There’s a famous cliché which says “If you like sausage, you should never see one being made”. Well, earlier this week I saw how a science news story occurred, from experiment to media coverage, and I think the same applies here.
A UCL study titled “Hippocampal and prefrontal processing of network topology to simulate the future” was published in Nature Communications earlier this week. The human brain’s capacity for spatial navigation is fairly formidable, even if we’re not aware of it (riders of the beer taxi will appreciate this). But how does it do this? The study investigated this by presenting subjects undergoing fMRI with simulated versions of London streets and locations, and having them navigate their way around. Some subjects were guided, others were made to work out routes to their destinations. Corresponding brain activity was recorded.
The results suggest that different aspects of the hippocampus are responsible for processing awareness of familiar landmarks and encoding the properties of the new locations, but also that prefrontal cortex activity increases when subjects have to work out where they need to go. This suggests that the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex form a navigational system that allows us to work out how to get around a city, by remembering what’s where, where we’ve been, and where to go.
An interesting study, with interesting and reasonable conclusions. 5/5, would reference again.
But it doesn’t end there. In these days of “publish or perish” and obsessions with “impact”, it’s not enough to produce a good study, people have to read it as well. To this end, publicity and media departments send out press-releases to draw attention to their latest findings.
This is in no way is this a criticism of the people who do it. It’s a big ask. To make something intensely technical understandable and appealing for a mainstream audience often requires some clever or ingenious way of presenting it. Sometimes they misjudge it spectacularly, but most of the time they get it reasonably right, in my humble opinion.
In this instance, the UCL media relations office sent out an undeniably thorough and well-written press release, but with the title “Satnavs ‘switch off’ parts of the brain”.
I saw the press release as I’m on the mailing list for the Science Media Centre, an independent body that works hard to ensure that scientific reporting is fair and accurate by putting providing journalists and reporters with relevant expert perspectives as soon as any science-based news pops up. I received the press release, and felt I could comment as this is actually my area (twice in one month? What are the odds?!)
The press release was largely fine, but I did flag up problems with the title. Parts of the brain which became more active in one situation didn’t become more active in the other; in no way is this “switching off” parts of the brain, any more than the fact your pulse isn’t racing means your heart has stopped. “Shutting off” the hippocampus, even very briefly, can cause serious long-term damage.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s important. Suggesting that something “shuts down” the brain implies active, negative interference. It has the greater potential to alarm people needlessly. As well as that, “Satnavs” aren’t mentioned in the original study, so to say it claims they shut down the brain is doubly dubious.
You can see why this angle was adopted; most people don’t think in terms of “topological networks” or “cognitive mapping”. But they’re familiar with satnavs, and the study did use scenarios where the subjects were told where to go, basically the same thing.
So, myself and Dr Christopher Connolly of Dundee University supplied some comments along these lines, to try and help contextualise the claims made in the press release.
And, next day we found ourselves quoted all over the media, under headlines stating satnavs shut down parts of our brain. Given how many people don’t read beyond the headline or first few paragraphs, this isn’t ideal.
This isn’t to condemn or criticise, nobody has done anything “wrong” here, but because a media department needed to contextualise something in a relatable way, an interesting study about the specific neurological mechanisms of self-directed navigation has quickly morphed into what could become a scare-story about the dangers of Satnavs.
What was more fascinating, as someone who had the full details of both the study and how it was pitched, was how the different papers reported it. They all had exactly the same info and material, but presented it in revealingly different ways.
For example, I’m not exactly impartial here, but the Guardian coverage was decent. Really ran with the Satnav angle admittedly, but otherwise fine. It’s almost as if they have several neuroscientists on the books who will happily write a strong rebuttal to any dubious brain-based stories they put up.
Why millennials ALWAYS get lost: Satnavs ‘switch off’ part of the brain we use for navigation
Fair enough that they put switch off in ‘scare quotes’, as that’s what the press release said, but at no point did either press release or original study have a pop at millennials based on some massive overgeneralisation that, as a millennial myself (just about), I’ve never heard before?
It’s almost like the Mail has a tendency to criticise younger people for no reason, like they’re trying to pander to an older readership that really doesn’t like change. Not that I’m saying that’s the case, of course.
WRONG DIRECTION: SatNavs are making us dumber by ‘switching off the part of the brain responsible for memory’
Making us dumber now are they? Who said that? Where did that come from? How does not engaging the parts of your brain responsible for navigational planning when you don’t need to do that count as dumb? Is the Sun Insisting that engaging with something that does your thinking for you make you dumber some form of projection? Who knows.
Navigation part of the brain ‘is SWITCHED off’ as soon as you turn on a sat nav
Why is “switched” the most crucial term here? Would they ignore it if it was “turned” off? Why are they so upset about switching? And note the increased sense of panic, it’s “as soon as you turn on” a satnav. Who said that? My satnav takes at least a minute to locate the GPS signal, so surely it’s not doing anything to me at that time? What do they know that I don’t, dammit!?!
Drivers who rely on sat navs ‘struggle to remember local streets’
Do they? Who said that? This is really quite a tenuous conclusion to come to based on the data provided. Why is “struggle to remember local streets” in quotes there? Did someone say that? Who? Someone passing through the office on their way to empty the bins?
There are countless more examples, but this all just shows a science story being reported which differs significantly from the research it was based on. And remember, in this instance the general content of the reporting is fine overall, there is ample expert insight to hand, there was a lot of work done to ensure fairness and accuracy, and the subject matter and consequences are essentially harmless. And despite all this, we still ended up with noticeable amounts of distortion, sensationalism and ideological twisting.
Imagine how much worse it can be, and regularly is, when it’s something “important”, like new drugs, cures for diseases, controversial subject matters, and so on.
The take home conclusion from this is, reporting on science isn’t necessarily a science itself. The least you should do is read the whole story, and not just stick to the headline, as that’s often the least reliable part, as we can see.
More on this subject can be found in Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain, available in the UK, US and many other countries.