Finding meaning from fMRI research

Scientists and philosophers have discussed the assumptions and premises in fMRI research as they relate to features of the mind. fMRI tends to rely on localizing functions to various parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex being responsible for controlling muscle groups. Psychologists Stephen Hanson and Russell Poldrack and philosopher Martin Bunzl argued brain processing acts holistically with many parts of the brain acting in tandem with one another for cognitive tasks in their paper “An Exchange about Localization of Function.” They put forward the thought experiment of a radio repair man taking a tube from a radio that causes the radio to whistle with the repair man concluding that he ripped out the anti-whistling tube. The man confuses the function of the effect the same way neuroscientists in brain lesion and neuroimaging experiments.

Scientists and philosophers have discussed the assumptions and premises in fMRI research as they relate to features of the mind. fMRI tends to rely on localizing functions to various parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex being responsible for controlling muscle groups. Psychologists Stephen Hanson and Russell Poldrack and philosopher Martin Bunzl argued brain processing acts holistically with many parts of the brain acting in tandem with one another for cognitive tasks in their paper “An Exchange about Localization of Function.” They put forward the thought experiment of a radio repair man taking a tube from a radio that causes the radio to whistle with the repair man concluding that he ripped out the anti-whistling tube. The man confuses the function of the effect the same way neuroscientists in brain lesion and neuroimaging experiments.

Cognitive scientists who use the brain activity activation to validate cognitive theories also fall victim to many instances of circular reasoning. In some situations they believe that a region in the brain causes an effect on the body and these effects an the body cause regions of the brain to activate.

We may further press fMRI researchers for their use of reverse inference of using the instances when brain regions activate to infer a cognitive process when the inference depends on the likelihood of the pattern a task employs a given cognitive process and the likelihood of the pattern of activation for the process. Neuropsychologist Max Coltheart raised the issue that neuroimaging has not been used in accordance with psychological theory. Philosopher-cognitive scientist Adina Roskies argued this it’s impossible for brain imaging to be consistent with all psychological theories.

Some neuroimaging techniques rely on using a single cognitive process inserted into another set of cognitive processes without affecting the rest.

Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene has performed research using fMRI to study ethics. Taking philosophy back to its empirical roots, Greene embraces the trolley problem to test how people respond to various scenarios and decisions involving the problem. In the problem, a runaway trolley speeds down railroad tracks as it approaches five people tied to the tracks in front of it. You may pull a lever to switch the trolley to another path that would only kill one person. In an alternate experiment, you may push a man off a bridge in such a way he would stop the trolley from killing the five people.

The research has shown the majority of people believe it’s moral to pull the lever but not push the large man. Greene’s fMRI research has shown that, when people think through both dilemmas, they take a rational, utilitarian approach. This is rooted in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Pushing a man off the bridge also involves a neural system with emotional responses in the way it produces a strong negative response.