Is Brain Science Just Hype?

Scientists have a lot of influence over how we live our lives. This is mostly a good thing - and will help us weed out the snake oil from the spinach - but only a terribly naive optimist could think the “Mozart Effect” won’t strike again.

What’s The Big Idea?


A 1993 paper in Nature announced that subjects listening to Mozart displayed increased cognitive activity through “enhanced spatial-temporal reasoning.” All the sudden, people started running to the local record store to pick up Wolfgang’s greatest hits. Search “Mozart” and “Brain” on Amazon and you will find links to over 800 results, most of which are entitled “Mozart will turn you into Einstein” - or something along those lines. Looking back on it, the Mozart Effect was a total hoax. 

Similarly, when scientists told us that reservatrol - an antioxidant found in red wine - can extend our lives, the world started getting hammered on the red stuff while rationalizing it as a healthy habit. Scientists have a lot of influence on how we live our lives. This is mostly a good thing - and will help us weed out the snake oil from the spinach - but only a terribly naive optimist could think the “Mozart Effect” won’t strike again.

With the rise of the behavioral sciences in the last 30 years, our perceived knowledge of the human condition has grown significantly. Researchers have been finding all sorts of insights into human behavior. The most prominent new lens through which to view these insights is Neuroscience. The advent of the fMRI machine has led to scientists telling us “empirically” how we decidethe difference between pleasure and happiness, and even how we can become better versions of ourselves. Researchers extrapolate all sorts of new ideas that we as the readers tend to just accept as fact, based solely on some flashing lights in a specific area of the the brain. But blindly accepting what we’re told is not only ignorant, it is costly.

A guru in the broad spectrum of the behavioral sciences, Barry Schwartz understands these ideas better than just about anyone. The author of The Paradox of Choice and Practical Wisdom (two of the most-watched TED Talks ever) and a Psychology Professor at Swarthmore College, Barry spoke with Big Think about the hype surrounding Neuroscience and the need for more skepticism of the field.

Big Think: What's the danger of not being skeptical of Neuroscience? Why is it so important that we fact-check what's going on in the field? Is there something about Neuroscience that lends itself to over-optimistic speculation?

Barry Schwartz: The reason that neuroscience is especially "dangerous" is not that its results are more suspect than other results in psychology.  Rather, it is that the audience for such results--especially the non-professional audience--accepts neuroscience findings completely uncritically.  "If it's the brain, it must be science, and if it's science, it must be true."  So all I want is as much skepticism about neuroscience as there is about psychology in general.

BT: As Neuroscientist’s discoveries continue to multiply, how do we differentiate between legitimate findings and other not so enlightening observations that journalists build up for attention? Are there any tell-tale signs that something is total hype?

BS: The question isn't legitimate vs. illegitimate.  The question that people should ALWAYS be asking themselves when they encounter a neuroscience result is this: "what does this tell me about human beings that I didn't already know."  At this stage of development of neuroscience, the answer to that question is almost always "nothing."  How could it not be true that something is happening in the brain whenever people do anything.  Unless you are a dualist, and there are not many of them around, something is ALWAYS happening in the brain when we do anything.  "Does what's happening in the brain illuminate our understanding" is the key question. There is one more thing that is very important.  People mistakenly believe that "my brain made me do it" absolves people of responsibility whereas "my deprived childhood with abusive parents made me do it" does not.  In the first case, the behavior in question is seen as the output of a machine.  In the second case, people think that you could always decide not to do whatever it is that you did.  This is simply false.  The question we should be asking is "how strong is the causal relation between X and Y?," and not "does X, the cause, reside in the brain or in behavior?"

BT: Moving forward, how can Neuroscience best be utilized for the sake of science and exploring the human condition?

BS: It would help a lot of neuroscientists themselves were mindful of my answers above and took pains to be clear about those features of their work when they talk to the press or to non-professional audiences.  The tendency, alas, is to overhype what you've found rather than being open about how modestly your findings advance our understanding.

What’s The Significance?

In a world where Wikipedia is our main source of facts and information, it is up to the individual to be conscious of the source and validity of the data. While Neuroscience has grown tremendously with the advent of the fMRI, more sophisticated technology does not necessarily entail more sophisticated results. Researchers are always pressed to produce results, and having this incentive in the back of their brain may lead to them forging something about their subjects’ brains. (Similarly, Big Think and other media sources covering the science scene jump at the opportunity to share important results).

In a New Yorker essay "The Truth Wears Off," Jonah Lehrer examines the pattern whereby researchers' results - held to be sacred artifacts of science - have been found to decline in effect. “The Decline Effect” has shown up in a number of occasions where an experiment’s original correlation is unable to be replicated. Lehrer writes:

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

It is essential we do a more rigorous examination of the cause and effect of our observations, and understand that science is a long-term endeavour with many variables. Just because something is thought to be true one day does not permit it eternal validity. While Neuroscience has a bright and important future, we need to embrace our potential to make mistakes. Just as people used to believe the sun revolved around the earth, our own beliefs could be laughable to future generations. In the long run, skepticism is paramount for progress to flourish.

So before you go banging your head on the wall because a study says it helps stop procrastination, remember to take our conclusions with a grain of salt - as we surely have not seen the last of “The Mozart Effect.”

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Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

The creator of the winning video — chosen by Big Think's audience, the Lumina Foundation, and an independent panel of experts (bios below) — will be flown to New York for a taping in the Big Think studio as a way to further promote their vision for a new, disruptive idea in post-secondary education.

Thank you to all of the contestants who spent time submitting applications, and best of luck to our final four competitors.

Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

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