Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Make SF More Believable with Neuroscience

FRAISER: Well, your brain chemistry's been seriously compromised. All of you have abnormally low levels of serotonin.

O'NEILL: Which means…?

FRAISER: It's a neurotransmitter that effects moods. Now, low levels would account for depression, but not these other effects. Come here. I want you to take a look at this.

[Fraiser leads them to a computer. On screen is a model of a human brain. She points, outlining an area with her finger.]

FRAISER: This dark spot here appears on all of your scans. Now, it's almost too small an anomaly to worry about but for the fact that it's in virtually the same part of the cortex—

~ Stargate SG-1, "Fire and Water"
Last week Ben Goldacre wrote in his Bad Science blog (and his column for The Guardian) about the Brain Gym, a UK school program that some teachers love despite the pseudoscientific explanations for its various exercises. He points to one possible explanation: a report in the March 2008 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that shows that people are more likely to believe explanations that include neuroscience technical terms.

The subjects were from three groups: everyday people, neuroscience students, and neuroscience academics. All three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones, but the subjects in the two non-expert groups judged that the explanations with logically irrelevant neurosciencey information were more satisfying than the explanations without. What’s more, the bogus neuroscience information had a particularly strong effect on peoples’ judgments of bad explanations. As quacks are well aware, adding scientific-sounding but conceptually uninformative information makes it harder to spot a dodgy explanation.

An interesting question is why. The very presence of neuroscience information might be seen as a surrogate marker of a good explanation, regardless of what is actually said. As the researchers say, “something about seeing neuroscience information may encourage people to believe they have received a scientific explanation when they have not.”

So, if you are writing a story and need to create a plausible explanation for your characters' behavior, try a little neuroscience!

Read a preprint of the original article: Weisberg DS et al. "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations", J. Cogn. Neurosci., 20: 470-477 (2008) (pdf). If you have access to the online version of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, you can read the article here.

Image: Depiction of eddy current brain stimulation, from the work of Eric Wasserman an the Brain Stimulation Unit at NINDS
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