Cognitive paparazzi and the backlash against the bright lights of brain images

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

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What do we really know about the brain? Not as much as many in the media would have us believe. I have blogged before about using caution when applying neuroscience to conflict resolution (or to anything), including a few words about the Brain Overclaim Syndrome. (Scroll here for cautionary posts.) Now caution is issuing forth from many tongues and pens.

Charles Barber‘s recent article “The Brain: A Mindless Obsession?” (The Wilson Quarterly) includes a look at what brain imaging can tell us, or more specifically, what it cannot.

…Brain images are still far cruder than one would think after reading the sensational revelations attributed to them in the science pages of newspapers and magazines. And it must be remembered that these are secondary images of blood flow and glucose in the brain, and not of brain tissue itself. … While there are some correlations between brain activity in certain regions and external, observable behavior, it is very hard to gauge what the pictures really mean. How does the flow of blood in parts of the brain correspond to feelings, moods, opinions, emotions, imagination?…

The state of the art right now is that we can read brains—to some very crude extent—but we can’t even begin to read minds. Wall Street Journal science writer Sharon Begley has coined the term “cognitive paparazzi” to describe those who claim they can. “What does neuroscience know about how the brain makes decisions? Basically nothing,” says Michael Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Vaughan Bell in his The fMRI smackdown cometh post at Mind Hacks sees a marked increase in “soul searching over the shortcomings of fMRI brain scanning.” He writes:

Numerous articles in hard hitting publications have questioned some common assumptions behind the technology, suggesting a backlash against the bright lights of brain scanning is in full swing.

In his post, he links to many of those articles. I urge you to read his post in which he summarizes the “backlash.”

The brain is more fluid and changing then we are left to believe by much of what we read. Barber says, “[I]f you were to do the same scans of the same activity a year later, you might get quite different results.” And the interpretation of brain scans is of course changing, too; Bell says, “[O]ur understanding of what brain scanning data tells us evolves over time. A study conducted ten years ago might mean something different now.”

As I have asked before, does this mean neuroscience holds little or nothing for the conflict resolution professional? No, not at all. But likely what we are learning from brain scans may be, at best, clues. The new focus on caution, the “backlash,” is good. Bell posts:

It’s important that these sorts of issues come to light, because it hopefully heralds a time of increased caution in our interpretation of brain scans – and that goes for scientists, the media and the general public.

And people involved in dispute resolution.

Note (added June 27, 2008, 7:42 AM Mountain): More on the impreciseness of brain scanning in Science, Criticism, fMRI at The Frontal Cortex. Blogger Jonah Lehrer quotes Nikos Logothetis:

The limitations of fMRI are not related to physics or poor engineering, and are unlikely to be resolved by increasing the sophistication and power of the scanners; they are instead due to the circuitry and functional organization of the brain, as well as to inappropriate experimental protocols that ignore this organization.

The quote is from “What we can do and what we cannot do with fMRI.”

Note (added June 27, 2008, 7:45 PM Mountain): More analysis at Pure Pedantry in this post: Must Read Paper on fMRI -and- The Worst fMRI Science Journalism Ever.

Image credit: letmehaveausername

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Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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