How Bright Might A “Neuro Future” Be?
Posted by dlende on August 23, 2009
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.