Who benefits when research with no practical application becomes a politically correct meme?

Do you take a risk, as this 2013 University of Texas/Yale study concluded, because you don’t foresee how you can avoid the risk?

By making this finding, the study essentially assigned the bases of a person’s risky decisions to their cerebrum.

I wasn’t persuaded. In my view, the conclusion was reached because the study’s design only engaged the subjects’ cerebrums with a video game task involving popping balloons. See Task performance and beliefs about task responses are solely cerebral exercises for a similar point.

If the researchers had instead designed a study that also engaged the subjects’ limbic system and lower brains, the findings may have been different.

Only one of the news articles covered this story with some accuracy, in my opinion, io9.com:

Helfinstein (the lead researcher) doesn’t see any direct, practical applications of the research. After all, people don’t spend their lives in fMRI scanners, so it’s not as if we can tell when people are going to make a risky decision in their day-to-day activities.”

Compare that with the majority of the news coverage that hijacked the study’s findings to try to develop a politically correct meme:

“Many health-relevant risky decisions share this same structure, such as when deciding how many alcoholic beverages to drink before driving home or how much one can experiment with drugs or cigarettes before developing an addiction.”

The study found that “risk taking may be due, in part, to a failure of the control systems necessary to initiate a safe choice.” The brain areas were “primarily located in regions more active when preparing to avoid a risk than when preparing to engage in one.” These areas included the “bilateral parietal and motor regions, anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral insula, and bilateral lateral orbitofrontal cortex.”

Notice that just one of the studied brain areas (the anterior cingulate cortex) is part of the limbic system or lower brains, although the bilateral insula connects to the limbic system. Yet the limbic system and lower parts of the brain are most often the brain areas that drive real-world risky behaviors such as smoking, drug use, sexual risk taking, and unsafe driving.

A video game task of popping balloons that engaged the cerebrum was NOT informative to the cause-and-effect of the emotions and instincts and impulses from limbic system and lower brains that predominantly drive risky behavior.

Who may benefit from the misinterpretations and misdirections of the study’s findings? We can take clues from the five applicable NIH grants (UL1-DE019580, RL1MH083268, RL1MH083269, RL1DA024853, PL1MH083271) and the researchers’ statement:

“We were able to predict choice category successfully in 71.8% of cases.”

Anybody ever read Philip K. Dick?

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/7/2470.full “Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns”


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