A Lot of People in White Coats

Dave over at Cognitive Daily beat me to this (curse you, Dave!), but I wanted to point everyone to an article in Seed Magazine by Paul Bloom, titled "Seduced by the Flickering Lights of the Brain." If you can't tell from the title, the article is on the lure of imaging studies, and the sense that many have that simply taking a picture of the brain makes any experiment more scientific. (The title reminded me, specifically, of one reporter looking at pretty colored brain scan pictures and noting that the people in the study "didn't even fire up the thinking parts of their brains.")

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably know what my attitude towards cognitive neuroscience is: in most cases, it tells us little more than that cognition happens in the brain. For the most part, I see cognitive neuroscience as a fad that I hope will soon die off, or merge into psychology and neuroscience proper. Bloom does note in his article that on some occasions, imaging studies actually help us to distinguish between competting hypothesis, but all too often people, even those within cognitive science, see studies as more scientific simply because an fMRI machine was involved. This quote from the article says it all:

Why does it affect us so? Probably because fMRI seems more like real science than many of the other things that psychologists are up to. It has all the trappings of work with great lab-cred: big, expensive, and potentially dangerous machines, hospitals and medical centers, and a lot of people in white coats. In a recent study, 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.

Ahahahahahaha.... cough cough... ahahahahahahahaha.

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I don't know that fMRI studies are inherently more or less scientific than a behavioral analysis or some such, but I think there's a bit of a false dichotomy at work here with the implicit assumption that they're somehow incompatible.

I'm thinking specifically of behavioral psychologists noticing that two disparate behaviors appear to be connected through a common etiology in one or more disorders (inattention and hyperactivity, for instance), and then conducting imaging studies to examine whether they could observe any neurological corellation between the different behaviors.

On its own, imaging may suffer from a difficulty in relating specific neural activity to a given process, but it can be quite powerful when combined with other observations.

Also, the observation that cognition occurs in the brain is not nearly as useless as it sounds. Finding a neurological underpinning for behaviors and cognitive functions that might have been considered environment, upringing, or choice a few decades ago is certainly an improvement. Is cognition more complicated than a simple fMRI or SPECT are going to be able to show? Sure, and any attempt to describe cognition based on these observations is almost certainly going to be incomplete, but fMRIs can still begin to probe into the basics of some of the underlying processes.

Hyperion, I agree, and so would Bloom. That's why I said that I hope it merges with one of the two related disciplines. The best uses I've seen of imaging studies have been to present arguments for hypotheses that had previously been developed in strictly behavioral studies.

I took the study and wasn't impressed with the design. The "with neuroscience" explanations _did_ add content, and specifically for the experts, it was often novel content, while the original behavioral result was not. Everyone knows that the attentional blink is caused by the observer not seeing the second target (which is a simple restatement of the problem), but knowing that the LOC is involved at all, or anything like that, allows you to speculate on more exact methods of how it happens, even though the design of Deena's study claims that mentioning it without telling you how it is involved adds nothing.

By anonymous (not verified) on 28 Jun 2006 #permalink

"Hyperion, I agree, and so would Bloom. That's why I said that I hope it merges with one of the two related disciplines."

Ah, I guess I misunderstood, sorry. I read the "dying off" comment and took it the wrong way.

Yeah, I didn't word that very well. I meant for it to die off as an independent discipline. I definitely don't think we should just get rid of imaging studies (or other sorts of cog neuro studies).

I've always thought that there is a lot more to be gained from EEG/MEG and structural MRI. I've never found fMRI all that impressive

By Anonymous (not verified) on 23 Jul 2006 #permalink