an interview with Sally Satel


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.

book: Sally Satel on the limits of brain imaging


Brain­washed: The Seduc­tive Appeal of Mind­less Neu­ro­science by Sally Satel

excerpt from book:

Brain scan images are not what they seem…or at least not how the media often depict them. Nor are brain-​scan images what they seem. They are not pho­tographs of the brain in action in real time. Sci­en­tists can’t just look “in” the brain and see what it does. Those beau­ti­ful color-​dappled images are actu­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tions of par­tic­u­lar areas in the brain that are work­ing the hard­est— as mea­sured by increased oxy­gen con­sump­tion— when a sub­ject per­forms a task such as read­ing a pas­sage or react­ing to a stim­uli, such as pic­tures of faces. The pow­er­ful com­puter located within the scan­ning machine trans­forms changes in oxy­gen lev­els into the famil­iar candy-​colored splotches indi­cat­ing the brain regions that become espe­cially active dur­ing the subject’s per­for­mance. Despite well-​informed infer­ences, the great­est chal­lenge of imag­ing is that it is very dif­fi­cult for sci­en­tists to look at a fiery spot on a brain scan and con­clude with cer­tainty what is going on in the mind of a person.

study: exercise boosts cognition

How Exer­cise May Boost the Brain by Gretchen Reynolds at The New York Times

Two new exper­i­ments, one involv­ing peo­ple and the other ani­mals, sug­gest that reg­u­lar exer­cise can sub­stan­tially improve mem­ory, although dif­fer­ent types of exer­cise seem to affect the brain quite dif­fer­ently. The news may offer con­so­la­tion for the grow­ing num­bers of us who are enter­ing age groups most at risk for cog­ni­tive decline…

… for the most robust brain health, it’s prob­a­bly advis­able to incor­po­rate both aer­o­bic and resis­tance train­ing. It seems that each type of exer­cise “selec­tively tar­gets dif­fer­ent aspects of cog­ni­tion,” she says, prob­a­bly by spark­ing the release of dif­fer­ent pro­teins in the body and brain.

But, she con­tin­ues, no need to worry if you choose to con­cen­trate solely on aer­o­bic or resis­tance train­ing, at least in terms of mem­ory improve­ments. The dif­fer­ences in the effects of each type of exer­cise were sub­tle, she says, while the effects of exer­cise — any exer­cise — on over­all cog­ni­tive func­tion were profound.

When we started these exper­i­ments,” she says, “most of us thought that, at best, we’d see less decline” in mem­ory func­tion among the vol­un­teers who exer­cised, which still would have rep­re­sented suc­cess. But beyond merely stem­ming people’s mem­ory loss, she says, “we saw actual improve­ments,” an out­come that, if you’re waf­fling about exer­cis­ing today, is worth remembering.

resources: BrainFacts

New Web­site: Brain­Facts dot org

…, offers a new way for peo­ple of all ages to learn more about how the brain works, how it dri­ves thought and behav­ior, and its role in brain dis­eases and dis­or­ders., a pub­lic infor­ma­tion ini­tia­tive of The Kavli Foun­da­tion, the Gatsby Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion, and the Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science (SfN), fea­tures nearly 1,000 acces­si­ble, sci­en­tif­i­cally reviewed resources about the brain and mind. The Gatsby and Kavli Foun­da­tions gen­er­ously donated a total of $1.53 mil­lion over six years to build and sus­tain

Brain research is a sci­en­tific field rich with excit­ing dis­cov­er­ies, pro­found unknowns, and crit­i­cal impli­ca­tions for indi­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies, and soci­ety,” said SfN Pres­i­dent Moses Chao, PhD. “ plays a vital role by shar­ing the excite­ment and impor­tance of neu­ro­science dis­cov­ery in ways every­one can under­stand. We are grate­ful to The Kavli Foun­da­tion and the Gatsby Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion for their gen­eros­ity and part­ner­ship on this impor­tant effort that is at the heart of SfN’s mis­sion,” Chao said.

At, vis­i­tors can nav­i­gate user-​friendly topic cen­ters that include sci­ence arti­cles, mul­ti­me­dia, research dis­cus­sions, learn­ing tools, and more. Par­ents and teens can explore how the brain devel­ops and fac­tors influ­enc­ing that devel­op­ment; fam­ily mem­bers can dis­cover more about under­ly­ing causes of dis­eases and dis­or­ders affect­ing loved ones; and pol­i­cy­mak­ers and con­cerned cit­i­zens can learn more about the scope of neu­ro­science research world­wide. Emerg­ing tools and tech­nolo­gies, as well as decision-​making about the respon­si­ble use of ani­mals in research, are also explored. Social media resources engage the pub­lic and, as the site devel­ops, blogs for inter­ac­tive dis­cus­sion with the pub­lic and other fea­tures will be added.

ani­mated gif of Axons form­ing a glomeru­lus in a mouse olfac­tory bulb by Steve Pot­ter at the Neu­ro­science Gallery

brain. neurons. longevity.


neu­rons could out­live the bod­ies that con­tain them by ed yong

Most of your body is younger than you are. The cells on the top­most layer of your skin are around two weeks old, and soon to die. Your old­est red blood cells are around four months old. Your liver’s cells will live for around 10 to 17 months old before being replaced. All across your organs, cells are being pro­duced and destroyed. They have an expiry date.

In your brain, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. New neu­rons are made in just two parts of the brain — the hip­pocam­pus, involved in mem­ory and nav­i­ga­tion, and the olfac­tory bulb, involved in smell (and even then only until 18 months of age). Aside from that, your neu­rons are as old as you are and will last you for the rest of your life. They don’t divide, and there’s no turnover.

But do neu­rons have a max­i­mum lifes­pan, just like skin, blood or liver cells? Yes, obvi­ously, they die when you die, but what if you kept on liv­ing? That’s not a far-​fetched ques­tion at a time when med­ical and tech­no­log­i­cal advances promise to pro­long our lives well past their usual bound­aries. Would we reach a point when our neu­rons give up before our bod­ies do?

neuroscience. brain. brain mapping.

accord­ing to spike activ­ity at mind­hacks, the human brain project

…sells itself as aim­ing to “sim­u­late a com­plete human brain in a super­com­puter” but this is clearly bollocks.

It’s inter­est­ing that this claim makes the press kit and the flashy video but the actual report (pdf) has much more sober claims about ‘sim­u­lat­ing brain dynam­ics’ and the like.

But it’s impor­tant to realise that while their big sell is non­sense, the project is likely to gen­uinely rev­o­lu­tionise neu­ro­science in a way that could push the field light years ahead.

What Markram has realised is that the sin­gle biggest bar­rier to progress in neu­ro­science is the co-​ordination, shar­ing and inte­gra­tion of data.

Essen­tially, it’s a prob­lem of infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture but quite frankly, you can’t sell that to politi­cians and they can’t sell it to the pub­lic. Hence the ‘sim­u­lat­ing a com­plete human brain’ fluff.

What the project aims to do is co-​ordinate neu­ro­science teams look­ing at neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy, cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science and com­pu­ta­tional mod­el­ling and give them the tools to eas­ily share data with each other.

One of the big pay-​offs will gen­uinely be the cre­ation of bio­log­i­cally fea­si­ble com­puter sim­u­la­tions of neural net­works with the hope that these can be used for prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions like vir­tual drug test­ing and computer-​based experiments.

Markram has gained valu­able expe­ri­ence of mesh­ing heavy-​duty com­put­ing with work­ing lab teams and has recruited some of the world’s lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tists to the project.

Although the spin seems over-​the-​top sci­en­tif­i­cally this is an impor­tant project that, if suc­cess­ful, could be a sci­en­tific landmark.

brain. preservation. identity. immortality.


paint­ing by joe dragt

upon thy glim­mer­ing thresholds

I have been read­ing about the Brain Preser­va­tion Foun­da­tion (BPF), which hopes that chem­i­cal and other meth­ods, includ­ing a refined ver­sion of plas­ti­na­tion, will enable brains to be pre­served with such fidelity that mem­o­ries, per­son­al­ity, and even iden­tity can be preserved.

This may well seem rem­i­nis­cent of the older cryo­genic preser­va­tion projects which have not always had a good press over recent years, though they still con­tinue to oper­ate and indeed have refined their processes some­what. But although the BPF also has a vision of bring­ing peo­ple back to life after their nat­ural death, it is in many ways a dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish. It does not itself offer any kind of ser­vice but merely seeks to pro­mote research, and it does not expect to see a prac­ti­cal sys­tem for many years. In addi­tion, it makes its case and addresses objec­tions in a com­mend­ably clear and thought­ful way – see for exam­ple this blog post by John M Smart, co-​founder of the BPF. Per­haps this is partly also to do with its impres­sive panel of advi­sors, which includes such names as Chalmers, Seung, and Eagle­man, to men­tion only a few.

I have some reser­va­tions about the project, which fall into sev­eral cat­e­gories; there are gen­eral con­cerns about the prac­ti­cal­ity of preser­va­tion, doubts about per­sonal iden­tity, and doubts about the claimed social value of let­ting peo­ple have a pro­longed or renewed life; but there are pos­i­tive fac­tors, too.

bad neuroscience. brain. evil patch.

evil patch in the brain
from the neu­r­o­critic

the ‘evil patch’ in the brain’s cen­tral lobe

from a story in the daily mail:

A Ger­man neu­rol­o­gist claims to have found the area of the brain where evil lurks in killers, rapists and robbers.

Bre­men sci­en­tist Dr Ger­hard Roth says the ‘evil patch’ lies in the brain’s cen­tral lobe and shows up as a dark mass on X-​rays.

He added: ‘When you look at the brain scans of hard­ened crim­i­nals, there are almost always severe short­com­ings in the lower fore­head part of the brain.

’Or there are phys­i­o­log­i­cal deficits, because cer­tain sub­stances such as sero­tonin in the fore­brain are not work­ing effectively.

But this is def­i­nitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.

the neu­r­o­critic replies:

…in real­ity, this is one of the most ridicu­lous news sto­ries about the brain to come along in quite a while. Clearly, The Daily Mail did not get the memo on the back­lash against Brain Porn and Neu­robol­locks in the pop­u­lar press.

There is no such thing as the ‘cen­tral lobe’, and ‘the lower fore­head part of the brain’ is not a descrip­tive anatom­i­cal term. The ‘dark patch’ is clearly some sort of arti­fact, along with the black diag­o­nal bar com­ing out of the skull. This is truly a laugh­able attempt at sci­ence jour­nal­ism, and rather dam­ag­ing to Dr. Roth’s rep­u­ta­tion (although that’s his own fault).