companies are not making (supposed) contradictory claims on web pages that probably no one ever visits. This is extremely nitpicky. Find me a company that DOESN’T make contradictory claims. They all do it to a certain extent. How does this have any relevance to reviewing the book, other than to add one more irrelevant complaint?

    Schleim claims that Lynch is uninterested in the moral implications of “neuroweapons”. However on page 179 Lynch says (Quote) “Neuroweapons will be intensely scrutinized by the world community, and we will all debate their enormous ethical and moral complexities.”(End Quote) Perhaps Lynch could have done more about neuroethics, but again it seems a little nitpicky.

    As for the bibliography Lynch does reference a lot of popular articles and fewer of them are actual scientific studies. However this book is intended for the lay reader and is not a scientific publication. This review looks like it misrepresents some things. It’s sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.

  3. I agree, I have been following this guy for sometime now with his glorious talks of the ‘neuro-revolution’ – but i was always curious which perspective he was taking – science or marketing/politics/and the rest. Thanks for this review – I hope more people understand the difference between science for knowledge and exploration, as opposed to pseudoscience for tainted purposes.

  4. Mike said

    Sorry if this is a repost. The first comment didn’t seem to get published.

    Ok I read the book. I found it to have a lot of interesting ideas, however it was definitely intended for the lay reader. I think the way Lynch worded certain passages in the book would make some neuroscientists cringe.

    However, this review could have been better. I’ll accept that Schleim is right about Lynch’s misunderstanding of the survey of college students. I don’t have time to look into it. However at the end Schleim says (Quote) But Lynch just continues with “informal research”, quoting a nameless professor, one of his “experts”, (End Quote). Schleim mockingly uses the scare quotes to suggest Lynch is just making these things up. Lynch is just giving a dialogue he had with an Ivy League college professor he spoke with. That is why he says informal research.

    Stephan Schleim says that Lynch claims an MRI works by sound. I think he is misrepresenting a colloquialized sentence that Lynch made. When I read that sentence, I didn’t take it to mean that he was actually referring to the machine working by bouncing sound waves off a person. If you look at some of Lynch’s posts about MRI technology on his blog, it is seems like he understands how an MRI actually works.
    corante. com/brainwaves/archives/2004/10/04/human_brain_imaging_advances.php
    It seems like Schleim is misinterpreting what Lycnh is saying.

    Schleim mentiones that Lynch doesn’t seem to be up to date with polygraph technology. Perhaps this is true, but again it seems somewhat nitpicky considering the book is mainly about technology related to the brain. I also think Schleim is misrepresenting pg 26. Zack Lynch refers to a 2003 study on that page that says close to half of the research presented on polygraphs is of low scientific quality. Lynch doesn’t mention more recent polygraph results that indicate around 90% accuracy, but that doesn’t mean he is not aware of them. He merely downplays the polygraph in favor of brain imaging technology. He is under the impression that scientists could push lie detection accuracy close to 100% with sufficiently advanced neurotechnology and computing power. When Lynch talks about the MRI lie detection study he says “published his early work with the test in 2001″. I think the fact that Lynch doesn’t mention more recent findings is not due to his lack of awareness of them. Lynch refers to the 2001 study saying the “report stirred tremendous interest”. The next thing he mentions is a 2006 article in the Journal of Psychiatry and Law that “reviewed advanced in lie-detection technology”.

    Then Schleim says (Quote) “if (Lynch) had explained why “No Lie MRI”, the company he reports about, states a contradicting claim on its web page” calling its technology the “first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history” already on its entry page.” (End Quote)

    Well actually going to the homepage of that “No Lie MRI” site, it doesn’t actually say what Schleim says it does (at least not currently) noliemri. com/index.htm. Also it is downright absurd to think that Lynch should be making sure that companies are not making (supposed) contradictory claims on web pages that probably no one ever visits. This is extremely nitpicky. Find me a company that DOESN’T make contradictory claims. They all do it to a certain extent. How does this have any relevance to reviewing the book, other than to add one more irrelevant complaint?

    Schleim claims that Lynch is uninterested in the moral implications of “neuroweapons”. However on page 179 Lynch says (Quote) “Neuroweapons will be intensely scrutinized by the world community, and we will all debate their enormous ethical and moral complexities.”(End Quote)
    Perhaps Lynch could have done more about neuroethics, but again it seems a little nitpicky.

    As for the bibliography Lynch does reference a lot of popular articles and fewer of them are actual scientific studies. However this book is intended for the lay reader and is not a scientific publication.

  5. Thanks, Mike, for your critical reply.

    Please have a second look at the No Lie MRI homepage. Of course I have no influence on what the page actually says. But when I open it, using the link you provided, directly on the entry page, in the second paragraph in the white box it exactly says what I have quoted, namely, that their technology “represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!” (I inserted this by copy & paste, including the exclamation mark.) I would have welcomed it if Zack Lynch had referred to this very aggressive kind of advertisement that is, in my opinion, not based on scientific studies and contradicting Mr. Lynch’s claim. But why do you say nobody ever visits this page? It is actually well-known among scientists and I see many references to it; even readers who learn about this company from Lynch’s book are likely to check this page.

    The point I make about this “expert” is not that I believe that Mr. Lynch made that claim up; actually I am quite sure whom he refers to because I have heard the (putatively) same professor tell exactly the same thing about her students on international conferences. The problem is that this claim is extremely suggestive and it’s entirely unscientific. I have also heard a very influential neuroscientist in Germany say that in the US almost no student is taking exams without the aid of Ritalin — a claim I actually criticized in my blog. I wish that a) people get the numbers right when they are making claims about the incidence of stimulant abuse and b) that they do not refer to unscientific and non-verifiable claims.

    Since I reviewed his book, I do not understand why you are referring to his explanation of MRI technology on one of his homepages. I hope that he himself does not believe that MRI is based on sound; but that’s actually what he writes in the book; and that’s what I criticized.

    In his discussion of “neurowarfare” Mr. Lynch explicitly asks the reader to “put aside all issues of ethics, practicality, and good judgment” (p. 158) and proceeds to explain the potential benefits of mind-altering technology. I do not remember that he’d take the ethical stance somewhere else; the quote you are giving means that he leaves this work to other people. I can imagine that ethical considerations are harmful to Lynch’s business, as he is also consulting the military. My point is that I do not want to leave our “neuro future” to such people who think about their own business success and leave the important ethical issues to others.

    The “2001 study” he and you refer to actually was published in 2002; but I decided not to mention this in my review because this would have been nitpicky, indeed. But that it’s nitpicky doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. People differ in the standard of correctness they expect from a fact book.

    By the way, Mike, I see some striking similarities between your post and another one done by a “Robert” in Deric Bownd’s MindBlog. My review will be published on other pages as well — may I expect some more comments by “John” and “Bill” and whom else…?

  6. Mike said

    Sorry about the No lie thing, I’m sure it was late and I just missed it. My other remarks still stand. Especially considering that the sentence is pretty ambiguous. It sort of depends on how you define “direct measure”. I’m sure lynch probably didn’t even see that message anyway.

    “The point I make about this “expert” is not that I believe that Mr. Lynch made that claim up”
    Ok, well he makes it clear that it is just informal research and I didn’t read into it too much. Perhaps he could have been a little less sloppy throwing those statistics around.

    Like I said about the MRI passage. I didn’t interpret it has him meaning it works by sound when I read it. It just didn’t come across as that to me. Perhaps he could have wrote it in a less ambiguous way.

    The neurowarfare is more a criticism about what content should be in the book.

    Anyways I don’t have time to put up fake defenses of Lynch. I don’t disagree that there are some problems with the book. I am not a lynch fanboy. Robert is my middle name and I have a blogspot account with the name robert that I sometimes post messages on. Nothing sinister here. I am not lynch nor am I one of his minions.

  7. Hugh Cloer said

    I agree with everything you posted in this article, I’m a faithful follower so please keep updating so frequently.

  8. [...] voraus, siehe zum Beispiel Zack Lynchs gleichnamiges Buch (vom Autor hier kritisch rezensiert). Mit Blick auf die Möglichkeit, unser moralisches und rechtliches System [...]

  9. […] a neuro-revolution (see, e.g., Zack Lynch’s corresponding book, critically reviewed by me here). Regarding its capacity to shake our moral and legal system, a bit of historical background might […]

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