Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Seductive Allure of Spintronics™ Neuroimaging mock mind reading scanner

Spintronics™ Neuroimaging mock scanner used in experiment by Ali, Lifshitz & Raz (2014)

A new study has tricked undergraduates into believing that “Spintronics,” a whimsical new “mind reading” technology constructed using an old hair dryer, was able to accurately read their thoughts  (Ali et al., 2014). This held even for students enrolled in a class on the pros and cons of neuroimaging methods taught by the senior author (McGill Professor Amir Raz). The paper coined the phrase “empirical neuroenchantment” to explain why a highly dubious experimental setup would lead to such a deficit in critical thinking.

The participants were 58 McGill students, 26 of whom were upper-level psychology, neuroscience or cognitive science majors enrolled in a skeptical neuroimaging course that warned them about overblown claims. Furthermore, the professor had lectured about his experience as a “mind reading” magician who fools audiences into believing he has paranormal abilities:
The professor in the course (AR) repeatedly harped on the present impossibility of mind-reading and tested this information on the final examination verifying that students internalized these points. He also spoke about his background as a mentalist – a magician who performs psychological tricks, such as mind-reading – and led class demonstrations to exemplify why the public often misinterprets these effects and takes them for genuine paranormal powers.

And in fact, sleight of hand was used to further the ruse that the hair dryer contraption was able to read their minds. Subjects were told they were participating in a study on “The Neural Correlates of Thought” (amusingly described in the Methods) where they...
...encountered a rickety mock brain scanner built from discarded medical scraps from the 1960s and adorned with an old-fashioned hair-dryer dome [shown in the figure above]. We told participants that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute had developed new experimental technology to decode resting state brain activity and read the human mind. We labeled the technology Spintronics and displayed warning signs around the scanning equipment similar to those found in MRI environments.

The participants were told to think of a two-digit number, a three-digit number, a color, and a country and to write down their answers on a piece of paper. The first author cleverly pocketed their answers,1 then participants were told to think about their choices while their brains were faux scanned. During this time, “a pre-recorded video displayed rotating three-dimensional brain slices with accompanying scanner-like audio, lending the appearance of collecting and analyzing patterns of brain activity.”

Afterwards, the subjects were shown the results of the scan. Lo and behold, the machine could read their minds! A brief questionnaire rated their level of belief on a 0 to 6 point scale (from “not at all” to “extremely”).

How did the informed students fare against the non-Neuro controls? The Neuro students found the results significantly less believable (3.96 vs. 4.96), and they rated themselves as more skeptical (3.42 vs, 1.94) than the controls. However, they were not immune to ascribing even greater mind-reading capabilities to Spintronics© after being shown that the contraption successfully “read” their thoughts.

Can we conclude from the present study that neuroimaging is special in the annals of scientific technology in its ability to dupe even those who should know better? No, and the authors acknowledge as much. We don't know whether the dual phenomena of deferring to experts in a professional laboratory, and overriding scientific knowledge on the basis of one compelling experience, would occur in other fields of study. We could potentially see meteoroenchantment or roboenchantment in the realms of weather prediction and artificial intelligence, respectively.

Nonetheless, the Spintronics study ups the ante in the Brainwashed sweepstakes on The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, which maintains that the media can easily dupe an unsuspecting public into believing nearly anything couched in the guise of neuroscience.

The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations

Remember the “seductive allure” of colorful brain images? This was the idea that college undergraduates could be swayed to believe implausible explanations for psychological phenomena if accompanied by brain images (McCabe & Castell, 2008). For example, a fictitious news article explaining that ‘Watching TV is Related to Math Ability’ since watching television and completing math problems both lead to activation in the temporal lobe, watching TV will of course improve math skills was more believable when accompanied by a brain scan than by a bar graph.

The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images

However, this finding was not replicated in more recent studies (Farah & Hook, 2013; Michael et al., 2013; Schweitzer et al., 2013). Is this because participants in psychology experiments have gotten more sophisticated in the past five years? 2  Or is it because the results weren't that strong to begin with?

It'll be much more difficult for other labs to replicate the present results of Ali and colleagues (2014), namely because (1) most Principal Investigators aren't magicians, and (2) recruiting 1,068 participants via the online marketplace Mechanical Turk just won't work here...

Further Reading

Are Brain Scans Really So Persuasive?

The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images


1 I should add here that the first author, Sabrina Ali, was an undergraduate researcher at the time, and thus the participants may have had fewer suspicions that she would try to dupe them (as opposed to the magician, Dr. Raz). The present experiment was a portion of Ali's Master's Thesis at McGill.

2 More sophisticated, say, from reading critical neuroscience blogs?  Or much more likely, reading critical coverage in places like the New York Times?  Or am I living in a bubble which assumes way too much public interest in these topics?


Sabrina Ali, Michael Lifshitz, and Amir Raz (2014). Empirical Neuroenchantment: From Reading Minds to Thinking Critically. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00357

Farah MJ, Hook CJ (2013). The seductive allure of "seductive allure". Perspectives in Psychological Science 8:88-90.

McCabe DP, Castel AD. (2008). Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition 107:343-52.

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At May 12, 2014 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a poor study, in my opinion. There is no logical reason why a machine that monitors the brain should not be able to tell what we are thinking. Harder to think how to do that with response times... It's not neuroenchantment, it's that students understand that mind = brain, there is a strong truth bias in people, and so people think it may be plausible because an experimenter tells them it is. There is no goo control condition. I bet there are plenty of non neuro measures that would lead to the same results.

At May 14, 2014 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really cool study. I have seen Dr. Raz in action and he is a real firecracker. This study fits well with his research trajectory into suggestion and expectation. I look forward to seeing many more exciting studies from this group.

At May 15, 2014 3:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh? Dr. Raz in action is a real firecracker?? Right, we forgot this is all silly entertainment, after all. I'm not holding my breath to see replications of this study and the folks who reviewed this paper (plus the Editor) are now on my "ignore" list.

At May 15, 2014 3:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This recent study joins a string of credible reports showing experimental evidence that support a "critical neuroscience" approach to neuroimaging. Well done. I especially liked the thoughtful paradigm and the nice writeup.

At May 16, 2014 3:17 PM, Anonymous MRN fMRI Image Acquisition and Analyses Course – 2014 said...

Are you a scientist interested in learning more about fMRI? Attend the upcoming fMRI Course at the Mind Research Network in Alb, NM on May 29-31, 2014. Space is limited. Go to for more information.

At May 17, 2014 3:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a study that is supposed to support a "critical neuroscience" approach (how humble: the rest of the world must be using the "acritical approach"), it is poorly done, as it lacks critical control conditions. That's why it ended up being published in Frontiers. That's the reality.


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