Robert Newman’s comedy routine in The Brain Show criticises research studies that he has encountered in popular science books about the brain and found wanting. He counters their arguments with a mixture of more robust science, appeals to common sense, and humour. The examples of “neurobabble” he uses in the show are not difficult to demolish, which means he does not have to get into scientific technicalities but can make his point before turning into a joke.
Neuroscience continues to be one of the areas of science most likely to be used and abused by people with something to sell, from self-help books to educational tools. It is often presented in a reductive way - “this part of your brain lights up when you're in love”. Newman’s debunking of specific studies challenges such a simplistic understanding of contemporary neuroscience. By deploying ‘common sense’ arguments, or returning to the 19th-century theories of Charles Darwin, however, he risks giving the impression that modern neuroscience is all on a par with the worst examples he can find.
Using brain imaging to ‘see’ what is going on in our heads is still a relatively young research discipline. While pioneering, it can also be speculative and open to criticism as researchers develop, challenge and hone their techniques. Debates around the application and interpretation of such studies have been going on - and increasing - within the field for many years.
The Brain Show encourages its audiences not to take at face value the claims made by and on behalf of neuroscientists. Those who are inspired not to dismiss neuroscience but to engage with it may also discover more of the best examples of the field, whether it's the growing use of brain imaging as a diagnostic tool or work informing and extending our knowledge of the anatomy of the brain. (MR)
The Brain Show is at 19:15 at Summerhall's Main Hall until the 28th August (not 15th) http://festival16.summerhall.co.uk/event/robert-newman-the-brain-show/
This recent Nature video discusses how brain maps are made, including a new one compiled using MRI data: http://www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/brain-map/index.html
PET imaging is being used to visualise amyloid plaques, a sign of Alzheimer's disease: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160524124241.htm
Quartz reports on flaws associated with functional MRI research in particular: http://qz.com/725746/a-deep-flaw-has-been-discovered-in-thousands-of-neuroscience-studies-so-why-arent-neuroscientists-freaking-out/
An older piece by Guy Kahane discusses the philosophical challenges brain imaging presents: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2011/01/neurotrash-and-neurobabble/
This 2012 article in Nature set out issues around ‘blobology’ in MRI studies, and how researchers are making progress: http://www.nature.com/news/brain-imaging-fmri-2-0-1.10365
Debunking “neuromyths” in education: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/feb/24/four-neuromyths-still-prevalent-in-schools-debunked