Reports of Neuroscience Findings Do Not Always Match the Data

When the headline proclaims that “cells can read minds,” research shows that people are more inclined to believe the story if the article has an accompanying image of brain activity. Beckman Institute researcher Diane Beck, who studies the mechanisms underlying cognition, says that important aspects of neuroimaging research are getting lost in the translation between the scientific results and the media messages received by the public.  

When the headline proclaims that “cells can read minds,” research shows that people are more inclined to believe the story if the article has an accompanying image of brain activity. Beckman Institute researcher Diane Beck, who studies the mechanisms underlying cognition, says that important aspects of neuroimaging research are getting lost in the translation between the scientific results and the media messages received by the public.

Images of the brain and scientific language can be quite convincing when it comes to the public’s acceptance of neuroscience findings, one reason Beck says neuroscientists need to be careful when taking their work public. Beck is a neuroscience researcher who uses imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the brain.

Beck wrote recently in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science on media portrayals of brain imaging studies, and the all too frequent disconnect between the actual scientific findings and news reports about those findings.

In her abstract for the paper, Beck wrote that “Since the advent of human neuroimaging, and of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in particular, the popular press has shown an increasing interest in brain-related findings.” This interest, she writes, can be traced in part to the allure neuroimaging data offers because of “deceptively simply messages” as well as a “general, but sometimes misguided, confidence in biological data.”

Beck writes that people tend to place too much faith in “biological images” and often confuse findings about biological processes with innate behavior.

“The fact that a behavior has a correlate in the brain does not mean that behavior is innate or immutable; learned behaviors show up in the brain too,” she said.

Beck adds that other factors such as the photo-like quality of fMRI images contribute to the uncritical acceptance of the data.

“An fMRI image is not a photograph, even in the sense in which an X-ray image can be said to be a photograph,” Beck wrote of fMRI images, which she says are highly processed and depend critically on a comparison between conditions. “If a press article says that love activates the caudate nucleus, we should always ask ‘compared to what?’ To find that love activated the caudate nucleus the fMRI researcher had to compare love to something else.”

Since these details often don’t make it into a typical news article, the reasons for the disconnect between the science and the message become clearer.  

Beck argues that one solution for resolving this disconnect is for researchers to become more active in educating the public and the press on the scientific process and the dangers of overstating their findings.

“Those of us in science know that breakthroughs are actually very rare; that all results require interpretation; and that scientific knowledge is actually built up very slowly over time, with path corrections along the way,” she said. “It is not only our responsibility to educate the public, allowing for an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the brain and behavioral sciences, but we must also be mindful of the fact that the ‘dumbing down’ of science may diminish our impact and the perceived importance of science to society as a whole.”