Computer says: oops

3 months ago Comments Off on Computer says: oops

NOBODY knows how the brain works. But researchers are trying to find out. One of the most eye-catching weapons in their arsenal is functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI). In this, MRI scanners normally employed for diagnosis are used to study volunteers for the purposes of research. By watching people’s brains as they carry out certain tasks, neuroscientists hope to get some idea of which bits of the brain specialise in doing what.

The results look impressive. Thousands of papers have been published, from workmanlike investigations of the role of certain brain regions in, say, recalling directions or reading the emotions of others, to spectacular treatises extolling the use of fMRI to detect lies, to work out what people are dreaming about or even to deduce whether someone truly believes in God.

But the technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a…Continue reading
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