Magnets on the brain

Posted on December 23, 2011


Dateline: 1 November 2011 // Posted by: JBergII
Source: Daily Mail

Story: “Could zapping the brain with magnets help you overcome aggression and social anxiety?”

Summary: Daily Mail correspondent Simon Tomlinson reported on 1 November that scientists have revealed that magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the brain could control human emotion. A study published in Current Biology using TMS reported that when the frontal cerebral cortex (which is the area of the brain in charge of memory and attention) was less active, people were found unable to control their impulses as easily. The use of magnets on the part of the head covering the cerebral cortex seemed to “temporarily influence the activity of the underlying part”. In other words, a short magnetic pulse concentrated on an area of the brain will temporarily suppress memory and attention activity.

Neuroscientist and Professor Inge Volman of Radboud University Nijmegen concluded that after a series of “approach-avoidance” studies, TMS could be used to treat social anxiety and aggression disorders. By applying the magnetic pulses when a subject is asked to approach a person with an angry face, subjects were seen to follow suit despite natural aversion impulses to aggressive faces. Volman proposes that the same therapy can be used by depressed individuals and those suffering from social anxiety disorders that normally shy away from parties and social situations in general. Essentially, by “zapping” the brain with a magnetic pulse before going to a party, in theory a patient will forget their nervous inhibitions and dance the night away.

Why is this PseudoNews? This latest suggestion of the validity of TMS therapy when applied to aggression and social anxiety disorder is scientifically questionable and therefore PseudoNews for several reasons. Firstly, the statement “Our emotions can be controlled by stimulating the brain with magnets” is misleading in that it seems to suggest that the magnets influence the character of our emotions, such as feeling happy versus angry, or social versus introverted. In actuality the study concludes that our attention and memory regarding impulsive behavior such as the avoidance of social situations or negative reactions to aggressive individuals can be suppressed using a concentration of magnetic pulses to the area known to control such impulses, the front of the cerebral cortex.

Secondly, the head of the study and sole proponent of TMS within the article, Professor Inge Volman, admits that the “effect of TMS is temporary and that makes it difficult to apply therapeutically”. With this concession comes the questioning of how the effects of the TMS could last long enough to make any real difference in the amount of aggression or social anxiety exhibited by the patient. For example, say after a TMS session the patient “forgets” about their social anxiety long enough to begin their drive to a party, at what point would the anxiety kick back in and result in them turning around and heading home? The length of effect of TMS is not mentioned in any part of the article, which raises serious questions regarding its true validity.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The features of pseudoscience on show in this article are vagueness of measurement and confirmation bias. The vagueness of measurement refers to the previously mentioned lack of information on the length of effect that TMS possesses, and confirmation bias refers to the fact that the patients involved in this experiment could have perhaps been influenced by the expectation of the researcher that the magnet therapy would work to change the emotions. If a researcher informs a patient that they are testing the hypothesis that the concentration of magnetic pulses on the frontal cerebral cortex could change social anxiety and aggression patterns, a kind of placebo effect could result. The patient could find that they feel suddenly less introverted and more socially relaxed, which is a confirmation bias phenomenon exhibited by several other examples of pseudoscience, including crystal therapy and Reiki.

The moral of the story: In examining the scientific soundness of this Daily Mail article, we are reminded that simplistic, sensationalistic claims such as magnets controlling emotions should always be treated with considerable suspicion. It is important to maintain a skeptic view of emerging research, especially that which asserts the ability to affect inherent personality traits such as aggression or social anxiety. TMS is one such assertion that we can reasonably conclude to be classified as pseudoscience until further evidence of its validity is produced.