The Risks of Ignoring the Brain

This is part two of a two-part series exploring how behavioral scientists can benefit from neuroscience. Read part one here.

A friend of mine was skeptical about whether behavioral scientists actually need to understand the brain. Such skepticism is not unwarranted. After all, even without much knowledge of the inner workings of the brain, behavioral scientists have had some success changing behavior.

And even if my friend concedes that neuroscience increases our understanding of the mechanisms behind cognitive biases, organizes them in a clear framework, and helps predict when they’ll manifest, does it really offer any practical value to behavior change interventions?

It does—and in a way that addresses two current weaknesses of many behavioral interventions.

First, while behavioral scientists often change behavior by changing the context, neuroscientists trigger change by acting directly on the brain. Such strategies can address behaviors that are particularly difficult to change—and can change them in a lasting way. Second, examining what happens in the brain could help behavioral scientists disentangle robust from weak scientific evidence; this serves as ammo against both the replicability crisis and the “neurobabble” phenomenon.

From Behavior Change to Brain Change

In 2016, a group of American and Japanese neuroscientists, led by Hakwan Lau, reconditioned the brain to remove traumatic fears. They used a so-called neurohacking approach: They first identified threatening stimuli in the brain and then offset their negative connotation by associating them with pleasant stimuli, such as rewards. The promise of neurohacking is that debilitating fears—such as arachnophobia or, more seriously, post-traumatic stress disorder—could be reduced or even eliminated. Neurohacking also offers a revolutionary path forward for reducing cognitive biases, such as status quo bias or regret aversion, which can be attributed to a natural fear of change.

Another promising neuroscientific approach for addressing behaviors that are particularly difficult to change, like nicotine addiction, is by conditioning the brain during sleep. A group of Israeli researchers, led by Noam Sobel, exposed sleeping smokers to the smell of cigarettes, together with either an unpleasant smell of rotten eggs or fish. In the following week, participants smoked up to 30 percent fewer cigarettes. Importantly, sleep conditioning resulted in less cigarette-smoking when applied during sleep but not when applied during wakefulness. And not only did sleep conditioning led to real behavioral change, it did so without any conscious effort by the smokers (in fact, awareness of the manipulations seems to suppress their effect).

Why are smells and sleep a pathway to behavior change? First, our sense of smell represents an exceptional opportunity to influence behavior because it is a doorway to the brain’s reward center—a key region involved in behavior change and one that is deeply interconnected with the brain areas that are triggered by scents. Second, intervening during sleep seems to offer easier access to unconscious brain processes that are often responsible for unintentional behaviors.

Sleep conditioning may also combat social biases. For example, the social bias that girls are bad at math may adversely influence how a teacher treats her students, regardless of the teacher’s intentions. A recent article published in Science offered initial evidence that it’s possible to reduce people’s social biases through brain training and subliminal reinforcement while they nap (more research is needed to confirm this finding, but the initial results are promising). As with the cigarette smoking study, the main effect—bias reduction—depended on sleep.

Crucially, the reduction in social bias persisted one week later, surprising even the researchers. They reported, “The usual expectation is that a brief, one-time intervention is not strong enough to have a lasting influence.” This brings us to another issue in behavioral science that neuroscience can help with: the durability of behavioral changes.

Habits in the Brain

The effects of many traditional behavioral interventions decline sharply over time. For example, a 2017 study examined 38 natural field experiments that were designed to reduce energy consumption. Once the treatment ended, energy savings persisted in only 35 to 55 percent of nudge campaigns. The researchers concluded that “there is still much that we do not understand about habit formation and ways to induce changes in such.”

Why might this be? One reason is that behavioral scientists are not focusing enough on the brain.

Many actions are performed unconsciously, like instinctively switching off the lights when leaving a room. Such actions are known as habits, and neuroscience offers a particularly promising way to assess and target habit formation. Recent research in Neuron provides the strongest evidence to date that habit formation is a matter of controlling the level of activity in a specific brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Until a behavioral change is associated with a tangible brain change in such keys cortical areas, it’s unlikely to become a habit and thus unlikely to persist over time. Years of neuroscience studies have shown that only persistent behavior change leaves traces of habit formation in our brain. Bearing on such evidence from the brain, behavioral scientists can better predict if a behavioral change will last.

The Replicability Crisis and “Neurobabble”

So far, it may seem like neuroscience offers a valid, but perhaps nonessential, alternative to traditional behavioral interventions. But ignoring the brain has consequences—namely, it leaves behavioral scientists vulnerable to creating interventions that are poorly timed and poorly targeted, and makes researchers more likely to fall for junk science.

How can neuroscience guard against these risks? Neuroscience can lend insight into when a bias will manifest and how to design an effective intervention to counteract it; this leads to interventions that are targeted and well timed. Intervening on the brain and checking for brain changes would require a more robust technological infrastructure, including affordable and wearable technology, such as portable EEG, fMRI, or TMS systems), but it may be one of the most effective ways to trigger persistent behavioral changes.

Neuroscience can also combat the replicability crisis of laboratory experiments in both psychology and economics. It’s an excellent tool to help behavioral scientists discern good science from bad science. For example, knowing the neural mechanisms behind the endowment effect offers novel proof that we are dealing with a real cognitive bias rooted in the brain. Alternatively, if neuroscience does not confirm the existence of the emotional priming effect, it may signal that evidence on priming is not robust.

Finally, understanding the basics of neuroscience is essential in the age of “neurobabble,” the phenomenon whereby neuroscientific explanations of behavior are more persuasive simply because they sound more technical and authoritative.

Several studies have shown that adding irrelevant neuroscience information increases the perceived quality of psychological explanations. For example, including images of the brain makes bad explanations sound more authoritative and believable. This “neuroscience bias” may result from the common view that “the brain is the best explanation for mental phenomena.”

How can we distinguish neuroscience from neurobabble? A good first step is to heed the advice of neuroscientist Molly Crockett: “If someone tries to sell you something with a brain on it, don’t just take them at their word. Ask the tough questions, ask to see the evidence, ask for the part of the story that’s not being told. The answers shouldn’t be simple, because the brain is not simple.” And beyond the threat of neurobabble, we must also realize that although neuroscientific techniques like sleep conditioning can be used for good—to help people reduce their biases—they have more malicious applications too.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that without a basic understanding of neuroscience, behavioral scientists open themselves up to being tricked by junk science peddlers. But armed with an understanding of the brain, behavioral scientists are not only robust against these threats but also are equipped with powerful new tools to design persistent solutions to sticky behavioral problems. To be a better behavioral scientist, it is no longer possible to ignore the brain.