Q&A: Sally Satel, psychiatrist, on the flaws of brain research by Christie Nicholson at smartplanet
below is an excerpt from this interview
SmartPlanet: Frito-Lay commissioned a study of women’s brains as they looked at their chip bags. Apparently the brain scans showed that the anterior cingulate cortex lit up, an area often associated with feelings of guilt. Researchers concluded that women felt guilty when looking at the shiny bags containing high-calorie snacks. So the company switched to matte bags in the hopes of relieving negative emotions associated with their brand. What is wrong with this strategy?
Sally Satel: Well first there’s no guilt center in the brain. So inferring that the anterior cingulate cortex is telling you that you feel guilty is a leap.
This is one of the big issues with fMRI interpretations.
Right. One of the bigger problems with naive interpretation is something called the reverse inference problem. And what that means is — as they did in that Frito-Lay study –- [researchers] look at a part of a brain that is differentially activated during a task, and the “task” is often having the person look at an image, listen to a sound, or be presented with a problem [to think through].
Of course you’re going to see more activity in certain areas of the brain than in other areas. But looking at the brain scan image and working backwards from that to what a person is thinking is very fraught.
For this reason: Various regions in the brain play a role in mediating many different kinds of subjective emotional states.
Could you unpack that statement a bit?
For example, the anterior cingulate is frequently cited as important in the processing of error detection or conflict. But that’s not quite the same as guilt. That’s one issue.
Another region of the brain that is frequently cited is the amygdala. It is most famous for being a fairly primitive area involved in the processing of fear. And that’s true, but it’s also relevant to the processing of novelty, surprise, anger and happiness. So, to just basically pick the emotion that suits your purpose is a problem. In the Frito-Lay case, I’m sure they imagined that women feel guilty when they eat high-fattening foods; so that was consistent with the narrative that the advertisers had imagined.