As many a former smoker will probably attest, quitting cigarettes ranks high in the hard-to-kick category. I made several unsuccessful attempts before finally kicking the habit after a 10 year pack-a-day run. Ultimately what worked for me was to go cold turkey, but there were perhaps other alternatives which I might have tried. In a paper from Nature Neuroscience, researchers from University of Michigan provided participants with interventions involving individually tailored messages* designed to encourage quitting and found that participants’ brain activity while listening to the messages predicted how likely they would be to successfully quit smoking.
*Tailored messages are statements about an individuals’ issues and thoughts about quitting smoking, derived from pre-screen interviews with them. e.g., “You are worried that when angry or frustrated, you may light up”.
Here’s the premise: Anti-smoking messages custom made for an individual can be more effective than generic ones, but only if said individual processes those messages in a self directed manner. Past research has shown a specific set of neural regions – primarily the mPFC and precuneus/posterior cingulate – to be associated with self referential thinking. Therefore, researchers hypothesized, activity in these brain regions while processing tailored anti-smoking messages might predict the likelihood of quitting.
The experiment was carried out over three days with a follow-up visit four months later.
Day 1: 91 participants completed a health assessment, demographic questionnaire and a psychosocial characteristics scale related to quitting smoking. Responses were then used to create smoking cessation messages tailored to each individual.
Day 2: Participants went into scanner and performed 2 fMRI tasks: The first task had participants listen to anti-smoking messages of three different types: personally tailored anti-smoking, non-tailored anti-smoking and neutral.
Here are some examples of what they heard:
A concern you have is being tempted to smoke when around other smokers.
Something else that you feel will tempt you after you quit is because of a craving.
You are worried that when angry or frustrated, you may light up.
Some people are tempted to smoke to control their weight or hunger.
Smokers also light up when they need to concentrate.
Certain moods or feelings, places, and things you do can make you want to smoke.
Oil was formed from the remains of animals and plants that lived millions of years ago.
Sighted in the Pacific Ocean, the world’s tallest sea wave was 112 feet.
Wind is simple air in motion. It is caused by the uneven heating of the earth’s surface by the sun.
Then, participants completed a self appraisal task to identify brain regions active during self relevant thought processes. In this task, participants saw adjectives appear on the screen and had to either rate how much the adjective described them or whether the adjective was positive or negative.
Day 3: Participants completed a web-based smoking cessation program and were instructed to quit smoking. (They were given a supply of nicotine patches to get themselves started)
Experimenters checked in with subjects four months later to see if they were abstaining from smoking. Out of 87 who participated in the smoking cessation program, 45 were not smoking, while 42 were still (or had quit briefly and restarted) smoking.
Subjects were given a surprise memory test for the anti-smoking messages they’d received four months prior and remembered self relevant, tailored messages most well. However, their memory performance was not related to whether they successfully quit smoking.
As for the fMRI data, experimenters used a mask of tailored vs. untailored message conditions AND self-appraisal to identify the region common to both processes. This seems like a mild case of double dipping, no? That is, finding a brain region that responds to the condition of interest (in this case, voxels more active in tailored vs. untailored conditions) and then using the same data to test the hypothesis. Ideally, the ROI would be obtained independently of the main task.
A blow by blow on the different contrasts of interest:
1. Researchers looked at brain regions more active during tailored vs. untailored messages and found differential activation in the regions below.
There are, I think, some problems here; mainly, that the task differences for processing tailored vs non-tailored statements may extend beyond self relevant thinking to (1) memory processes employed in processing either category of stimuli; that is, episodic (tailored) vs. semantic (non-tailored), (2) cognitive effort, (3) elicitation of visual vs. non-visual memory, (4) processing fluency and (5) affect or reward responses. Thus, the difference in brain activation found in this task might reflect something other than just self referential processing.
2. The localizer task (used to isolate neural areas involved in self appraisal) had participants process adjectives either by relating them to self or by judging their affective value. This suggests an alternative explanation for the categorical contrast in that it isn’t specific to self per se, but really more specific to people vs. non-people. A more widely used version of this task has participants process adjectives with regards to self or an other. As a further control, a third condition is often included in which participants identify whether words are in upper case or lower case. The contrast applied is (self – control) – (other – control). It’s not clear why the researchers chose the task they did, which seems significantly noisier.
Here’s the contrast from the present study:
And here’s a contrast from another study (Jenkins 2010) that looked at three different types of self-referential processing.
Although roughly similar, the current study shows cortical midline activation seems to be much more dorsal than that found in Jenkins (2010). Using an ROI derived from this localizer task to correlate neural activity in tailored vs. untailored statements with quitting led to a non-significant result (from supplementary materials). This could explain why the researchers used the composite mask to define the ROI.
3. Again, the primary ROI was defined as a composite of overlapping regions between the self reference task AND the tailored vs. untailored statements task, which was used to compare neural activity with quitting behavior. They found that activity in these regions – which included dmPFC, precuneus and angular gyrus – during tailored smoking cessation messages predicted the likelihood of successfully abstaining from smoking. dmPFC and precuneus activation also individually predicted smoking cessation success, although angular gyrus did not.
This study provides clear evidence that participants processed tailored vs. non-tailored messages about smoking differently, and that this difference corresponded to their ability to stop smoking. However,
(1) neither task effectively isolates self referential processing,
(2) the region of activation was much more dorsal than that usually found in this literature (Northoff & Bermpohl, 2004; Schneider et al.,2008; Uddin, Iacoboni, Lange, & Keenan, 2007; Gillihan & Farah, 2005),
(3) an independently obtained ROI yielded insignificant results and
(4) mPFC and precuneus subserve an untold number of cognitive processes beyond self reflection.
Therefore, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim the neural activation found in this study is indicative of self referential processing.
Chua HF, Ho SS, Jasinska AJ, Polk TA, Welsh RC, Liberzon I, & Strecher VJ (2011). Self-related neural response to tailored smoking-cessation messages predicts quitting. Nature neuroscience, 14 (4), 426-7 PMID: 21358641
Jenkins AC, & Mitchell JP (2010). Medial prefrontal cortex subserves diverse forms of self-reflection. Social neuroscience, 1-8 PMID: 20711940
Northoff, G. (2005). Emotional-cognitive integration, the self, and cortical midline structures Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X05400047
Gillihan, S., & Farah, M. (2005). Is Self Special? A Critical Review of Evidence From Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. Psychological Bulletin, 131 (1), 76-97 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.1.76
SCHNEIDER, F., BERMPOHL, F., HEINZEL, A., ROTTE, M., WALTER, M., TEMPELMANN, C., WIEBKING, C., DOBROWOLNY, H., HEINZE, H., & NORTHOFF, G. (2008). The resting brain and our self: Self-relatedness modulates resting state neural activity in cortical midline structures Neuroscience, 157 (1), 120-131 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2008.08.014
UDDIN, L., IACOBONI, M., LANGE, C., & KEENAN, J. (2007). The self and social cognition: the role of cortical midline structures and mirror neurons Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11 (4), 153-157 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2007.01.001
People love pictures of brains. And, as a result, companies have been trying hard to find ways to incorporate MRI data into their sales pitches and business plans. One such company, Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, has jumped on the bandwagon in a big way, having recently added a brain scan to the standard occupational aptitude test they offer to job seekers (they charge around $700 for the assessment):
The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation is a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization with two primary commitments: to study human abilities and to provide people with a knowledge of their aptitudes that will help them in making decisions about school and work. Since 1922, hundreds of thousands of people have used our aptitude testing service to learn more about themselves and to derive more satisfaction from their lives.
See the Neurocritic for a spot-on criticism of the “study” upon which their new marketing pitch is based.
Bad neuroscience seems to be appearing increasingly frequently in the public media space. From misleading articles in the mainstream press to the poorly conducted studies that often form the basis for one or another misconceived business plan, fMRI research runs the danger of being victimized by its own success. Part of the problem stems from the general public’s inability to properly interpret neuroscientific data in the context of human psychology studies. Not that they should be blamed. Neuropsychology is a somewhat complicated discipline, and there isn’t any reason to believe that someone lacking in understanding of the basic principles of neural science, or psychology, or both, should be able to parse such data out correctly. The problem, however, is that the average public citizen isn’t neutral toward such data, but tends to be more satisfied by psychological explanations that include neuroscientific data, regardless of whether that data adds value to the explanation or not. The mere mention of something vaguely neuroscientific seems to increase the average reader’s satisfaction with a psychological finding, legitimizing it. Even worse, its the bad studies that benefit the most from this so-called “neurophlia”, the love of brain pictures. That’s according to a study from a research team led by Jeremy Grey at Yale University.
Participants read a series of summaries of psychological findings from one of four categories: Either a good or bad explanation, with or without a meaningless reference to neuroscience. After reading each explanation, participants rated how satisfying they found the explanation. The experiment was run on three different groups of participants: random undergraduates, undergrads who had taken intermediate-level cognitive neuroscience course and a slightly older group who had either already earned PhDs in neuroscience, or were in or about to enter graduate neuroscience programs.
The first group of regular undergrads were able to distinguish between good and bad explanations without neuroscience, but were much more satisfied by bad explanations that included reference to neural data ( The y-axis on the following figures stands for self-rated satisfaction):
Nor were the cognitive neuroscience students any more discerning. If anything, they were a bit worse than the non-cognitive neuroscience undergrads, in that they found good explanations with meaningless neuroscience more satisfying than good ones without :
But the PhD neural science people showed the benefits of their training. Not only did they not find bad explanations to be more satisfying by the addition of meaningless neuroscience, they found good explanations with meaningless neuroscience to be less satisfying.
As to why non-experts might have been fooled? The authors suggest that non-experts could be falling pray to the “the seductive details effect,” whereby “related but logically irrelevant details presented as part of an argument, tend to make it more difficult for subjects to encode and later recall the main argument of a text.” In other words, it might not be the neuroscience per se that leads to the increased satisfaction, but some more general property of the neuroscience information. As to what that property might be, it could be that people are biased towards arguments that possess a reductionist structure. That is, in science, “higher level” arguments that refer to macroscopic phenomena often refer to “lower level” explanations that invoke microscopic explanation. Neuroscientific explanations fit the bill in this case, by seeming to provide hard, low level data in support of higher level behavioral phenomenon. The mere mention of lower level data – albeit meaningless data – might have made it seem as if the “bad” higher level explanation was connected to some “larger explanatory system” and therefore more valid or meaningful. It could be simply that bad explanations – those involving neuroscience or otherwise – are buffered by the allure of complex, multilevel explanatory structures. Or it could be that people are easily seduced by fancy jargon like “ventral medial prefrontal connectivity” and “NMDA-type glutamate receptor regions.”
Whatever the proximal mechanisms of the “neurophilia” effect, the public infatuation with all things neural probably won’t be fading any time soon and, as such, its imperative that scientists, journalists and others who communicate with the public about brain science be on the lookout for bad, and incorrectly presented good, neuroscience, and be quick to issue correctives when it appears.
Go here for the Yale study.