Menus Subscribe Search

Two Potential Problems with Brain Scans

• March 21, 2008 • 6:55 PM

The visual images of brain activity captured by functional MRI machines are undeniably fascinating. But two new studies point out troubling aspects of this technology.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging has, in a very real sense, opened up a window to the brain. By measuring blood oxygen levels, scientists can now determine which parts of the brain are active or inactive as subjects participate in various activities. This has provided a much clearer picture of how we process information and make decisions.

In recent years, researchers working with fMRI machines have examined everything from how the brain responds to violent movie images to the way jazz musicians shut off their self-critical censors during improvisation.

But now, there is talk of using these machines as part of interrogation of terrorism suspects, according to Jonathan Marks, head of the Bioetchics and Medical Humanities Program at Penn State. Marks reports that some in the intelligence community believe fMRIs could serve as high-tech lie detectors — a notion he considers extremely problematic.

Theoretically, an fMRI reading could tell intelligence experts that a suspect is responding to a particular image or word — say, the photo of a known terrorist. But, Marks noted, the machine can’t explain the reason why this brain stimulation is occurring. “I spent years living in London, listening to reports of IRA bombings,” he said. “My brain would light up if you mentioned the word semtex (a plastic explosive).”

“MRI machines are very useful diagnostic tools, but using them to claim that certain things are going on inside people’s minds is a major jump,” Marks added. “One of the real concerns I have is that you can see people begin to say, ‘The fMRI picked him out as a terrorist, so let us give him a going over in the interrogation room.’ ” 

That gives new meaning to the phrase “tortured logic.”

Meanwhile, psychologists David McCabe of Colorado State University and Alan Castel of UCLA raise a less dramatic but nevertheless troubling question: Do those wow-inducing pictures showing various areas of the brain lit up give studies an underserved amount of extra validity?

In an experiment, they had students read fictional articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research. Some articles were accompanied by a brain image, others by a bar graph, while still others had no imagery at all. Participants were “asked to rate the soundness of the scientific reasoning in the article,” and they gave top marks to the studies that were illustrated with the brain images.

The researchers conclude that the brain images are persuasive because “they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes.” While they find this somewhat disturbing, they also see an up side to the fascination with this imagery: It is making cognitive neuroscience research more accessible and giving it greater credibility with the general public.

 

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.