Susan K Perry Ph.D.

Creating in Flow

I Have Seen Your Brain and It Might Not Be So Pretty

Neuroimaging can now tell us much more about your mind than you expect.

Posted May 16, 2017

lisa fanucchi/FreeImages
Source: lisa fanucchi/FreeImages

Can a scan of your brain expose that you are psychopathic? Perhaps. The use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is increasing, though still limited. The more we know, however, the better we will be able to make ethical choices about how our brains are studied and, possibly, influenced.

For a brief overview of this fascinating subject, see , by Barbara J. Sahakian and Julia Gottwald. Sahakian is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry, and Gottwald is a Ph.D. student in the same department. This 146-page book (including illustrations, notes and index) is far from exhaustive. The authors, rather, highlight ethical issues that should be of interest to all of us.

Scans of your brain can only tell scientists and doctors so much. And yet, what fMRI scanners are able to detect is so much more than what was possible only a generation ago. Such scans allow traumatic brain injury patients, who are seemingly not conscious, to communicate that they are in pain or need something. Such communication relies on the patient being asked to imagine something physical (playing tennis) which lights up a certain area of the brain, to indicate yes, and something spatial (navigating through their home) to indicate no. Amazing stuff.

What fMRI does is map and measure the activity in your brain. As the authors point out,

The brain gives rise to our consciousness, our personality, our sense of self. Your mind is just your brain in action: it is not a separate entity.

We are only in the beginning stages of making use of fMRI to read minds. There are limitations, of course. Without context, it is impossible to know the correct meaning of a brain scan.

One study found that the brains of psychopaths react differently from that of normal subjects when shown moral versus immoral pictures. The psychopaths' brains reacted alike to both moral and immoral pictures. Other research has centered on trying to change subjects' minds using magnetic stimulation so that they would make different decisions about right and wrong. This sort of research is in its infancy and suggests its own risks and limitations.

And then there is—wait for it—neuromarketing. Can it be ethical to determine scientifically what you're likely to buy and to design products with that in mind? Casinos already do something like that when they design slot machines to make addicts out of their customers (using the psychological concept of intermittent reinforcement). If selling you something and making a profit by better understanding your brain can be done, it probably will be. To be forewarned, and so on.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel