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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 decide, the 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.”
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>