Thursday, September 15, 2011

Now about this brain business

On the Neurobusiness Group website the text, "Amygdala activation can tell us from first impression whether leaders are profitable or have greater leadership ability," is displayed at the bottom of a picture of a faceless man in a well-tailored business suit. He is standing in a ready position, tie blowing in the wind, in front of a backdrop of expansive monochromatic blue mountains. He is back-lit by sunlight, and a laser beam of light slices through the sky as if to grant him special other-worldly gifts from the heavens. The perspective is set so that you feel you are below looking up to him, as you aspire to be him, from a lower (management) position. And perhaps the most clever detail is that the man's face isn't well-defined sending the message that, "This could be your face. You can be this guy with high amygdala activation foretelling exceptional leadership ability above those with low amygdala activation."

Below the described image is also a reference to this 2011 article: "Face value: amygdala response reflects the validity of first impressions." Neuroimage (2011) 54: 734-41.

The study consisted of 16 undergraduates ages 18-23. Nine of the participants were male and seven were female. The participants were told to evaluate the symmetry of the grayscale photos of current CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies while in the scanner.After scanning, students were asked to guess the success of the CEOs featured in the photos. Aside from being a very small sampling of a very specific demographic, the scans show correlations of the subjects brain activity during the task of evaluating face symmetry, not guessing the success of the CEOs (which was done outside of the scanner). This is a correlation of a correlation followed by a great leap to a conclusion: Seeing this pattern of brain activation wields a powerful predictive power that could (and maybe should) impact future hiring.

An obvious concern is over-interpreting the data this way is how this could lead to potential discrimination in hiring processes. Others, however, see this as a opportunity to create the optimal "business brain." A recent article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle titled, "Author uncovers secrets of brain optimization" reviews the book, "Your Brain and Business" by CEO of the NeuroBusiness Group and "neuro-coach" Srinivasan Pillay, M.D. Dr. Pillay explains in his book that he utilized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)to measure how "brain function can be applied to the business environment" and attributes the virtues of "positive thinking" to the "business brain."

While neuroscience data may provide compelling data-based hypotheses for cognitive function and behavior, the application of neuroscience data and convincing nature of the physical representation of brain images must be critically evaluated in their broader utility. The impact of neuroscience data on general audiences has been evaluated empirically by McCabe and Castel's 2008 article in the journal Cognition: "Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning" as well as by Weisberg et al., 2008: "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations". In sum, including neuroscience data, especially colorized pictures of brain, makes fictitious text and nonsensical text more convincing to non-experts, even over-riding direct criticism in the form of text from experts. This is not to say that neuroscience should only be for neuroscientists, but non-neuroscientists need to be able to understand the actual value and implications of such work.

We need to ask ourselves, "Why would neuroscience data be needed to convince business (wo)men that being 'solution-focused' vs. 'problem-focused' would help them become more successful?" Or "Why would brain images provide more evidence that 'emotions are a vital part of intelligence' especially when the definition of intelligence still eludes scientists and finding adequate measures of intelligence is an ongoing area of research?" The appeal of this book seems to reflect a sentiment expressed by Henry David Thoreau: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. Do we (should we) have a revived sense of control of our lives by knowing the inner-workings of our brains (An interesting study might be to ask business leaders how neuroscience data might influence the ways they choose to interact with colleagues and clients)? This is not to judge the success Pillay has as a business coach, or to say that all of his techniques are not valuable (I'd be interested in seeing metrics of successful students of Pillay's neuro-coaching which includes companies such as Novartis, Genzyme, and The World Bank as well as individuals at PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Volkswagen, and Fidelity Investments). After all, who wouldn't feel empowered by encouraging, some might say spiritual, statements such as this one shared in his book, "The secret to living life successfully is to recognize that you can be different from what is happening to you." My concern is that the data that Pillay cites in his book (and his company's website) may not be as generalizable as he posits. The danger being that overgeneralizing the utility of neuroscience data represented in brain images corrupts the moral authority society has given to neuroscientists and puts society at larger risk to abuse and misuse neuroscience findings in contexts such as for lie detection, criminal evidence or testimony, and making hiring decisions. Two ideas about functional MRI data must be noted. 1. Data acquired in the functional MRI scanner are correlated to the scanned subject's brain activity during the experimental task. The data cannot necessarily accurately describe past or future behaviors. 2. No one part of the brain has exclusive rights to a thought or action. The brain acts in concert, and as I've once heard described, thoughts and actions from the brain are harmonies created by an orchestrated act of the brain. You cannot have a harmony with a single note (or single brain region for that matter). Brain images paint an overly simplified one-to-one causal relationship for general audiences that truly undermine the actual complexity of the brain. There is not one neuroscientist who could tell you at this time how the function of a brain cell translates into a thought or positive thinking or imagination. While neuroscientists and general audiences alike are enthusiastic about revealing the full spectrum of the brain and it's role in human experience, we must remember fMRI data are not so much mechanistic information, but correlations. In the case of neuro-coaching and business, brain imaging data is being expected to deliver more than it can at this time. While we have embraced the journey of this whole brain business, we are still at the beginning of a long road ahead.

--Karen S. Rommelfanger, PhD
Neuroethics Program, Center for Ethics

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Now about this brain business. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Recommended reading:

Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2011 May;15(5):200-9. Understanding complexity in the human brain. Bassett DS, Gazzaniga MS
Cognition. 2008 Apr; 1079(1): 343-52. Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning.* McCabe DP, Castel AD * This article was discussed at Emory's Neuroethics Journal Club 19 Albany Law Journal of Science & Technlogy 205 (2009) Using fMRI as a Lie Detector - Are We Lying to Ourselves? Brian Reese

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