Monthly Archives: May 2013

How to develop and market your neuro-product


You were only supposed to blow the bloody occipital cortex off.

The human brain is fast becoming a new frontier for business. Neuromarketing, ‘brain-training’ companies, and therapeutic programs that contain some kind of neuro-twist are proliferating at a very high rate.  Somewhat more disconcertingly, a couple of new products actually aim to make a more direct interface with your brain. ‘Melon’ (currently getting funded on KickStarter) is a headband that measures your EEG signal in order to help maintaining focus on tasks, and a company called is currently marketing a trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) device that claims to directly modulate brain activity in the frontal lobes by the use of electric currents. In case you’re wondering about that last one, then yes, it’s absolutely as terrifying and ill-advised as it sounds. At the other end of the scariness/lunacy/class-action-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen scale are relatively harmless products like ‘Neuro’ energy drinks, or Neurozan dietary supplements.

So, neuro-business is definitely becoming a thing, and it’s a safe bet that we can expect to see many more products of this type in the future. But there’s a problem: the neuroscientists. Those slightly weird, often scruffily dressed, usually somewhat nerdy people who spend their time in basement labs and only occasionally emerge blinking into the sunlight to pour buckets of cold cerebrospinal fluid over perfectly legitimate business ideas and marketing campaigns. “Where’s the evidence?” they whine, mostly to other neuroscientists on Twitter, or on blogs like this one that no-one else reads. “Show us the data” and “Does it really work?” they screech, incessantly.

So, maybe you’ve got an idea for a hot new brain-mangling device, or a new twist on the brain training band-wagon. Maybe you’ve even got a new therapy technique that you’ve lovingly crafted over years of working with special-needs children, that you genuinely believe could make a profound and lasting difference to people’s lives, and that you’re just itching to share with the world. That’s great! But what can you do to ensure you’re not harassed by hordes of killjoy brain-botherers as you develop and market your product? Presented below is a handy guide to doing neuro-product-development the right way. Follow this simple process, and grateful, happy customers will be throwing big piles of cash at you before you can say ‘rostral orbito-frontal para-cingulate gyrus’.

1. Evaluate your product. Really evaluate it.
This is the big one. This is the Manhattan Project, the Everest, the Moon-shot, the X prize. I’m not going to lie to you; it’s not going to be easy, or fast, or cheap, but if you’ve got a product that you really believe in, don’t you owe it to your investors and customers to do everything you can to show that it works? Of course you do.

What you need to do in most cases is conduct a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) of your product. The ‘randomised’ bit means that participants are assigned to each group at random and the ‘controlled’ bit indicates that typically a product or treatment is compared against a placebo, or sometimes against an existing active product (both can be ‘control’ conditions). The trial should be well-powered (meaning it should have an adequate number of people in it to be able to demonstrate the hypothesised effect) and ideally double-blinded (meaning that neither the participants, nor those administering the tests, should know whether they are in the ‘active’ or ‘placebo’ groups).

Running a well-conducted RCT is not a trivial task; fortunately help is available. Contract Research Organisations (CROs) will run the trial for you. This is certainly the fastest way of getting it done, but probably also the most expensive. Another way might be to find a friendly academic who works in a research field related to your product, and get them to do it for you. Many academics are desperate for cash and would be only too happy to get some industry funding to run a research project. You may need to stump up enough money to employ a research assistant for the duration of the project, it might take some time, and they’re unlikely to be quite as professional about it as the CROs, but they definitely have the skills and experience needed to do a good job. This also has the added benefit of being an (at least nominally) independent evaluation; for added scientific credibility points you could even sponsor studies at more than one academic institution, using different participant samples, in different locations.

2. Make the results public
What’s the point of conducting a fantastic piece of research if nobody ever knows about it? You need to publish your findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. If you’re doing it in collaboration with academics, they’ll definitely want to do this anyway, so it’s a win-win for all concerned. Ideally, you would also make all the raw data from the trial available and freely-downloadable from your website; that way you can get further (free!) verification of your results from data-nerds who like playing with that kind of thing.

3. Market it on the basis of your data
So you’ve done the testing, you’ve published the results; you’re ready to go! I know it’s probably all very exciting at this point, but you need to take a couple of deep breaths and tread carefully. All the hard work you’ve put into testing your product will be a waste of effort if you don’t stick closely to the results in your marketing. Don’t make wild claims about the product’s effectiveness that aren’t supported by the data. Don’t claim that it’s effective in treating say, autism, when you’ve only actually tested it on an ADHD population. Don’t say that it can boost performance in healthy people when you’ve only tested it on a patient group. Any claims you make that go beyond what you can actually prove will only hurt you in the long run, and will bring down the wrath of the neuro-nerds.

This approach might seem laborious; it’s the kind of procedure that pharmaceutical companies have to go through when making licensing applications to the FDA for new drugs. Neuro-products are lightly regulated at the moment because it’s very new, so there’s no legal obligation to do anything. However, if some of them really can change the brain in a meaningful way, shouldn’t they be held to the same standard as psychoactive drugs? At least there’s a moral obligation there, if not (yet) a legal one.

Doing due diligence in terms of product evaluation also serves to mitigate what I like to call the penis enlargement problem. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that someone has invented a treatment that can genuinely enlarge penises. This hypothetical treatment is safe, effective, and works in 100% of men. Unfortunately, no-one will ever know about it, because of the enormous number of bogus penis-enlargement treatments that are promoted in spam emails and pop-up ads all over the internet. Proving your product is effective in the most rigorous way possible, and freely publishing the results and the data is the most effective way of differentiating your business from the hordes of phony neuro-products (of which there are many) out there.

Alternatively, if this all seems like too much of a bother, you can just re-cycle some old therapy techniques using new jargon, or bolt together some old academic research with a piece of new technology. Hire someone to make a really slick website, stick some fake customer testimonials up there and start selling a product that doesn’t really work, and may even actually be dangerous. You won’t be alone; that’s pretty much what everyone else is doing at the moment.

A handy flow-chart to illustrate the simple 3-step process of neuro-product development.

A handy flow-chart to illustrate the simple 3-step process of neuro-product development.

Why learning styles don’t exist, by Daniel Willingham

Many educators have encountered the concept of ‘Learning styles‘; the idea that some people learn more easily through one sensory modality (e.g. visual, auditory) while others more easily pick up information through another. This is a surprisingly pervasive idea in education circles, and one for which there is very little evidence.

Daniel Willingham (also on twitter: @DTWillingham) is a psychology professor who’s written several excellent pieces debunking this particular myth. An article in Change magazine can be found here and his excellent Learning Styles FAQ is available on his own website here.

He also made a really marvellous video that sets out his arguments very clearly. Essentially Prof Willingham has said everything that needs to be said on the topic, so I’ll shut up about it and let you watch the video. Enjoy:

Should neuro-products be regulated like pharmaceuticals?


This is not a joke. This is an actual product, on sale now at

For whatever reasons (fashion, new technology, an endemic dissatisfaction with the status quo) we appear to be entering the age of the mass-market neuro-product. Many neuro-businesses (such as the many varieties of ‘brain training’ products) are aimed at normal, healthy customers, however some of them tip over the line into what could arguably be called medical treatments. For instance Brain Balance Centers claim to treat a wide range of disorders including autism, ADHD and Tourette’s; conditions well-recognised and characterised by modern (clinical) science. These putative medical uses of technology (meaning technology in a broad sense, in that a set of developed therapeutic techniques such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy might be considered a ‘technology’) are currently completely unregulated.

This legal situation stands in stark contrast to most other medical
treatments and devices which (even in the famously laissez-faire health care industry of the USA) are very rigourously regulated indeed. Pharmaceutical companies have to provide extremely robust evidence of the effectiveness, tolerability, side-effects etc. of their products, and expend a great deal of effort, time, and money collecting clinical trial data in order to do so. This is entirely as it should be; before a pharmaceutical product hits the market the regulators (the FDA in the US, the MHRA in the UK) need to be satisfied that the compound or treatment a) works as the company claims, and b) is relatively safe, when balanced against the potential benefits in the medical conditions it’s designed for. Even the mildest drugs (such as over-the-counter pain medication) have the potential for harm if misused, so this balancing of risks and benefits (backed up by hard evidence) is very important. This burden of regulation on the big pharma companies is pretty onerous, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to protect consumers and patients. Many have argued that the current regime is ineffective and are campaigning for even more oversight and accountability.

Should we not hold  neuro-products to the same standard? After all many of these companies claim their products directly affect the brain, just like psychoactive drugs. Whether they actually do or not is of course a matter of debate, and the hard data are generally lacking,

One could argue that the vast majority of, say, brain training products are relatively harmless, and that the worst potential outcome is that someone just wastes a lot of their time. This is probably true, and my purpose here is not to scare-monger about playing computer games (I’ll leave that to Baroness Greenfield). However other products do have a much greater potential for harm. The transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) device (which I’ve written about before here) certainly falls into that category. This product claims to directly stimulate the frontal lobes through the application of electrical currents to the brain. The FAQ section of the website contains this:

“Is FDA approved?
No. The focus gamer headset offers no medical benefits, is not a medical device, and is not regulated by the FDA.”

So, what is it then? Is it classed as a toy? Does that mean it doesn’t really do anything? I wonder how long it will be before some bright spark decides to make a quick buck and starts marketing tDCS devices like this for particular medical conditions? (ADHD would be a popular choice.) In that situation it would seem that the position that these aren’t medical devices would be much harder to maintain. Mark my words; some dead-eyed, marketing-droid with a sharp suit and a howling abyss for a soul is probably preparing some material for a product launch like this as I type these words.

The line between medical and non-medical treatments has always been pretty shady, and open to interpretation. Many nutritional supplements are marketed as having medical uses, and some may even actually be effective. It seems to me that the neuro-businesses who are seeking to commercialise brain-altering products are somewhat hoist by their own petard: Either they admit that their products are essentially ineffective (and therefore not in need of regulation), or they maintain their claims about ‘changing the brain’ and submit to a pharma-style regulatory oversight (with all the enormous hassle and expense that involves). At the moment, the technology is running ahead of what lugubrious legal systems can keep up with, but if the regulators do decide to start paying attention, the neuro-companies may be forced to (at the very least) undertake a radical overhaul of their business model. The business that can’t substantiate their claims and show that their product is safe will be forced to withdraw them from sale, and this can only be a good thing for consumers.

Hemispheric dominance and cell-phone usage – what the study really shows

left-right-brainSomewhat unusually, an article in a fairly obscure medical journal (Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery) has been getting some press lately. The press coverage (Science Daily News, USA Today, NY Daily News) makes extensive and wearying use of the dreadful old left/right brain neuromyth. It’s also been pretty popular with idiots on Twitter.

Yes, some functions are somewhat lateralised, and you can identify a dominant hemisphere for things like, handedness, language and auditory function, but unless they’ve had a radical hemispherectomy, you can’t describe some people as ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway… This new study claims to find a link between hemispheric dominance and cell phone usage, specifically, that right-handed people (who tend to be left-hemisphere dominant for functions like language and audition) tend to use their right ear for their cell phone. Left-handers (who vary more in their language dominance) more often used their left ear. They collected the data through an internet survey, so they basically just asked people whether they were right or left-handed and which ear they used for their cell phone.

So, the claim is that right-handers preferably use their right ear (and therefore their left hemisphere). Presumably using your right ear also means using your right handAnd they’re right-handed. See where I’m going here? This study essentially shows that right-handed people prefer to use their right hand for holding things and left-handed people prefer to use their left hand. This result could be nothing to do with hemisphere dominance at all, simply about handedness.

Stop talking about this study. It’s utterly crap and totally meaningless.

Brain stimulation hits the mainstream – commercial tDCS device available soon for $249

Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation is a technique that involves passing low-level electrical currents through parts of the brain. The effects of this are various, depending somewhat on the area being zapped, but it appears to change the baseline level of cortical excitability, and the effects can persist for several hours (or perhaps days) after a standard 20-minute session. People have been zapping themselves in the head pretty much since electricity was discovered, but tDCS in its modern form is a relatively new technique, and is thought to have potential for treating depression, stroke-recovery, and other clinical issues. It can also apparently lead to enhancements of normal functions (visual, motor, working memory, etc.) in healthy participants. The Guardian published an article this week on the effects of tDCS on maths ability, based on research which has been fairly widely criticised on Twitter.

This potential cognitive-enhancing effect is what’s caught the eye of a company called, who are now offering a commercial tDCS system, for use by anyone at home, for $249 (or £179 in the UK). Here it is:

The tDCS headset

The tDCS headset

So, it’s a small band with a battery at the back, and four electrodes at the front that sit over the forehead. are marketing this as a device for gamers to “Excite your prefrontal cortex and get the edge in online gaming.”

So – does it work? Possibly… But it almost certainly doesn’t do what the company says it does. For a start, if you want to “get the edge in online gaming” wouldn’t you want to stimulate your motor cortex (at the top of the head) and/or the visual cortex (at the back)? It’s unclear how stimulating the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) would give you an advantage in games. In fact, (as this article explains) placement of the electrodes over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is most often used for treatment of depression and chronic pain, so potentially these devices might have more of an effect on mood or emotions than any useful gaming-related functions. There is no information about effectiveness or effects on the  company website; the standard protocol of 1mA stimulation for five minutes is unlikely to do much beyond delivering a mild sensation on the scalp. The device can be configured to deliver up to 2mA (through a smartphone app), which may be enough to affect the brain.

Furthermore, there are important safety considerations for this kind of device. In fact, tDCS is such a recent technique that researchers are still in the process of working out what the safe limits actually are (in terms of both power delivered, and duration/frequency of stimulation). This article highlights the possibility that the electrodes can cause skin lesions, and tDCS can even potentially cause lesions in the brain  (admittedly in rats, and with currents a couple of orders of magnitude higher than used in humans). Still, potentially people could be using these systems repeatedly for long periods, and we have very little idea about what the effects of that might be.

If you’re still really intent on zapping your own brain to see if you can become an intellectual giant, or give yourself telekinetic powers or X-ray vision (hint: you won’t) then you could also build your own tDCS device using a 9V battery, some wire, a resistor and a couple of sponges, as described here. Total cost: about $5.


Passing electrical currents through the body can be fantastically dangerous. A (alternating) current as low as 10 MICRO-Amps can be enough to cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest, if passed directly across the heart,  current in the 10-20mA range causes severe muscular contractions, while 60-70 mA is usually fatal (source: Wikipedia).  Seriously, let’s leave passing electric currents through the body to the professionals, eh?

Many thanks to tDCS researcher Nick Davis for helpful discussions on Twitter related to this article.

Feminist-inspired neurobollocks from Daniel Amen

Not strictly relevant - I just like it.

Not strictly relevant – I just like it.

I’ve written before about Dr Daniel Amen, the owner of a network of private clinics which perform completely unnecessary brain scans using SPECT (a cheap alternative to PET that involves dosing people with gamma radiation) in order to make spurious diagnoses of everything from ADHD to ‘marital problems’. Unsurprisingly, Dr Amen is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post; the news source second only to the Daily Fail in its tendency towards rigour-phobic science coverage. A couple of articles he’s posted up there in the last few weeks have caught my eye because of their general dreadfulness, but also because of their particular dreadfulness about women.

The first one is titled ‘Is it time to let women take the wheel?’, in which Dr Amen argues that the world would be a better place if more women were in positions of power and influence. This is a pretty well-worn argument, and intuitively it seems like there might well be some value in it, but Dr Amen claims to have some new evidence:

“the inner CEO (the prefrontal cortex) of women is much more active than men. This area of the brain governs things like judgment, forethought, organization, planning, empathy, impulse control and learning from the mistakes you make. These are the very qualities needed to successfully manage a company, lead a nation, mediate crisis, and get people working together toward a common goal.”

little bit of a leap there, don’t you think Dr Amen? To my utter shock and amazement the data he’s talking about come from an unpublished analysis of data collected in his clinics.

A couple of weeks later, he’s at it again, jumping on the Lean in bandwagon with another piece: ‘Lean in, and why women’s brains are wired for leadership’:

“women are actually wired for success. The “CEO part of the brain” — the prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, organization, impulse control, and planning — is more active in women, suggesting that women are wired to hold positions of power and run the world.”

Both these articles are pretty transparent attempts to plug his new book Unleash the power of the female brainThe broad thrust of the articles (that we need more women in positions of influence, and that they have a lot to contribute in such positions) is unarguable, however suggesting women are ‘wired for success’ because of differences in cerebral blood flow is patently ridiculous, and a massive generalisation. Clearly some women make excellent leaders, and some do not (just like men).  It’s been known for some time that women’s brains do show somewhat higher blood flow than men’s, however the most likely explanation is that it simply reflects underlying gender differences in Cardiac Index (a body-size normalised measure of cardiac output), which is generally higher in women. In other words, the blood-flow differences in the brain might be a cardiac effect and have very little functional role at all.  There is a very interesting discussion to be had about sex differences in brain function and what they might mean, however the differences are generally fairly subtle and nuanced, and the chain of logic connecting them to (group, or population-level) behaviour is insubstantial.

Making bullshit claims about women based on dodgy science and cherry-picked brain data doesn’t advance the feminist cause one little bit. Furthermore, this approach completely ignores the very real and often highly disturbing social challenges that women face on a daily basis. ‘Neurofeminism‘ is apparently a thing now (haven’t read that book, can’t really comment), but these articles make no useful contribution to that discourse whatsoever.

Another mostly irrelevant, picture; just because I really fucking hate Twilight.

Another irrelevant, picture; just because I really fucking detest Twilight.

The SMART program promises to raise your IQ by 20-odd points

schoolforthegiftedA write-up in The (Irish) Sun yesterday (posted on Twitter by Simon Dymond)  has brought a site called Raise Your IQ to my attention. It’s a brain-training site that makes a startling claim; that their SMART (Strengthening Mental Abilities with Relational Training) program can raise IQ, by an average of 23 points.  Those are some pretty big words, right there.

The business is a spin-out company from the National University of Ireland, and was started by Bryan Roche and Sarah Cassidy, of the psychology department at NUI. Dr Roche is an expert in a fairly niche area of psychological inquiry known as Relational Frame Theory. RFT is a theoretical framework that seeks to extend the radical behaviourist ideas of BF Skinner to encompass and adequately explain  complex cognitive processes (language, abstract thought, etc.). Skinner himself was firmly of the opinion that cognitive processes are in fact aggregations of lower-level behavioural responses, and that things like our sense of free-will, and our awareness of our own phenomenal consciousness are entirely illusory (views he expressed in his classic book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, as well as in many more academic works). RFT is essentially a neo-Skinnerian approach which takes into account the accumulated evidence for complex (i.e. nominally non-associative) cognition.

As a theoretical approach RFT has some interest then, however Dr Roche has managed to add a practical twist and come up with something marketable, dubbed ‘relational training’. Essentially it’s a set of questions and tests that are based on relationships between different objects, words or categories. Some examples are below (pasted from The Sun article):

LEVEL 1: If a broad bean is a type of bean, is a bean a type of broad bean?

LEVEL 2: If an Alsatian is a type of dog, and a dog is a type of mammal, is an Alsatian a type of mammal? Is a mammal a type of Alsatian?

LEVEL 3: If yesterday I felt sad and today I feel happy, and if now was then and then was now, how did I feel then?

LEVEL 4: “Car” is the English word for the Swedish word “Bil”. “Car” is also the English word for the Italian word “auto”. “Coche” is the Spanish word for the Italian word “auto”. What is a Coche in Swedish?

Readers who were fortunate enough to have endured a Classical education will immediately recognise the broad form of these as a kind of logical puzzle known as a syllogism, the formal description of which dates back to at least Aristotle; plus ça change. Syllogistic reasoning is also a mainstay in various IQ-type tests.

So, what about these pretty radical claims of raising your IQ by 20 or even 30 points? Does it work? What’s the evidence? As usual I’m afraid, the answer is ‘scant, to non-existent’. A prominent page on the Raise Your IQ site is titled ‘Scientific Evidence’ and discusses in some detail this paper by Cassidy et al (2011; PDF), which does indeed show some impressive effects in two separate experiments. However, experiment one had only four participants in each group (training vs. control), and experiment two had only eight participants (with no control group). These are tiny samples and (as has been extensively discussed, very recently) small samples can lead to the ‘winner’s curse’; an inflation of the apparent effect size. The effects reported in this paper are very large indeed, but honestly, I’m surprised the reviewers didn’t flag up the fact that you just can’t do ANOVAs with four data points! It’s a massive violation of the assumptions of the central limit theorem. In addition, the control group in experiment one was an ‘inactive’ control i.e. one that received no training at all, rather than some kind of placebo training.

The rest of the papers listed on the Scientific Evidence page of the site appear to be fairly theoretical, or only tangentially related to the SMART program. The available evidence from the Cassidy et al. (2011) paper is wafer-thin, compared to the startlingly bold claims being made. One other thought that occurred to me is that because the form of the training is so similar to the form of some questions used on many IQ test, it might represent a form of training-to-the-test; practicing IQ tests makes you better at performing IQ tests – well, duh.

I find myself unable to completely condemn these guys though. Maybe I’m going soft, or maybe I’m just a sucker for some good old-school radical-behaviourism-based interventions. The program does have the (somewhat unusual) virtue of being based on a fairly coherent (if not widely-accepted) theoretical foundation. This doesn’t change the fact that the big claims it makes are wildly out of sync with the available evidence, and in this sense, it’s precisely the same as all the other brain-training neurobollocks-merchants out there fighting for a slice of the gullible consumers cash.



The inexorable rise of the neuropundit

2008-10-12-warning-in-case-of-terrorist-attack.pngNews stories about various aspects of brain research are incredibly commonplace nowadays, and one by-product of this is that the general public is increasingly familiar with brain-based explanations of behaviour. This is something of a mixed blessing, in that while it’s great that the public is thinking in these (nominally scientific) terms, it’s very easy to slip into a highly speculative, reductionist way of thinking of the “my brain made me do it” type.

Nowhere is this tendency more pernicious than when trying to come up with explanations for tragic, man-made events, such as the recent Boston marathon bomb, or the shootings in a primary school in Sandy Hook Connecticut (December, 2012). In the immediate aftermath of such events details are often scarce, and the rolling nature of modern 24-hour news coverage means that presenters are often scrambling to fill time with what little information is available. One easy way of filling air-time is to wheel on some kind of expert to pronounce their opinion on what’s just happened. The problem is that these pundits are generally just as much in the dark about the details as everyone else, so their supposedly expert opinions tend to be as wildly speculative as the rest of the coverage.

News and documentary programs have been using psychologists as pundits for ages, but recently a new breed of what I shall refer to as ‘neuropundits’ has made an appearance. These people generally claim some kind of expertise on the brain, and their speculation has a neurosciencey-sounding flavour. This focus on the brain of the perpetrators then carries on into the subsequent days and weeks of reportage and analysis that inevitably follow traumatic news-worthy events.

Want some egregious examples to laugh at? How could I not oblige… First up is an article on the Time Magazine website titled The Brain of a Bomber: Did Damage Caused By Boxing Play a Role in the Boston Bombings? Even though the article actually leans towards the answer being ‘no’, the title is incredibly leading. A similar tack is taken in an article on YNetNews here. Other sources have laid the blame at the door of ‘sibling psychology’ (whatever that is…). This Indian site leads with “Boston bombers influenced by sibling psychology, says study” and then proceeds to only mention a ‘report’ from Jeffrey Kluger (the author of the Time piece linked to above). Presumably the ‘report’ was therefore a news report, and they just made up the ‘study’ bit in the title. Meanwhile, PR Newswire came up with a pretty novel perspective (ooh, they must have been so pleased with this one…) and knitted together two of the most popular news stories of the last few weeks in a piece titled “Mapping the brain, a solution to the Boston bombing?” The author proposes that President Obama’s recently announced $100 million windfall for neuroscience will allow us to understand, well… everything, including the minds of terrorists. This article is full of utterly unreconstructed neurobollocks, but here’s a brief taste:

“We also have brain structures in charge of analysis, which, looking at our technological advancement, are clearly functioning quite well. However, since we are  globally lacking a correctly functioning error monitoring system, our analytical systems might sometimes work independently and on a false basis.”

This article actually turns out to have been written by someone pushing a bullshit self-help book, with the usual promises of wealth, happiness, boundless sexual fulfilment, etc. etc. yawn. Opportunistic, much?

Moving on to other recent atrocities, the Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza gets examined by the Telegraph with the typically interrogative headline “Studying Adam Lanza: is evil in our genes?” and reveals that some scientists at the University of Connecticut are already sequencing his DNA, although it’s not made very clear exactly why they thought this was a good idea. Fortunately the excellent Essi Viding was also on hand to pour some much-needed sense onto proceedings with the fantastic quote that it was all “a complete bloody waste of time”. By far the weirdest article I found claimed that Adam Lanza was suffering from mold toxicity and contains (amongst many others) this little gem: “The more toxins the brain accumulates, the higher the brain’s electrical voltage.” Riiiight.

Of course it’s natural to want to understand what motivates people to commit these horrendous acts of violence, and forensic psychologists have been beavering away at that problem for many years now. The problems with this kind of research are huge though: 1) Most mass murderers or spree killers tend to either shoot themselves or are killed by cops, which means they aren’t available to study, 2) Getting access to those that survive is incredibly difficult, 3) There just aren’t that many of them, which makes drawing general conclusions difficult. Propensity for this kind of behaviour is (fortunately) a very, very rare trait, and these people are clearly highly unusual; even if commonalities amongst spree killers could be found in upbringing, genetics, or whatever, it’s not clear exactly what that would mean, or how useful it would be in predicting or preventing future events. What is definitely certain, is that ill-informed neurobollocks-tinged speculation about their motivations or state of mind helps no-one, and generally only makes the pundit look foolish.


When I started writing this piece I was hoping to find some nice juicy examples of pundits talking neurobollocks about the Boston Marathon bomb (or another recent tragic incident). I seem to remember some being linked to at the time on Twitter, but can’t actually seem to find any now – can anyone help out? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll update this piece as appropriate. Thanks!