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The Unhelpful Brain

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jun 7, 2011 3:20 AMNov 5, 2019 12:18 AM


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A reader pointed me to this study from a few months back which used fMRI to look at the effects of "Coaching With Compassion".

Unfortunately, the authors say at the outset that their paper is "Not to be quoted or reproduced without the expressed permission of one of the authors prior to publication"soI'm not going to... oh, hang on. Have I just broken the rules by quoting that? I hope not. But fair enough.

The paper describes an fMRI study of brain responses to being shown a variety of statements. The participants were students and the statements were about the university experience. They were either positive, negative, or neutral.

The authors found that the human brain responds differently to different kinds of stuff.

That's it. Well that ought to be it. The paper discusses things like Coaching With Compassion, The Ideal Self, and Intentional Change Theory, which are awesome no doubt, but they're not what this study is about.

Here's why. Before getting scanned, the students got two sessions of academic and career coaching. One session was focussed on hopes and goals for the future, dreams, and what they wanted to achieve in their studies. Yes you can! The other session, with a different coach, was all about challenges, fears, and disappointments. Maybe you can't.

The positive and the negative statements in the fMRI bit were based on these coaching interviews. The coach who did the nice bit said the nice statements (via recorded video clips) and vice versa. The positive and negative coaches were randomly assigned to each participant to avoid coach effects, and so on, which is good, the fMRI methodology was fine, and the data analysis looks good.

Who'd have thought it? Different parts of the brain were activated by positive, negative and neutral statements, and these were roughly what you'd expect from previous studies.

The reason this says nothing about coaching is that while participants got coaching beforehand, they all got the same coaching. These statements would have been positive or negative anyway - coaching or no. We don't know what, if any, effect coaching had.

Had half of them been randomized to get coached, and the other half assigned to a "placebo" coaching, say chatting about sports or the weather, then it would tell you something about coaching.

But that wouldn't mean it told you anything interesting about it, and this is the deeper problem with studies like this, of which this is only a good example.

Suppose that you found that positive, Compassionate Coaching made the brain respond more strongly to positive statements, or changed brain activity during decision-making, or whatever. That would be a result, and it might be really strong and statistically very significant, but for the life of me I can't see why you'd care, if you were interested in coaching.

Of course coaching affects the brain, and not just as a side effect: if it works, it'll work via changing the brain, in some way. But everything that changes behaviour changes the brain. That's what the brain does. How it does so is a detail of interest only to neuroscientists.

If you're a coach, or want to get coaching, or want to know whether coaching is effective, then you should look at coaching. The brain will be there, in the background, activating and deactivating happily, but it's not going to help you.

These kinds of studies happen, I think, because there's an inherent allure to seeing "the neural basis of" thoughts and feelings. It seems paradoxical and disturbing: you can't see thoughts! They're made of pixie dust and magic!

In the same way, quantum physics is universally agreed to be "weird". But it's always there, everywhere in the universe, and always has been. We're the weird ones, with our strange conviction that the most everyday thing in the world is really bizarre. God must find quantum physics incredibly boring.

Brains are not quite as commonplace as quarks, but they are at work whenever anyone, or most animals for that matter, does anything. Of course: how else would behaviour happen? We find this odd and fascinating. As a neuroscientist I'm no exception, the allure never "wears off". But that's just us.

Even people trying to be neuro-skeptical often fall into this trap. Here's Steven Rose in book review:

The weird locution – “it was not me; it was my brain that made me do it” – is increasingly used by neuroscientists who are sure that human thought and action are reducible to brain processes, and by legal defence teams pleading diminished responsibility for their clients. The trouble is that this way of speaking – and thinking, if such a term remains permissible – leaves unresolved who is the “me” that the brain drives.”

Well, human thought and action are reducible to brain processes. To deny this or (as is more common) imply that it's unhelpful, but not explain why, gets us nowhere.

The point is that all behaviour is brain activity, and that's why saying "It's brain activity" tells us nothing about any given behaviour. It’s an empty truism, like saying that a fire was started by something hot. Well, duh.

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