Category Archives: Commentary

Paging Susan Greenfield: South Korea has made up a new problem – ‘Digital Dementia’

my-brain-hurtsA slew of bullshit news pieces has hit the interwebz in the last couple of days, driven by a couple of articles in the usual rigour-phobic press sources. They focus on a South Korean report which claims to identify a syndrome known as ‘Digital Dementia’ in some young people. This syndrome, it’s claimed, is characterised by a deterioration in cognitive abilities brought about by over-use of digital devices.

The Telegraph reports on it here, the Daily Fail here, and Fox News have a video report here.

The fact that ‘Digital Dementia’ seems to be a condition that’s just been made-up for the purposes of the report, and no-one actually seems able to describe what it is in any precise terms doesn’t dim the enthusiasm of these news sources at all, naturally.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a widely-circulated quote from Dr Byun Gi-won, (of the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul), goes:

“Over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain. Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped,”

Players of Neurobollocks-bingo can put a big cross on the ‘Left/Right brain neuromyth’ section of their score-card, then.

I can’t find any further mention on the internet of a) Dr Byun Gi-Won, b) this Balance Brain centre in Seoul, or c) the actual report that these news stories are based on. I might be missing something, so if any readers do manage to track down any information related to any of those things, please let me know in the comments. In the meantime, just file this one under ‘bullshit irresponsible scaremongering, with a laughably transparent veneer of made-up neuroscience’ and move on.

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Further thoughts on EFT – Tapping as a safety behaviour?

CBT_Anxiety_TreatmentI’ve written before about the Emotional Freedom Technique and Tapping; a pretty ridiculous-looking form of therapy that involves tapping oneself on the face and body in order to stimulate the end-points of ‘energy meridians’. It’s clear that this is essentially bogus, for the blank and uncontroversial reason that such energy meridians in the body simply don’t exist.

However, it’s possible that people derive some benefit from tapping/EFT, even though the mechanism behind it is bunk. The internet is awash with people who claim to have had extremely positive experiences with all kinds of things, including reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture, any of the various kinds of energy healing, and a whole host of other new-age touchy-feely alternative-medicine approaches; all of which have been determined to be basically ineffective in controlled trials. The positive experiences that people have with these things can be fairly safely attributed to some combination of the placebo effect and regression-to-the-mean. Most likely the same is true for those who derive some benefit from EFT/tapping.

So far, so uncontroversial. In this view, tapping is basically harmless and the only people suffering from it are people who willingly pay money for bogus therapies. However, I want to make an alternative suggestion; in people who tap for issues related to anxiety, tapping might actually be harmful, because it might come to be a safety behaviour.

Safety behaviours are well-studied characteristics of anxiety disorders, and the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) literature has many examples. This article explains them pretty well, but briefly, a safety behaviour is something that prevents engagement and exposure to the anxiety-provoking stimulus. For example, imagine someone who experiences panic attacks on trains, but  needs to take a train on their daily commute to work. One way of coping with this issue would be to simply get off the train at the next stop when the anxiety started to increase. A good CBT therapist doing exposure-therapy with this patient would instead recommend that they remain on the train and cope with their anxiety in other ways; this exposure to the feared situation, and the experience of being there and not having a panic attack (or having one, but then feeling the anxiety gradually decrease again) is the cornerstone of exposure therapy, and a very powerful weapon in the CBT therapists arsenal. In short then, safety behaviours are unhelpful in that they prevent exposure to the feared situation; they’re seductive, in that they reduce anxiety in the short term (by getting off the train, the situation is resolved and the panic attack doesn’t happen) but maintain, and perhaps even strengthen the association between a feared-situation and anxiety in the long-term. Some patients require many hours of therapy and exercises in order to reduce their safety behaviours, and this is generally a helpful process.

Tapping appears to be used a lot for anxiety relief, as this video (and many other videos/sites) suggests. My thought about tapping for anxiety then is, what if tapping becomes a safety behaviour? Tapping in an anxiety-provoking situation might serve to reduce the anxiety just because of simple distractibility. In fact it may be the spoken or sub-vocalised ‘scripts’ that accompany tapping that are more effective; something recognised by many previous authors. Unfortunately, this might have the effect of preventing the full exposure to a feared situation that is necessary to  learn that the fear will eventually reduce, and that the situation can be coped with. Just as for other safety behaviours, tapping might well be beneficial and highly reinforcing in the short-term (i.e. it reduces the anxiety) but harmful in the longer term. Some safety behaviours can be highly dysfunctional and, once entrenched, very difficult to eliminate.

Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience

leadership

Happening right now (19th-21st of June) in Sydney is the 2013 Asia-Pacific Neuroleadership Summit, organised by the Neuroleadership Institute. There are two other summits happening this year, one in London and another in Washington, and the summits have been running annually since 2007. Neuroleadership appears to be a ‘thing’ then, but what is it exactly? The term was apparently first coined by David Rock in this 2006 article in the magazine ‘Strategy+Business’. According to the front page of the institute’s website, neuroleadership is:

“Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study connecting neuroscientific knowledge with the fields of leadership development, management training, change management, consulting and coaching.”

Sounds fairly reasonable. Unfortunately, the amount of genuine applied neuroscience involved appears to be very little, and in fact the focus appears to be more on fairly standard psychology concepts that have been knocking around for years, if not decades. The program for the summit focuses on concepts like cognitive biases, social psychology, stress management, ‘wisdom’, and managing performance. These all strike me as being psychological phenomena, and very amenable to investigation and explanation at a psychological, rather than neuroscientific, level. And in fact, organisational and business psychologists have been doing that for some time. Reading through more detailed highlights of last year’s (2012) summit also reveals little mention of neuroscience, and lots more fairly standard applications of psychological concepts.

I’ve been pretty much unable to find any genuine pieces of research related to neuroleadership either; a Google Scholar search on ‘neuroleadership’ turns up lots of opinion-type pieces, but nothing of any real substance.

There are some serious neuroscientists involved with the neuroleadership institute. One of them is Matt Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, and, by any reasonable measure, an outstanding scientist. I was genuinely a big fan of Matt’s work during my PhD and while my changing research interests mean I haven’t followed his more recent work as closely, I have a great deal of respect for him. Interestingly, I found a draft of a paper by Matt (and Naomi Eisenberger, another faculty member at UCLA) which you can view here (PDF). The paper discusses business scenarios from the point of view of social cognitive neuroscience, but again, the (very simplified) neuroscience in the paper seems to be more of an adjunct, or add-on to the main message, which is that attention needs to be paid to the social and emotional needs of workers, in order to maximise their performance and job satisfaction. This doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking, and makes me wonder what precisely neuroscience is adding to the issue. Prof. Lieberman’s due to speak at all three neuroleadership summits this year, and is on the advisory board of the institute. Maybe he just likes some free trips around the world every year.*

If one was feeling magnanimous, the field of neuroleadership could be described as an emerging discipline with lofty ambitions, but one that has yet to really define its remit and fully understand its limitations. A more cynical evaluator could characterise it as a gosh-darn whizzo wheeze to re-package some tired old concepts from 1980s organisational psychology textbooks and make them all shiny and new by sticking ‘neuro’ on the front and having lots of pictures of CGI brains in your presentations. Regular readers will know that a surfeit of magnanimity is not something I tend to suffer from.

It’s hard to get too splenetic about neuroleadership. It may be bullshit, but it’s not clinics ripping off parents with therapies that don’t work or people doing unnecessary SPECT scans on kids. Ultimately, it’s one set of business people selling some bollocks to another set; all they’re really doing is wasting their own time and effort.

*And honestly, who can blame him? Academic life has few enough perks. Seriously; good luck to him.

Prism Brain Mapping

286-1Prism Brain Mapping is an online assessment package that promises… Well… it promises all kind of things, from “Enhanced selling skills” to “Developing female leaders” to 360 degree assessments”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. It appears to be a pretty big deal, with practitioners all around the world and a certification program for new ‘practitioners’.

So, what is it? It’s basically a re-packaging of some old psychometric tests with a neuroscience-y sounding spin. Or in their words:

“It represents a simple, yet comprehensive, synthesis of research by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists into how the human brain works, and why people, who have similar backgrounds, intelligence, experience, skills, and knowledge, behave in very different ways. The instrument’s graphical representation of the human brain serves, not only to remind people of its biological basis, but also to help demonstrate the equally valuable merits of specific cerebral modes.”

The central idea seems to be to divide the brain up into four colour-coded segments, like so:

brainhemispheres

…and then produce a matching colour-coded report that divides the responses up into several behavioural domains:

prism_report

Quite what those four domains have to do with the colour-coded segments of the brain is never really made clear. Of course, this is just another version of the hoary old left/right brain neuromyth. Needless to say, it also has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘brain mapping’ in any even vaguely-meaningful sense.

Prism also provides an exhaustive 42-page ‘Professional report’ (sample version here) that incorporates all kinds of psychometric-type measures, including emotional intelligence, the ‘Big Five‘ personality traits, and ‘Mental toughness’ as well as their custom (i.e. made-up) colour-coded profiles. The whole site is awash with neurobollocks, particularly their “Science behind Prism” page which basically waffles ‘Because: BRAINS!’ for 1500 words.

I got curious about who was behind this. The ideas behind it are utter drivel, but the implementation is actually fairly sophisticated, and they’ve certainly done their homework on the brain stuff. There are no names at all on the site, and that only made me even more curious; however, one of their promotional leaflets mentions something called the Center for Applied Neuroscience. A quick whois look-up on that domain reveals it was registered by someone called Charles De Garston who (from his LinkedIn profile) is the owner of another business named Team Dynamics International. Also heavily involved in Prism is Lisa De Garston, who runs a Prism-related group on LinkedIn.  Neither of these two seem to have any (higher) academic qualifications at all, let alone any in neuroscience or psychology. The only other name I can identify who’s involved is Andrew Sillitoe, who runs a coaching/leadership/consultancy/pointing-out-the-bleedin’-obvious business called Managing the Mist.

So, a good example of an apparently successful business built on a slippery foundation of the most reekingly odious  effluent. I’m pretty much in awe of their audacity to be honest; they’ve spent a great deal of time researching this stuff and coming up with something that’s just plausible enough for an uninformed audience to swallow, and their implementation is highly professional and very slick. I almost feel like cheering them on, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d get about as much insight into ‘brain mapping’ from holding an actual glass prism up to your ear than from doing these online psychometric tests.

Prism Brain Mapping was previously the subject of a brief post by NeuroSkeptic, which is (of course) worth a read. Also, many thanks to Amy Brann who brought it to my attention on Twitter.

How to develop and market your neuro-product

Billion_Dollar_Brain_poster

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 foc.us 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?

brain-pharma-happy-pills

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

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 foc.us 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 foc.us website contains this:

“Is foc.us 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.

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.