I almost choked over my morning cup of coffee when I saw an instant experiment about the brain response to Superbowl ads on the Memeorandum front page. An instant-science experiment, what the heck is an instant experiment? The goal of the study was to simply watch some people react to the SuperBowl ads while they were in the magnet, and draw some inferences regarding effective ads.
Recently, I have been struck by how often I come across articles about fMRI research in newspapers and popular blogs. Articles that earlier used to remain confined to Cognitive Neuroscience Journals. A weekend article in New York Times comments on the same trend. As if just to highlight this point, there was a another article in the Magazine section about scientists looking for the deception center in the brain using fMRI. Quoting from the New York Times from whom I stole the phrase “The brain becomes a pop star”.
“In the last month alone, researchers working with brain imaging machines have captured the neural trace of schadenfreude and the emotional flare of partisan thinking and whatever happens between the ears of a happily married woman when her husband takes her hand.”
“Meanwhile, a parallel stream of popularizing books, magazines and newspapers, including this one, are publicizing an ever-enlarging array of the now familiar red, gray and blue graphics of imaged brains, and some of them are making extravagant claims for their significance.”
It is fMRI (short for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) that is responsible for this spate of interest. fMRI research is sexy. It makes for pretty pictures of brain that we can all ooh! and aah! over. The technology has finally come of age, and many Neuroscience / Psychology departments have invested in it. Consequently, now everyone and their mother is incorporating some fMRI into their research agenda.
An interesting side effect is that psychology as a field now needs to work much more closely with disciplines such as neuroscience, biology, and chemistry. This process – the neurosciensification (is that a word?) of psychology was in full swing at the Berkeley Psychology department when I left. While I am completely fascinated by brain research, I found that I do not actually carrying out such experiments day in and day out. The technology is new enough that a lot of the time is spent in just getting the technology to work – fiddling around with fMRI and EEG machines.
As the New York Times article points out, current fMRI research – is scientifically less ground breaking that it might seem from these news reports. That is because, currently fMRI research often simply replicates what we know from other ways of localizing brain function (mostly from studies with people with brain damage). A neuroscientist in the New York Times article puts it more bluntly.
“The technology, he said, though now central to brain science, “is in one sense disappointing, in that so far it has told us nothing more than what a neurologist of the 19th century could have told you about brain functions and where they’re localized.”
So, even while it is capturing the popular imagination, it is unclear how much groundbreaking knowledge we are actually gaining. So, how do we move beyond identifying areas that light up, but provide a simplistic picture of what’s actually happening in the brain. The key is being able to talk about the neural networks involved, rather than individual areas. From what I understand fMRI technology needs to get more sophisticated to gain better resolution, and research methods also need to get more sophisticated. That is going to take some more time. In the meantime, enjoy the pretty pictures!
If you are interested in who won with the ads or what the results of the study were – then go here. I was not able to draw a conclusion based on a quick look.)