Tag Archives: DNA

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!


Tapping, or the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). What. The. Fuck.

OK, buckle up space-cadets, this is a weird one.  The Emotional Freedom Technique is a kind of psychotherapy, developed in the 90s, that draws on a variety of pseudoscientific bollocks, including accupressure, our old friend NLP, various kinds of laying-on-of-hands-type ‘energy’ therapies and a good dose of very confused neurobollocks.

Essentially, what happens in an EFT counselling session is that you discuss your problem, while stimulating the ‘end points of the body’s energy meridians’. This stimulation takes the form of tapping yourself; on the head, the face, wherever.

Here’s a demonstration video from this site. Forget the bullshit at the beginning and skip through from about 2 minutes in, where she starts literally hitting herself in the face:

She’s hitting herself in the face! What is she doing? If you saw someone doing this in the street you’d assume they were having some kind of psychotic episode.

There are lots of ‘tapping’ sites out there (like this one), but this one is by far the most egregious in terms of neurobollocks. Projecttapping.com appears to have some serious money behind it, and is chock-to-the-brim with teeth-grinding neurobollocks:

“According to Neuroscience, every memory you have is encoded in your brain with an emotional charge. This charge then creates a neural pathway to signal an appropriate physiological response every time you’re reminded of an experience relevant to that memory. For instance, you might start trembling every time you’re faced with the possibility of public speaking. Tapping helps you rewire these neural pathways, so you can eliminate both the subconscious and conscious fears that cause negative reactions in you. After just a few sessions you’ll already notice the difference: fears that once caused you to doubt yourself, reject wealth or avoid change will begin to melt away.”

Also, apologies for the extensive quotes, but this one is just too good not to share too:

Tapping positively modifies your DNA
A study conducted by the Heartmath Institute showed that when a study participant evoked strong positive emotions like love and appreciation through practices like Tapping, their DNA unwound and increased in length. Negative emotions, on the other hand, caused strands of their DNA to shorten and in some cases disappear. In other words, working with your emotions allows you to change your genetic make-up and your life.

There you have it folks, positive emotions unwind your DNA, negative ones make it disappear! There’s also a weird undercurrent on that site about money and wealth – apparently if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re ‘afraid’ of being wealthy and pushing money away. Riiiight.

There’s plenty of ridiculous stuff on the internet of course, so this is nothing too remarkable. What’s slightly weird about this particular site is that projecttapping.com is published by a company called Mindvalley, who describe themselves as ‘Pushing humanity forward through innovations in education and culture-hacking’. They seem to be a really weird blend of very up-to-date marketing and some really hackneyed new-age bullshit. The kind of company that California just seems to be so good at producing for some reason. Take a look at their ‘about’ page, if you have a chance. Have you ever seen a more self-satisfied bunch of touchy-feely hipster twats? Piss off with your bullshit ‘culture-hacking’ and ‘online meditation portals’. Do some real work.