It is easy to be impressed by colorful functional magnetic resonance-imaging (fMRI) photos of activity in the brain. Every introduction-to-psychology textbook has these pictures to show students that there are places in the brain for various cognitive events. William Uttal has been casting doubt on what we really know from fMRI pictures, most recently in Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta-Analysis.
In his review, Harry Whitaker writes that Uttal’s point concerning the unreliability of these fMRI pictures “should be taken seriously by anyone engaged in research that uses changes in brain images as the dependent variable in a cognitive experiment” (para. 2). Whitaker also points out two methodological problems that Uttal did not consider: one, that the emotional state of a person affects the location of brain activation, and two, what
is actually seen [in these pictures] is a computer-generated image of changes in the oxygen concentration in the blood of some veins within the venous network that are presumably draining tissue regions in the brain that have recently been active (para. 8).
Does that really tell us much about what part or parts of the brain are most involved when I balance my checkbook or recall who played shortstop for the White Sox in 1952?
Have cognitive neuroscientists been overselling these Kodachromes in the brain to our students and the public? Isn’t it more important for psychologists to learn more about how we think than where in the brain we think about something?
By Harry A. Whitaker
PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(23)