Study drugs: When how you think is how you feel

Sociologist and former CNS fellow Scott Vrecko studies student use of stimulants as “study drugs,” which may work via emotional changes. Image from

The phrase sounds simple enough: cognitive enhancement. “Cognitive” more or less refers to thought and “enhancement” to improvement, so voilà — cognitive enhancement must mean improved thinking. And that’s often how the topic gets framed. But sociologist Scott Vrecko just published a paper suggesting that our current picture of enhancement is incomplete.

In a recent article for AJOB Neuroscience, Vrecko addressed what he saw as a big hole in enhancement literature: in-depth descriptions of how these pills change the way people feel, not just how they think. His study focused on the most immediate issue within enhancement, stimulant use by college students who don’t have learning or attention disorders.

To explore this topic, Vrecko — who was a CNS fellow last year — interviewed 24 former or current university students who take stimulants as enhancers. His results? Students didn’t describe the pills as making them brilliant thinkers. Rather, the drugs seemed to have their biggest impact in making tedious work less, well, miserable.

Based on their responses, Vrecko identified four emotion-related areas where subjects felt improved on meds. Those areas are “feeling up,” “drivenness,” “interestedness” and “enjoyment.” As their labels imply, all four seem to involve motivation. And as anyone who has ever worked or studied knows, different motivation levels can mean very different emotional experiences. Feeling unmotivated can be stressful, depressing and numbing — quite a contrast from the buzz we might feel when we’re ready to get things done.

For some students, that’s where stimulants like Adderall come in: to make boring work seem fun. Or at the very least, it makes them so driven they won’t so much as glance at their phones, email or Facebook accounts — a massive feat in our age group — until they finish everything. Being that focused certainly involves cognition. But even so, when these students explain why they take stimulants, it sounds like what they really rely on is the change in mood.

Long story short, we need to appreciate that emotions are a big part of the way cognitive enhancers work. And looking more at emotion might encourage clinicians to confront ethical issues beyond the ones that typically dominate discussions on enhancement.

When these pills are seen as strictly improving cognition, ethical concerns revolve around fairness. More specifically, we ask how we can ensure equal access to a resource that can make people think better. We also wonder whether academic achievement becomes less meaningful when aided by pills.

But in considering enhancement’s emotional side, other problems take center stage. Bursting with excitement over eight hours of astronomy homework sounds great. On the other hand, these academic “highs” can help facilitate dependence. Moreover, enhancement may represent a band-aid solution to deeper problems with our work culture. Should students use pills that make them complacent toward work they hate doing? Or should they be introspecting about the choices that make them take on unappealing work in the first place?

These are all worthwhile questions for future enhancement research. I’m also curious about the quality of the work students produce on stimulants, which this paper doesn’t cover. But regardless, Vrecko’s sounded an alarm.

And these findings might have broader value by chipping away at perceptions of cognition and emotion as two completely separate things. We have the intuition that the way we feel affects the way we think, and vice versa. It can’t hurt for the literature to better reflect that, and one place to start is rethinking what we mean when we say “cognitive enhancement.”


Apply to Neuroscience Boot Camp by Friday at midnight

It’s shameless plug time, but for good reason: anyone out there want to learn more about neuroscience? If so, be sure to check out the CNS’ Neuroscience Boot Camp — one of the few boot camps out there that involves more lunches and lectures than fatigues. The Boot Camp is an immersive week-long program that teaches neuroscience to grad students and professionals in other fields. This year’s program will be held right here at Penn from July 29 to August 7.

Neuroscience can be applied to all kinds of fields, so this is a great opportunity to get an edge in whatever cool thing you do. You can read more and apply on the site, where you’ll also find information about financial aid. Applications are due this Friday at midnight and don’t require much writing. So if you’re curious about the brain and can spare less than an hour, give it a go!

Next on Mind the Gap: I’ll be looking at a paper on cognitive enhancement by sociologist Scott Vrecko. There will be college students, stress and pills — a pretty fascinating cocktail. Look out for the post over the next week.

Animal research: It’s about more than cute kittens

Protesters at Oxford defend animal testing, in a photo shown by Colin Blakemore during a recent talk at Penn. Image from

It’s not often that you get to hear a lecture from a scientist who’s braved death threats just to do his work. But Penn was treated to that unique perspective this past Thursday, when Colin Blakemore delivered this month’s installment of the CNS talk series. Living up to his reputation as one of science’s most influential communicators, Blakemore reviewed the controversial history of animal research and considered what this history says about science’s relationship with the public. He also pointed out lessons for the future of animal testing — what people on both sides of this issue should have learned by now, with years of nastiness behind them.

A physiologist and pioneer in cognitive neuroscience, Blakemore became a famed advocate for animal research sort of by accident.  In the ’60s and ’70s he conducted research on cortical plasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize its functions. His test subjects? Kittens, which most of us know as pets, adornments for Hallmark cards and the stars of fawning videos on YouTube. The experiments involved sewing up these little guys’ eyelids, in ways that proved informative for human vision and contributed to major breakthroughs in our understanding of plasticity. These academic achievements aside, it’s not shocking that the hostility kicked up soon after, in response to Blakemore’s use of precious creatures but also to his frank defense of animal research.

What might be shocking is the intensity of the backlash. Blakemore and his family received bomb threats and letters concealing razor blades, and he has been personally assaulted by masked aggressors. All this drove Blakemore to secure police protection for his children for over a decade. Clearly he doesn’t agree with these tactics, or with the opinion that animal testing is just plain wrong. But Blakemore does believe the testing should be openly discussed. In particular, he said, we’ve got to ask: How should scientists and ethicists assess animal experiments? What levels of scientific and medical progress can justify their use? How do we deal with animal suffering? What alternatives have we not yet considered?

These questions overlap with issues of public opinion, as it is often individuals outside science who raise the most pointed (if sometimes ill-informed) critiques. On this note, Blakemore called upon scientists to figure out the most effective ways to engage with the public. This is no easy task, given the many contradictions in the public opinion surveys Blakemore reviewed. At least in Britain, people trust scientists much more than they trust the media, and yet they find themselves relying on the media for most of their information about science. Moreover, while they report being impressed by findings from science, they are often suspicious of its motives. Thus part of the challenge lies in educating people without imposing, or even seeming to impose, an aggressive agenda.

There has been progress: death threats and grave digging by animal rights extremists appear to have ceased. These days, Blakemore is more apt to be caught off guard by protest signs like one he spotted with the declaration, “Vegetarians for animal research.” If that slogan is a sign of the times, then views on animal research have gained some nuance. But of course, in the world of science and ethics, there’s always more work to be done.

Read this, it’s fascinating

Now that I’ve got your attention with my headline, I can get into today’s topic: headlines. Or more specifically, why it’s so hard to write good headlines for articles on neuroscience.

I started thinking about this after spotting a recent CNN article about optogenetics and controlling individual neurons, rather forebodingly called “How to ‘take over’ a brain.” Even with quotes around “take over,” that headline jars. The article itself is not quite so sensationalized. It mostly just explains how pulses of light can be used to influence the activity of genetically engineered neurons, a technique that has already proven to be a useful research tool in psychiatry and neuroscience. But if someone glances over the headline — the way most of us read news online — she could easily register some incorrect, SciFi-worthy implications: “Scientists can take over brains?? Yikes. Should I tinfoil my head when I’m near neuro labs?”

This misleading brain headline is one among many, all embedded in the brain porn issue I’ve mentioned in past posts. Brain porn often oversimplifies points in a play for attention. That means headlines like “The End of Evil? Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing,” or subheads like “Why Psychologists Reject Science” (a truly odd choice, given that the article in question describes divides within the field of psychology). Other headlines have more insidious problems, like anything on the theme of: “The Science of [Insert Interesting Phenomenon like Cheating or Morality Here].” Aside from seeming a bit lazy, “the science of” labels can imply a definitive science behind the phenomenon which probably does not exist.

The main argument for dramatic or glib headlines is one of lesser evils: sure, they can be deceptive, but at least they get people reading. In today’s media, a million things compete for your attention every moment, especially online. Articles have to sell themselves. This is true for most journalism, but it’s pronounced for writings on science, what with science being a fundamentally unsexy topic. So it’s understandable when editors want to exaggerate the sexier sides of neuroscience with notions like mind-control and the death of evil. As long as the articles themselves are sound, you could view “bad science” headlines as dressing up what may been viewed as lame academia, as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

The problem with that? It doesn’t seem necessary. Plenty of good headlines build intrigue without suggesting something untrue. The Atlantic, for example, titled an article about using neuroscience in courtrooms “The Brain on Trial.” That kind of headline avoids concrete claims and so is not misleading. At the same time, it invokes an image that I suspect made plenty of readers curious enough to click on the piece.

Of course, I don’t have hard stats on page views. And some stories are always going to be tougher to title than others. But I can’t think of a reason we shouldn’t rise to those occasions by, well, trying harder. Better headlines are among my goals this year, and I’ll want feedback. If my page views go down, I’ll just have to start titling every post “Neuroscience Discovers the Secret Meaning of Everything.”

Neuroethics in practice: Healthy youth seeks pill?

Adderall XR capsules. Image from

Adderall XR capsules. Image from

Hot off the presses! This month marks the publication of Neuroethics in Practice, a collection of articles on neuroethics in healthcare settings edited by the CNS’ own Anjan Chatterjee and Martha Farah. I won’t give an overview, since the editors have done that already.  But from the book’s major topics — which include brain enhancement, competence and responsibility, imaging, brain damage and new treatments — one issue jumped out to demand more screen time: the regulation of neuroenhancement among young people.

Though enhancement among youth is a popular topic, the discussion rarely involves specific policy recommendations. But those are exactly what Ilina Singh and Kelly Kelleher offer in their article for Neuroethics in Practice. Their argument: given that neuroenhancement is already being used, it should become a clinical option for young people that is regulated by primary care providers.

The details can be found in a version of the paper printed here. More broadly, two aspects of this position stand out.

First, regardless of whether it is “correct,” this stance is an unusually practical response to concerns over the inevitability of some enhancement — concerns stemming from the simple fact that as long as these medications exist, some unimpaired individuals will get them. Singh and Kelleher move beyond the instinctual reaction of fretting to ask, how can we deal with this problem in everyday health care?

Second, addressing neuroenhancement in primary care could have implications for a key subtlety of this topic: as of now, neuroenhancement is not equally available to all young people. As Singh and Kelleher point out, enhancement is at least initially more likely to spread throughout well-resourced families and communities, particularly where students attend competitive secondary schools. And reports on collegiate use of stimulants in the U.S. have found it to be more common in the northeast and at schools with more competitive admissions standards.

In other words, current neuroenhancement among young people seems tied to cultures of competitive academics, certain definitions of success and expendable money to put toward pills. But primary care is a different story — all young people should be able to get check-ups, not just those at elite schools. In that sense, these proposals raise important questions and new possibilities for the cultural context of neuroenhancement.

So, the final takeaway on the Singh and Kelleher paper? As part of the conversation on enhancement, it adds something new. As a peek into Neuroethics in Practice, it should make you curious about the whole book.

Mission mindfulness

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on a Mind & Life panel. From

So the Dalai Lama walks into a room full of neuroscientists…

That sentence sounds like the revamped start of a priest-rabbi-imam joke. But it’s the reality of the Mind & Life Institute — a nonprofit aiming to combine the first person experiences of contemplative practices like meditation with scientific studies of the brain.

Mind & Life has involved the Dalai Lama since its 1987 founding, and over the years the group has brought in other spiritual leaders, committed meditators and well-respected scientists to fulfill its mission. It supports research on a range of topics, from the effects of mindfulness training on attention and working memory in children, to yogic breathing and cognition, to interdisciplinary definitions of human spirituality.

I’ll admit it: when I first read about an organization applying Western neuroscience to contemplative practice, I was a little skeptical (or paranoid, depending how you see it). It’s easy for Western cultures to appropriate traditionally Eastern practices in ways that ring superficial — case in point, the yuppie yoga boom. If this were an instance of neuroscientists trying to “validate” practices that have been around for thousands of years, I can’t say I would have been on board.

But Mind & Life is not about validation. Rather, the goal seems to be bringing together experts from both sides of the collaboration so they can finds points of overlap and learn from each other — a crucial element for any program hoping to bridge neuroscience with other fields. Sure, some of the studies have sought and confirmed scientific evidence of health benefits to meditation, like helping to treat mental illness, reduce chronic pain and generally improve bodily health. But these studies don’t seem to be conducted from a standpoint of, “Well, science has to prove that any of this works.” That kind of approach probably couldn’t fly anyway, given the central involvement of the Dalai Lama and committed practitioners of meditation, many of whom are also working scientists.

As with any collaboration, Mind & Life is continually learning and changing. In the past year, for example, it launched a humanities and social sciences initiative to give more voice to the humanities in understanding the mind. In fact, the Institute’s perhaps necessarily changing identity makes it a great case study for exploring what it even means for neuroscience to exchange with other fields.

That question has been taken on by history and sociology of science professor John Tresch, who chairs the science, technology and society undergraduate major at Penn. Tresch has studied Mind & Life on-and-off for several years, publishing a paper last year on their summer program (which CNS Managing Director Denise Clegg has twice attended). When I spoke with Tresch about the Institute, he made some interesting big-picture points. They mostly centered on the idea that no kind of science interacts with other disciplines as a purely intellectual entity. Rather, science comes embedded in a culture, which can’t help but influence the ways it relates to other perspectives.

For example, as Tresch explained, meditation plays a different role in Western conceptions of Buddhism than it does in countries with strong Buddhist traditions. This difference may affect the religious connotation of meditation across cultures and, in turn, influence its perception in scientific communities. Science and contemplative practice also have different attitudes toward introspection. While introspection has long been central to meditation, science has alternatively viewed it as an important tool (á la William James) or a dirty word (á la John Watson).

Such issues don’t have to hold back Mind & Life, but they are worth including in the conversation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re curious about science, contemplative practice, both fields or even the just big questions about the mind. Either way, all sides to this project — and its many participants — are something to keep an eye on.

On Brain Rumors: an hour with Neuroskeptic


Neuroskeptic’s popular anonymous blog

In the world of science blogging, Neuroskeptic is kind of like our James Dean: talented, famous and mysterious. His site gets an average of 1500 to 2000 hits a day — not too shabby for someone who covers such alluring topics as statistical methods and ways to improve neuroscience.

Making a rare public appearance, Neuroskeptic came to Penn last week as part of the CNS Talk Series, delivering a lecture Thursday night called “Brain Rumors: Public (Mis)understanding of Neuroscience and Why it Matters.” His main point was simple: Neuroscience matters because people take it seriously, perhaps too seriously.

Before the lecture, I got to chat with him blogger to (much more famous) blogger. We talked about everything from what makes good science writing to why hotter people may not be any nicer. Read on.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What motivated you to start your blog?

So about four years ago, I was doing my PhD and using fMRI, and I kind of felt like I and other people in that area had been given the job of using these fMRI analyses, these really complicated and amazing techniques, without really being aware of how to use them properly. Looking around, I realized that this might have been a widespread problem — that we in neuroscience had all these really useful techniques, but people just sort of dived in to use them without thinking about whether they should be [applying them to] particular questions, or how to use them best. So I started the blog as a way of educating myself — to help myself, really, but also as a way of starting a conversation on this issue. Then other things caught my eye, and it kind of snowballed.

You recently posted about a psych study questioning the tendency to “judge a book by its cover,” or judge personality by attractiveness. You said something interesting about how debunking these kinds of everyday misconceptions is what psychology should do — what did you mean by that, and why? 

I don’t think that’s all psychology should do, cover what the public finds interesting. But I think with psychology in particular, there’s a kind of disdain for things which are everyday and mundane. I think psychology has often tried to come up with novel ideas and novel experiments, which is great — like looking at things that people haven’t looked at before, and that’s fine. But that’s by its nature sort of arcane, and I think we shouldn’t overlook things like “judging a book by its cover,” which everyone is kind of interested in. That’s directly relevant to people’s lives and has actual consequences. Whereas I think if you’re looking at, I don’t know, the effect of the color of a room on people’s mood — I guess that could be relevant, if you then start painting everyone’s room, but it’s not part of people’s lives already. Whereas other things are, and I think we need to pay more attention to those.

So you think the sort of “basic science” research like the room color stuff should be balanced out by “everyday” questions.

Yeah. I think there’s a tendency for psychologists to think, well, if everyone sort of knows how this works, then there’s not much interesting there for me as a psychologist. But I don’t think that’s true. Very often people think they know how something works, but they don’t, like in this “judging a book by its cover” thing, where everyone’s got an opinion — but they might be wrong. And there might be a really interesting scientific story behind why even a wrong belief is there.

For something like judging personality by attractiveness, though, why would we even need scientific studies? Can’t we rely on our folk psychology to tell us that a “better-looking” person won’t necessarily have a better personality?

Well in that case, it isn’t obvious that there’s isn’t a correlation — there could have been one. And there are other studies suggesting that there is. Folk psychology is great in its place, but I think this is one of those cases where it doesn’t work. Folk psychology is fine for understanding individual people and actions and motivations. But it really doesn’t work for things like correlations, because the average person knows, well, maybe a few dozen people, a few hundred people at best. And that’s not big enough to make a correlation, especially because the vast majority of people only know a very restricted kind of person.

So if you want to know, say, if nationality is associated with personality, as just an average person you’re never going to be able to know that. Because most of your friends will be of one nationality, probably. For anything where you’re looking beyond what happens in an individual person’s head to the influences and associations across the whole population, [folk psychology] is not going to work.

Regarding your opinions on what science can and cannot do — as in the “Neuroscience Under Attack” articleyou’ve been portrayed as being especially critical of neuroscience. Can you talk about what you actually are trying to do in relation to the field of neuroscience? 

So there was that New York Times article, and there was one in the New Yorker as well…[those articles] were fundamentally fine. They covered important issues like methodology and the interpretation of neuroscience. But they kind of left it there, without acknowledging that those criticisms themselves can be subject to criticisms. And they only apply to particular things. I see myself as criticizing the problems with neuroscience, but also celebrating all the good stuff. I think those kinds of articles simplify what I and other bloggers like me are trying to do, which is to identify the problems so that neuroscience can advance better.

[Note: You can read his blog response to these articles here.] 

There’s a sense of [back-and-forth] in neuroscience, where everyone in the media’s kind of done with liking neuroscience, so now it’s time to switch it. You just have to remember that it’s not black and white at all. Just as in the past neuroscience was getting really enthusiastic and over-stretching interpretations, when studies that really didn’t show anything dramatic were being presented as the best thing ever — now there’s a danger that we’ll do the opposite thing.

I think it many ways, [this backlash] has just started. I predict it will get bigger, probably. But on the other hand, in my experience probably the great majority of journalists working in this area are actually pretty good and know that there’s more caveats. I just think that all journalists kind of suffer from this [problem], where they can’t write from their full range of knowledge because it won’t make a good article.

When you write a post, how do you balance accessibility with not compromising content?

I’d say that’s one of the hardest things in writing, actually, and I didn’t used to be able to do it nearly as well as I can now. I think to make something accessible while being accurate — I really believe you can do that to almost anything. There’s nothing so inherently complicated that you can’t explain it, except mathematics, which may be impossible to explain without using mathematical terms. But certainly in biology and neuroscience, there’s nothing you can’t explain. I think the trick is, you’ve got to know it inside out so you can explain it in simple terms.

You mentioned needing a solid background in a topic to write about it well. But realistically, a lot of journalism comes down to being assigned to write quickly about something you’re not an expert on. Do you think that sort of framework for journalism has to be changed in order for people to write properly about science? 

I used to think, yeah, that it’s just like a broken model and it’s not going to work. But since I’ve been blogging, I’ve come into contact with more journalists, and I think actually it can work. The funny thing is, in an awful lot of these cases where scientific things look complicated, they are a lot simpler than they seem. And once you understand one of these issues inside out, you sort of see all the parallels with the next one. My advice would be, find one thing that really interests you and figure out exactly how it’s working, and where all the different players are coming from. Because scientists in particular, what they do is in many ways very predictable. In any given story, you’re going to have the guy who proposes a radical new idea, the guy who comes along and says “that’s bad” because he has a big idea of his own, and then you have people who don’t care either way but criticize the methods. And then the press release will come along and distort all of this in particular ways.

Once you learn that, it helps you to see through all the details. Most of neuroscience, it differs hugely in the details but once you look beneath that it’s kind of like — there’s this theory that all fiction covers one of seven basic plots, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I think in nonfiction it is true. I almost want to say, any given piece of science is a lot less innovative than it first appears. It sort of follows a basic pattern. And obviously there are new results coming out of that pattern, but the pattern is the same. It depends on the field of science, but in neuroscience there are maybe three or four basic patterns.

What are those three or four basic patterns?

So in neuroscience, you have the “this part of the brain is responsible for this major function” pattern. You’ve got the “factor causes outcome,” pattern, like drinking shrinks your brain, or infection with flu during pregnancy causes schizophrenia. Or smoking causes psychosis. And those studies always have the same criticisms as well, like, did you adjust for confounding factors, that kind of thing. And then there’s the more conceptual kind of work, where you’re asking how are we best to talk about particular mental/brain function. And that sounds quite abstract, but usually it’s a similar process, where people are asking whether we should lump two things together as a single thing with the same causes and the same mechanism. People may say, for example, should we lump together decision making and emotion, do they say the same basic thing? Or in autism, people say, should we cast facial emotion recognition and social skills as part of the same theory of mind?

And there are more patterns than that, but I’d have to spend some time thinking about it so I can enumerate them all. It’s kind of like, you know them when you see them.

One last question – why the vigilant anonymity for your blog? 

There are a couple different reasons. When I started out, blogging in neuroscience was much less accepted than it is today. There weren’t very many bloggers around and they weren’t respected, really, by anyone. So I felt like that could be a problem. But I also find it really helpful to be able to keep my blogging and my real work separate, because otherwise there’s a conflict of interest. And I do that by not blogging about my own work. I feel it would be much harder to remain impartial writing under my own name, because it would influence how I blogged about things, even if it wasn’t stuff that I wasn’t working on in the moment but that I could be working on in the future. It’s mainly a case of trying to maintain integrity.

But there are lots of people who blog under their own name and they’ve got integrity, so it’s kind of a personal choice, really. To be honest, it’s more of a habit now. I’ve been doing it for four years, and it’s kind of like my brand.