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Brain Porn (Neuro Bunk)


Main Findings

People perceive articles with images of brains that summarizing cognitive neuroscience research more scientifically credible than articles with no images or images other than brains.

Video Introduction

Summary

The physical or "hard" sciences have long been perceived to be more credible than the "softer" sciences such as sociology and economics.  The hard sciences such as chemistry and biology, use far more visuals to explain data than the softer sciences; therefore, visuals have become associated with scientific credibility (Smith, Best, Alan, Archibald, & Roberson-Nay, 2002).

A related problem has to do with the media misinterpreting scientific research related to neuroscience and creating misleading headlines. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a fairly new and "sexy" technology that, while useful, tends to be oversold in terms of what it can tell us about the mind.  Combine a lack of understanding of neuroscience with some fancy color images of a brain, and you have a recipe for deception.

In experiment #1, 156 students read three brief articles related to neuroscience that contained some flaws in the scientific reasoning. Some articles had no image, some had a bar graph, and some had an image of a brain.  The students were then asked a few questions, one being if the scientific reasoning in the article made sense.  Did the answer differ based on the image?

In experiment #2, the researchers wanted to rule out the possibility that just any old complex, scientific-looking image would make people think the article was more scientifically credible than it really was, so based on similar criteria as experiment #1, they included a topographical map of brain activation, which is a does not look like a brain and is rarely seen in the media.  This time, 128 students were used.

Results

In experiment #1, the articles with the image of a brain were rated significantly more credible than either the articles with no image or with the bar graph.

In experiment #2, the articles with the image of a brain were given higher ratings than articles with the topographical map suggesting that it is not just visual complexity that is associated with credibility, but it has to do with the increasingly "iconic" image of the brain with areas lit up.

Including images of brains in articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image.

Criticisms

Undergrads were used for this study from ages 18–25.  Is it possible that undergrads are simply more susceptible to these images than graduate students or professionals?  The general public is probably more like undergrads than scientists who are familiar with research results, therefore, the fact that undergrads were used should not matter too much.

Applied Ideas

Many people make major life changes based on the media's reports of scientific findings.  While some of these changes can be harmless, others might not be.  Don't be fooled by fancy images of brains—about the only thing they prove is that color images exist.

More Video

Other Details

  • Year: 2008
  • Researcher(s): David P. McCabea and Alan D. Castel
  • Reference(s):
    McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107(1), 343–352. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2007.07.017
    Smith, L. D., Best, L. A., Alan, D., Archibald, A. B., & Roberson-Nay, R. (2002). Constructing knowledge: The role of graphs and tables in hard and soft psychology. American Psychologist, 57(10), 749–761. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.10.749



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