Neurosciencyness is the new truthyness

Got off the train this morning and noticed a new (ish? I’m not super attentive to these) ad:


L-theanine is an amino acid that crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to increase alpha-band EEG activity. The logic here seems to be the same as that in things like the games that come with the Mindwave biofeedback system:  since alpha-band EEG oscillations occur when people are relaxed, then manipulations that increase in alpha-band activity must be increasing relaxation. (Nobody, to my knowledge, uses this logic while also accounting for the many other cognitive activities that increase alpha-band activity, like actively remembering things, or attending to one object in a crowded field, that do not seem to have much at all to do with relaxation. Brains are, unfortunately, complex, interconnected, emergent systems, and cause and effect are rarely straightforward.)

Neuro seem to have a whole range of these drinks, each with a different additive, a neurosciency gibberish explanation of why that additive will change your brain function, and a different targeted effect. A few years ago, a paper demonstrated that people are much more willing to accept explanations (even bad explanations) if a neurosciency clause is included. Shortly afterwards, another group showed that people are more likely to accept neurosciency explanations if the brain activity being discussed was shown on realistic brain pictures, as opposed to abstract images or bar graphs.


Besides calling their brand “neuro”, these guys have a cute little “EEG activity in the brain” logo, and their website has the slogan “light it up”. Scarily impressive use of the metaphors and descriptors that are used to describe localized neural activity, even by those of us who should know better.

When I posted these to Facebook this morning, one friend said, “I’m not sure whether to be skeptical about their ability to actually modify neurotransmitter availability, or seriously concerned about people actually changing their brain chemistry in untested and unregulated ways.” I think this pretty well sums up my feelings too.

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