April 26, 2015

How do you find your path through the jungle of neuroscience?

Reading about and immersing oneself in neuroscience can be interesting and useful but also confusing. Here are some thoughts about how to find your way in the jungle of neuroscience. 

I received quite a few assenting reactions to my article Is neuroscience relevant for coaches? In the article I discuss whether neuroscience is relevant for coaches and whether it is reasonable to ask of coaches that they learn about neuroscience. I came to the conclusion that although it is probably not indispensable for coaches to know a lot about neuroscience it is probably a good idea because it can be interesting and useful. It can help coaches justify better how they work and help them understand better which interventions may be helpful in which situations.

One of the people who reacted via email agreed with my conclusions but pointed out that it is important to follow developments in neuroscience with a healthy dose of skepticism because, according to him, there are many shameless charlatans in the world of neuroscience and many claims are being made that no serious scientist would support. I was thankful for this reaction because it triggered some additional thoughts about how coaches might find their way in the jungle of neuroscience. I have been thinking about the question how can you know whether what you read about neuroscience is true or not? In other words, what can you trust and what can't you trust?

To begin with, it is true that there are many claims about the brain and neuroscience which are simply not true. That they are not true, unfortunately, does not preclude them from being repeated again and again.  To get an idea about what types of untrue claims I am talking you might take a look at Christian Jarrett's blog which is dedicated to this topic. Caveat 1 for the motivated coach is to arm yourself against debunked myths which keep turning up.

Besides pure nonsense there is also a category of publications and claims of which it is a bit harder to determine whether or not they deserve to be taken seriously.  In particular, I am thinking about publications which appear to be reporting serious research but which are somewhat doubtful because its author(s) appear to have a commercial interest in its conclusions. An example of this may be research into the benefits of mindfulness meditation. A lot of research has been done which looks rigorous and which suggests that there are many benefits of mindfulness meditation (here is an example). At the same time there are reasons to be skeptical when the authors of such publications have a financial interest in such findings (or seem to have such interests). Psychologist James Coyne says the following about this problem: “A lot of the push for mindfulness is by enthusiasts trying to create demand for services and training.” (source). Caveat 2 for the coach: when you read something about neuroscience, check whether the author seems to have a commercial interest in the claim that is being made. When this is the case that does not mean, by definition, that the claim is untrue. But it should warn you and you are advised to read other, independent, authors about the same topic. (In this article I am taking a skeptical look at mindfulness meditation).

Then there is the problem that, now and then, claims are made which appear to contradict each other. For example, at one moment you may read about serotonin's crucial role in depression, the next you may read that serotonin's role in depression is seriously debated. This phenomenon of seemingly contradictory claims is inherent in science. As soon as you seriously start studying a topic as complex as neuroscience you are may discover soon that the topic is much more complex than you previously thought. You'll encounter ambiguities and paradoxes and you'll discover that many questions are still unanswered. Anyone who starts studying a complex topic should develop a tolerance for these types of uncertainties. Only those who do not deeply immerse themselves in a complex topic can maintain a completely simple and well-ordered view on it. Unfortunately for them (and us) this view is probably simplistic (see the Dunning-Kruger effect). Caveat 3 for the coach: when you start to study neuroscience do not expect simple answers but prepare for an ongoing process of learning which will entail quite a few moments of confusion.

Finally, there is the matter that neuroscience is continuously developing. When I studied medicine for a few years and later studied psychology I did not learn much about a topic which is now one of the hottest in neuroscience: neuroplasticity. In fact, I have been taught a rather fixed view of the brain during my studies. In the meantime, rather an important shift has taken place in how the malleability of the brain is viewed. The brain is now viewed as much more plastic than it was long believed to be. This shift started only relatively recently and my impression is it will continue. This is one example of how serious science may drastically come to different views over time. Caveat 4 for the coach: do not only look at what is being said at point moment in time but follow developments over time. A ten year old book in your bookcase may be seriously behind the current state of the art.

I don't write these things to discourage you (or myself) to study neuroscience. On the contrary. What is nicer than to keep learning about a complex topic? A skeptical attitude is what I recommend. Whenever you encounter claims on neuroscience ask yourself what precisely they are based on. Read multiple authors on the same topic and look out for critical voices. Check the credentials of authors and check whether they may have a commercial interest in their claims. If yes, this does not prove their claims are false but you should be extra skeptical. And finally, do not search for simple and definite answers but view your knowledge development as a process of continuous updating and refinement.

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