Warnings About Brain Scans, Empathy, And Oxytocin

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

With the mass popularization of neuroscience in many arenas, including conflict resolution, one hears much dumbing down of how the brain works. I read an excellent blog post today at Lucid Thoughts titled fMRI and "locationism": Something Old, Something New and wanted to point it out to you since it explains a factor in this dumbing down. Blogger Steve Genco calls it "locationism.'

Locationism is when one describes an activity in the brain as if we know exactly where that activity occurs, i.e., giving it a location. From Lucid Thoughts:

I haven’t picked on the fMRI folks for awhile, but was inspired today by a new post over at the excellent neuroscience-of-language blog Talking Brains entitled “Functional brain imaging, it’s not always where you think it is.”  And that reminded me that I also want to write something about an excellent article in Scientific American Mind from about a year ago entitled “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us.”

I’m taking this opportunity for a “two-fer” because both these items draw attention to a central dogma of fMRI interpretation that is particularly prevalent in the popular media.  I call it

“locationism” because it’s the belief that thoughts and mental functions happen at specialized locations in the brain, so if you just watch a particular location “light up”, it tells you what someone is, quite literally, thinking.

Many of us have read those articles in the mass media telling us technology is approaching the ability, or is already able, to read thoughts. That's a myth and perhaps wishful thinking on the part of such groups as advertisers and the legal profession.

And it is mythical to say exactly where something happens in the brain, to indulge in this locationism. There are a number of reasons. First, the research typically averages brain scans.

[G]reat spatial resolution in a single head does not necessarily translate into great spatial resolution across a sample of heads.  And this, in turn, means that a location “lighting up” on average may not be precisely the same location for each and every subject in the study.

A second reason is that the brain's locations are used for many activities, not just one. And more than one location or part will often be involved in an activity. It is misleading to look at a scan of a brain, point, and say, "Look, there. That's where X is happening." As Genco says, "[L]ocationism is just bad science."

Heard any examples of locationism lately? Listen and you will. It is rampant. But now you know you are most likely hearing a coarse oversimplification or an inaccuracy.

Now for some fun. Genco provided a great link in his post. Here you will find "neurocurmudgeons" debunking many of the brain stories found in the media. The analyses are amusing. Read a few and you will get a sense of how wrong reporters are with surprising frequency. (Here's some neurojournalism the neurocurmudgeons do approve of.)

As long as I am on the theme of being cautious, I invite you to consider two topics now mentioned frequently in conflict resolution: empathy and oxytocin. Here's my cautionary blog post over at idealawg: Empathy, stress, and oxytocin: Each has its benefits and its dark side.


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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