Cognitive Daily

SEED on the allure of fMRI

In case you’re reading this on RSS, or have trained yourself to ignore the links immediately to the right, I wanted to point you to Paul Bloom’s excellent article on Seedmagazine.com. Why does an fMRI brain scan suddenly make a humdrum task suddenly seem like “real science?” Bloom points to one experiment (NOT involving an MRI machine) which may give us the answer:

Deena Skolnick, a graduate student at Yale, asked her subjects to judge different explanations of a psychological phenomenon. Some of these explanations were crafted to be awful. And people were good at noticing that they were awful–unless Skolnick inserted a few sentences of neuroscience. These were entirely irrelevant, basically stating that the phenomenon occurred in a certain part of the brain. But they did the trick: For both the novices and the experts (cognitive neuroscientists in the Yale psychology department), the presence of a bit of apparently-hard science turned bad explanations into satisfactory ones.

No wonder it seems like everyone and his brother is hopping into an fMRI machine these days: it gets you noticed. Just be careful, though, because it might also kill a puppy.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Weber
    June 28, 2006

    It’d be nice to know what the “apparently-hard science” inserted into the patently awful explanations was. Functional MRI isn’t the only technique psychologists use to infer brain activity during thought. If it’s simply the air of “hardness” is what captures people’s attention, why is it that EEG, TMS, single-unit recording, and other quantitative, technologically intensive techniques in cognitive neuroscience don’t attract the same attention as fMRI?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    June 28, 2006

    “why is it that EEG, TMS, single-unit recording, and other quantitative, technologically intensive techniques in cognitive neuroscience don’t attract the same attention as fMRI?”

    I suspect that they’re not seen as “new” compared to fMRI. Plus, a lot of people know about the medical applications of fMRI, so it’s familiar enough to seem relevant, while not so obscure that people simply don’t know what it is.

  3. #3 Caitlin Connors
    June 28, 2006

    “why is it that EEG, TMS, single-unit recording, and other quantitative, technologically intensive techniques in cognitive neuroscience don’t attract the same attention as fMRI?”

    I can’t help but think that the images that fMRI research produces also has a lot to do with it — fMRI “blobs” overlaid on a high resolution structural scan, even if one doesn’t fully grasp what they mean/what the signal is constructed of/what the tasks were that produced them/etc, seem very clear and simple. The same can’t be said for images from single-unit recordings or EEG, which I think are harder to approach for a layperson flipping through the paper. As Bloom notes, those images are very appealing.

    It doesn’t look like the Skolnick paper is out there published or presented yet, but I may just be missing it. Has anyone found it?

    By the way, as a person who has been in an fMRI scanner plenty of times, the experience simply isn’t “like being buried alive, only louder.” It’s fairly open – only part of you is enclosed in the scanner, it’s usually not particularly dark, there’s wiggle room, etc. Not sure where the “buried alive” imagery comes in — Although I find the false image of it ironic in the context of an article about the deceptive seduction of fMRI images…

  4. #4 Matthew George
    June 28, 2006

    I suspect fMRIs get so much attention for the same reason that graphs get more attention than rows of numbers — we’re primarily visual, and certain kinds of visuals that form pictures are what we evolved to examine and evaluate.

  5. #5 Caitlin Connors
    June 30, 2006

    FYI, Deena Skolnick kindly let me know that her paper is still in progress. Guess we’ll have to wait to see.

  6. #6 NeuroGuy
    July 3, 2006

    It isn’t just scientific journals – in some cases marketers are being seduced into thinking looking at brain images will let them accurately predict consumer behavior. Having said that, there’s little doubt that the resolution (in space and time) of scans is improving, and that neuroscientists are getting better at interpreting the data. Even if the present value of fMRI studies is a bit overhyped, the future holds a lot of promise.

  7. #7 jbark
    July 7, 2006

    I think you’re certainly correct, Neuroguy.

    But it will always be the case that the worth of an imaging study will be dictated more by the quality of the behavioral task the subjects are doing in the scanner than it will to increases in scanning technology itself.

    A bit more attention to the methodology of the behavioral half of the equation would be a good start on viewing fMRI studies with a more critical eye.

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