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Monday, October 20, 2014

Neuroscience Blues: Does Math Really Cause Pain?

I read this article in National Geographic (NG) in which the author writes that doing math can cause pain:   I like NG magazine, but the article illustrates two problems with contemporary neuroscience: (1) its practitioners are confused about cause and effect and (2) they are drawing big conclusions from little evidence. These two problems are based on two larger problems: (1) neuroscientists do not really understand how the brain works as a whole, and (2) there's still no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes consciousness; there's no unifying theory upon which to base additional smaller theories.

Today's neuroscientists lack a complete map of the brain. They can look at parts and see what "lights-up" or "goes dark" under certain circumstances,* but far too many assumptions and spurious conclusions have been made based on these simplistic understandings of the metaphorical tides of the brain.

Articles like the one in NG seem great on the surface. They're simple and logical, but they are seriously flawed, and journalists such as Jeremy Berlin, the author of the article, seem to lack an understanding of neuroscience that would allow for a fair critique of the information from the original study.

Another problem with neuroscience is that it is an "interdisciplinary" field; this means that people from different professions and disciplines can study the nervous system. The field includes engineers, physics professors, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, computer scientists, chemists, psychiatrists, neurologists, and others ‑  anyone who "studies" the nervous system can call themselves a neuroscientist; it shouldn't be so easy, but it is. There is no professional license or certification needed to become a neuroscientist, and, there are no clear standards for research that can be enforced, no common code of ethics, no supervising organization. This lack of ethics and supervision allows the promotion of spurious scientific conclusions, like "turkey will make you tired," "time-outs can be traumatic," "math can cause pain," or "Oxytocin will cure autism."

So today, I've decided to call myself a neuroscientist. I'm not going to do any direct studies of the nervous system or human behavior, I'm just going to read about studies others have written and comment on them. I'm a blogger-neuroscientist, or a journalist of neuroscience ‑ "neuroscientist" for short. There's no one to stop me and there's no code of ethics to guide my behavior in this field. If Pepsi corporation offered to pay me to do a commercial claiming that the sugar in their sodas can work just as well as an anti-depressant, I just might do it. Other neuroscientists have done similar product promotions.

There are few agreed-upon standards for studying the brain, these standards are not always followed, and it is far too easy for neuroscientists to get their studies published. I think a good analogy for contemporary neuroscientists is that they are like 16th century explorers; early European explorers had ships and crews, but they had no grand map, no sense of the bigger picture. Like Henry the Navigator of Portugal, they set out to make a map of the world, and they made assumptions and came to conclusions about the world based on this information. Of course, making a map of coastlines and currents is much easier than mapping the human brain. To be sure, one human brain has as many stars as the Milky Way which connect into one-quadrillion synapses that would stretch 600 miles end-to-end. That's just the actual nerve cells - that doesn't include 100,000 miles of axons in the brain which connect these nerve cells. 

One of the most common fallacies in psychiatry is post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this."); because B happened after A, then A must be the cause. Another is a fallacy of associations ‑ A is associated with B, C is associated with A, therefore, B and C are the same (the Insula is associated with pain; touching your toe is associated with the Insula, therefore, touching your toe must be painful). However, cause and effect with regard to human thought, emotion, feeling, and behavior is much more complicated than that. But, like human consciousness, there is no macro-theory (or unifying theory) of human behavior either.

So, when you hear about the latest study from "neuroscience," take it with a grain of salt. You definitely should not avoid having your kid learn math or do math homework, and, by the way, turkey will not make you sleepy!

* That's not all they can observe but it is probably the basis for most of the spurious conclusions that are made.

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