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Brain images make cognitive research more believable

October 2, 2007

People are more likely to believe findings from a neuroscience study when the report is paired with a colored image of a brain as opposed to other representational images of data such as bar graphs, according to a new Colorado State University study.

Persuasive influence on public perception

Scientists and journalists have recently suggested that brain images have a persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. This idea was tested directly in a series of experiments reported by David McCabe, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Colorado State, and his colleague Alan Castel, an assistant professor at University of California-Los Angeles. The forthcoming paper, to be published in the journal Cognition, was recently published online.

"We found the use of brain images to represent the level of brain activity associated with cognitive processes clearly influenced ratings of scientific merit," McCabe said. "This sort of visual evidence of physical systems at work is typical in areas of science like chemistry and physics, but has not traditionally been associated with research on cognition.

"We think this is the reason people find brain images compelling. The images provide a physical basis for thinking."

Brain images compelling

In a series of three experiments, undergraduate students were either asked to read brief articles that made fictitious and unsubstantiated claims such as "watching television increases math skills," or they read a real article describing research showing that brain imaging can be used as a lie detector.

When the research participants were asked to rate their agreement with the conclusions reached in the article, ratings were higher when a brain image had accompanied the article, compared to when it did not include a brain image or included a bar graph representing the data.

This effect occurred regardless of whether the article described a fictitious, implausible finding or realistic research.

Conclusions often oversimplified and misrepresented

"Cognitive neuroscience studies which appear in mainstream media are often oversimplified and conclusions can be misrepresented," McCabe said. "We hope that our findings get people thinking more before making sensational claims based on brain imaging data, such as when they claim there is a 'God spot' in the brain."

To view the article in its entirety, visit the Cognition Web site (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00100277) in the "Articles in Press" section under the title, "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments and scientific reasoning."


Contact: Nik Olsen
Email: Nik.Olsen@colostate.edu
Phone Number: (970) 491-7766

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