Brain scans give us a whole new way of explaining how and why we do the things we do. But while brain scans can help scientists understand how the person inside the scanner thinks, they also make those of us outside the scanner a little bit less savvy.
Deena Weisberg, a postdoc at Yale, recently published a study in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showing that people swallow poor explanations more readily when the claim is preceded by “Brains scans indicate …” and sprinkled with neuroscience words like “frontal lobe circuitry.” When we read those words—us non-experts, at least—our normal critical thinking instincts get pushed aside. And the neuroscience information doesn’t even need to be relevant to have this effect. According to the study,
“Adding irrelevant neuroscience information thus somehow impairs people’s baseline ability to make judgments about explanations.”
So be on the lookout. The news these days is flooded with studies that scan people’s brain while they spend money, or tell lies, or think about loved ones. And it's hard not to feel like we can actually “see” people thinking. But it's important to keep in mind that these studies often have small sample sizes and are easily misinterpreted.
So we here at Radiolab promise to keep our crap-detectors working full time when we look for explanations about human behavior. But in the meantime, maybe scientists could put someone in a brain scanner while they are reading the words “brain scans indicate …”