In this article from the health section of the BBC News site, a study is reported that shows that the brains of women with low libido – “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder” in the parlance of the drug companies pushing the concept for commercial purposes – show different patterns of activation when exposed to erotic imagery than the brains of women with “normal” libido. The conclusion pushed by the writer, despite some dissenting voices at the bottom of the article, is that HSDD is a “real” condition with a physical cause. This is a pretty common feature of poor reporting – a psychological “condition” is invented, some brain scans are done, and the presence of a difference between groups is used to both confirm the existence of the condition, and to explain its cause in brain operation. There’s been a bit of a media storm reporting this study, the Daily Telegraph for example going with the headline “Women with low libidos ‘have different brains'”.
Whenever you get this kind of (over) reaction to a piece of research or news, it’s worth looking to see what the Daily Mash website makes of it. More seriously though, there has been a gratifying slew of blog posts pointing out problems with the study itself, its conclusions, and the media’s reporting of it.
A good starting point on problems with the study is given at Neuroskeptic, but other issues are raised in the following posts.
There’s a very good piece on the problems of the conclusions drawn from the study on Bad Science. In this post, Ben Goldacre draws on an article on public responses to neuroscience. This article is well worth reading, to better understand the public’s reaction to psychological claims but also to better understand the limitations of neuroscientific claims in psychology generally. While on the Bad Science post, it’s worth looking at the links at the end on the medicalisation of psychological categories: this is a worrying trend in modern society, driven particularly by vested interests such as drug companies.
My favourite post about the study comes from Dr Petra’s blog, which talks about issues with the media reporting of the study itself, but more importantly draws conclusions about the quality of science journalism. These conclusions are quite pessimistic, but fairly so, and are worth bearing in mind whenever you read media reports about psychology.