Brain Scan or Brain Scam?

Marketing neuroscience to the public. Daniel Carlat casts a skeptical glance, in Wired, on some potentially exciting new brain scanning technology. He’s not against neuroscience or brain scans, but cautious about the way these new technologies are being marketed to the public. The title of the piece: “Brain Scans as Mind Readers: Don’t Believe the Hype”. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m in Newport Beach, California, undergoing the $3,300 Amen Clinic evaluation. The price includes two Spect scans and a series of clinical interviews. At the end I’ll get a report on my mental health, along with recommendations about lifestyle changes, supplements, and medications — a prescription for a “better brain.” It’s an alluring prospect, but the approach is still viewed with some suspicion by mainstream psychiatrists. Not that serious scientists aren’t interested in taking pictures of the brain — in fact, journals churn out hundreds of brain-imaging articles each month. It’s just that we haven’t quite figured out what these pictures mean. Are we really seeing the mind in action, or are we allowing ourselves to be seduced by images that may actually tell us very little?

Carlat concludes:

The next day, I’m back at my office. I see my patients, listen to their troubles, try to understand what drives their suffering, and prescribe my nostrums. I deal in brain trouble, and meaningful pictures of what is going on behind their pained expressions would aid my work immeasurably. After my last patient, I pull out Amen’s snapshots of my own brain. My journey through the land of functional neuroimaging has helped me to understand how spectacularly meaningless these images are likely to be.

Most neuromarketers are using these scans as a way of sprinkling glitter over their products, so that customers will be persuaded that the pictures are giving them a deeper understanding of their mind. In fact, imaging technologies are still in their infancy. And while overenthusiastic practitioners may try to leapfrog over the science, real progress, which will take decades, will be made by patient and methodical researchers, not by entrepreneurs looking to make a buck.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

One thought on “Brain Scan or Brain Scam?”

  1. Dr. Amen (do you believe the name?) is a very slick presenter. I also wanted to know what do those images mean? How are they made? I’m a chemist and they look to me like something that is meant to resemble science. I find it significant that no mention is ever made as to how the images are made or any data offered to show what they mean. His healthy habits advice is good and makes sense.


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