Why the latest brain study you read is probably wrong

There are many articles lately which claim that behaviour xyz has been confirmed by some brain study. For my PhD research and for my UX work I have looked at a lot of these studies, and I can point to a number of issues I have come accross a lot. Like, really, really, a lot.

  • Reporting: Many articles do a lousy job on understanding brain studies or report the results inappropriately.
  • The WEIRD Effect: Sometimes these brain studies are biased, as plenty are performed on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) sample sources. Usually, a researcher will use undergrads of their department in a country of the “West” and draw conclusion from this sample. The researcher or others (see “Reporting”) might wrongfully generalise these conclusions to a broader sample. So, yes, we don’t really know how the brain of non-Westerners functions in the same detail as we do for Westerners.
  • Neuroplasticity: Our brain is not static; rather, it is very flexible and its flexibility awards established patterns. These patterns may vary over time and accross cultures.


Thus, many epistomological mistakes might be applied by a combination of the above. In plain terms, if in one culture the people have dessert and coffee at the end of each meal, the brains of these people will want to automate this feature. Thus, the neurons of the areas related to the meal, the dessert and coffee, will change how they wire in order to be firing together (neuroplasticity). That is, if you do some things together a lot, then your brain will group this things together, in order to save energy/resources. Because these neurons are now grouped together, if you now have a meal, you will also want dessert and coffee because the related neurons are going to fire together.

That is, our brain structure depends on our customs, as our brain structure changes over time. Now, if one takes many people from the same culture (who also have dessert and coffee), they will most probably have the same wiring/grouping in their brains, too (because they’re used to doing the same things). If one scans their brains, it’s probable that the same brain signal patterns will occur, since the same habits will have formed the same brain patterns (the WEIRD effect).


Many popular examples show this issue. Apart from myths like the left/right brain division, other myths have wider implications. For example, a myth says that {happiness = achievementsexpectations}. There’s nothing but opinion to support that pseudo-equation. This might appear to be true for a generation of people from country X; fair enough: how is that relevant to humanity?

It’s not. It’s culturally biased opinion, and it’s easy to see behind the smoke and mirrors. In a culture where effort is valued more than achievements or expectations, we would see people there having trouble to see how expectations are meaningful. In the same way that in many countries wasting time doesn’t make any sense.

Imagine if you scan the brains of people from various cultures. Now that you know about neuroplasticity and the WEIRD effect, what do you think would happen?

Bad Philosophy

Not just popular reporting but also science has its issues. In bad epistemology we can add the misunderstanding of philosophical underpinnings of science. Some have gone so far as to say that humans have no free will because choosing between a red and a green button during an experiment is done at a subconscious level.

The assumption here is that these researchers apparently consider the human subconsious as something extra-human; if they understood the subconscious as a human trait then subconscious desicions would still be considered free will, wouldn’t they?

In addition, these experiments about how a WEIRD sample behaves in order to choose this or the other coloured button in a split second seem to have little effect on the discourse about free will. How is the decision to push a button similar to meaningful and important decisions in our life? I am certain that apart from any subconscious processes, I also consciously thought about practicing a profession, or about being with a partner. A brain scan would show the effect of both conscious and subconscious processes in my brain; what effect would that have on free will?

Finally, let me clear that hear I’m not arguing in favour or against the existence of free will. All I’m saying, is that brain scans of 20th-21st century Westerners are not an argument for or against its existence. In the same way that colours don’t have specific meanings but their perception is culture specific.


One response to “Why the latest brain study you read is probably wrong

  1. Pingback: Improving Performance Improvement: A UX Perspective | In::formation

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