The functional specialization of grant awarding committees

There is no better technology than fMRI for figuring out what research the brain wants award money to.

The scanners, they say, excel at measuring certain types of brain activity, but are also effectively blind when it comes to the detection of more subtle aspects of cognition. As a result, the pictures that seem so precise are often deeply skewed snapshots of mental activity. Furthermore, one of the most common uses of brain scanners – taking a complex psychological phenomenon and pinning it to a particular bit of cortex – is now being criticized as a potentially serious oversimplification of how the brain works. These critics stress the interconnectivity of the brain, noting that virtually every thought and feeling emerges from the crosstalk of different areas spread across the cortex. If fMRI is a window into the soul, these scientists say, then the glass is very, very dirty.

Having worked on the evaluation of fMRI images, the amount of neural activation that gets elided in research papers, let alone in newspaper stories, is shocking. Did you know that almost every functional scan ever, of any task, showed activation in the Cerebellum? Do you know why that is? Neither does anybody else! And yet we still find brain regions allegedly solely responsible for grandmother love and buying a used Honda and brushing your back teeth as opposed to your front teeth. fMRI is a tremendously useful addition to a neuroscience researcher’s toolbox, there’s no question. But if anybody tells you they’ve learned anything certain about the functional organization of the brain from fMRI research, as a general rule you should not believe a word they’re telling you. This goes approximately triple for anybody from the New York Times.

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