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Brain technology is sexy without neuro-bunk pseudoscience


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In one line: Technically-grounded, iterative work makes progress in the long run. Projects can be good enough to attract support and excitement without making inflated claims.

Why this matters: While talking with people about some potential product ideas (“an adaptive learning software with neurofeedback”, “a media platform that translates your brain waves into visual art”), I find my words teetering on the verge of sounding like the language of neurobunk:

“makes you smarter”
“makes you more creative”
“reads your mind”
“understands what you’re thinking”
“does MAGIC with BRAIN”

I really, really want these things to exist. It feels fun just to say them. But if we look at the actual technology, we can’t claim that it is so straightforward, or reliable, or has such pronounced effects. At least not yet. The technology is still young. Listen to your bullshit meter.

I believe we can actually make progress on down-to-earth technological objectives that target precise sub-areas of cognition. And that is the way for a cognitive technology group to make a tangible impact.

The following claims are specific, true and still really awesome:

– [A substrate] improves some aspects of working memory, such as digit span, digit manipulation and pattern recognition memory, but the results related to spatial memory, executive function and attention are equivocal. 1

– Fluid intelligence can be increased by physical activity, playing a musical instrument, making art, improving motor skills, meditation, daydreaming, getting a good night’s sleep. 2

– Neurofeedback training has equal or stronger effects at treating ADHD than ritalin or other drugs, for some patients. 3

– “EEG signals can be used to drive a quadracopter.” 4

Let’s examine some case studies of neuro-bunk:

– Groups that do real awesome work creating scientifically-validated cognitive technology.
– Groups that dabble in science-related fields, who attract media attention through inflated stories and feel-good nonsense.

TMS

TMS increases the excitability of neurons, enabling some subjects to complete cognitive tasks faster.

Hype article
Allan Snyder wants to make a ‘creativity cap’ that gives anyone savant-like abilities.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1064431/The-thinking-cap-unlock-inner-genius-boost-creativity.html

Claims to silver-bullet ‘cure-all’ cognitive enhancers like a creativity cap are a strong warning sign for BS.
http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2011/feb/16/thinking-caps-pseudoscience-neuroscience

But holy cow, TMS is still actually a safe, proven way to improve mood and cure depression in some patients. Hooray!
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/new-approach-to-depression/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Brain Training

Hype
“Luminosity brain training is a simple online tool to allow anyone to achieve their full potential”
http://www.lumosity.com/about

“How to add 2.75 IQ points per hour of training”
http://www.bulletproofexec.com/how-to-add-2-75-iq-points-per-hour-of-training/

Those just sounds silly
Brain training exercises make people better at solving specific games that test working memory, but unfortunately do not translate to other tests of general intelligence.

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/brain-training-may-boost-working-memory-but-not-intelligence.html
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/do-brain-workouts-work-science-isnt-sure/?hpw&rref=science
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_memory_training#Renewed_claims_for_improving_working_memory

Conclusion: We want to develop tools that are so good that they speak for themselves, without relying on inflated soundbites to attract attention.

The community we attract will be more scientific and rational – the types who are also the most likely to support our projects or partner with us.


 

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