Cerebroscopes and Explanations

In Seed, Paul Bloom on the dubious merit of fMRI based explanations. (Via Language Log.)

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to be a pilot subject for one of her fMRI studies. I immediately said yes, in large part because most of the psychologists I knew had their brains scanned at one time or another, and I was feeling left out. It was a tedious experience, involving the memorization of long strings of numbers—and being inside a magnet is like being buried alive, only louder. So when I emerged from the machine an hour later, I was grouchy.

But then she took me to a screen and showed me a record of my brain at work. It made up for the hour of torment. I was entranced.

Newspapers, magazines, TV and blogs very often discuss psychology these days as a series of studies that involve some measure of neural activity, usually fMRI. The most compelling studies are those which probe the brain while the subject is made to think about something controversial, such as politics, sports teams, race, sex, corporate brands or morality. It makes for great press releases. But fMRI imagery has attained an undue influence, and we shouldn’t be seduced.