Neuroimaging and the Joy of Metaphors

Okay, I’m feeling particularly ranty and abstract today, so we’ll have to see how this goes. Bare with me, because we’re starting it out with a metaphor.

So, you’re walking down the street, and you see your friend jogging. This friend hasn’t been much of an exercise freak before, and you notice next time you see them that they look as though they’ve lost some weight. You then make the connection (purposefully or not) that they were jogging and are losing weight because of it. This is, of course, a logical assumption to make, but there are numerous and sundry other factors you failed to observe that could be having an even greater effect on their body. Maybe they’ve cut their food intake by a third; maybe they only went running that one time; maybe they had the flu this week and are using up stored energy to get better; maybe their clothes are more flattering than usual. The possibilities go on, but your assumption remains the same because you saw them jogging, you know that this is something they’ve done, because you saw it (not to mention, it’s an activity that has led to weight loss in other individuals). However, just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it’s correct, and, in reality, the jogging may not have done a thing.

I feel neuroimaging poses a somewhat similar problem, especially when used to convey information in the media or pop psychology, but even researchers are guilty. A participant reads a list of unfamiliar words, and a group of neurons lights up. All of a sudden, those neurons are the primary location in which the brain processes new or rare words. But if you stop and think, the image of the activity is like seeing your friend jogging, and the assumption that the activity is directly affecting your friend’s weight loss could be just as inaccurate. True, neuroimaging shows us when and where activity is taking place in the brain during various behaviors, but that’s where the information ends. We don’t know what kind of activity is taking place, and we don’t know what portion of the activity, if any, is directly related to the behavior or cognitive process that happens to be occurring simultaneously. It is, I think, extremely important for the media, the public and the researchers themselves to keep in mind that advances in technology such as neuroimagine, while wonderful additions to the field, can only be counted as another data point rather than a cure-all. Our knowledge of the brain is limited just as our knowledge of our friend’s life in incomplete, and until we know more about the activities that take place in both, our conclusions can only be so reliable [insert shameless plug for connectome research here].Image

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