fMRI Machines and Our Brains

In your blog post titled “I have seen your brain and it might not be so pretty” you focus on how fMRI can show a physiological response that makes a patient who is unable to communicate verbally do it with his or her thoughts. What led you to write about this topic?

I have always found the workings of the brain fascinating. It would be great to be able to look inside the brain and discover the connections that make us think a certain way.

In simple terms how does an fMRI machine work for those who never heard of it?

The book I read for this blog post takes 5 pages to explain how those machines work. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has to do with a strong magnetic field combined with radio waves focusing on hydrogen protons. For the “f” (functional) part of fMRI, changes in blood flow are tracked. It’s a very complicated process requiring complex analysis (not just pass/fail). I don’t know how to simplify the terms, unfortunately. I mostly know from having had a couple of MRI sessions, though not for the brain. They are huge noisy machines, and you can’t have anything magnetic on you or with you. You lie down inside of it and it moves over you snapping many images. Those who cannot bear to be in enclosed spaces may have a hard time unless the facility has the newer, more open kinds.

You start the article by asking if a brain scan can expose that you are psychopathic. I have read that most psychopathic brains have a slightly morphological difference to what we call normal brains. Would you care to explain this? Are there other signs this machine can detect?  

Studies have shown that psychopaths can tell right from wrong, but they cannot actually tell the difference between the wrongness of a child hitting another child and one who is merely talking in class. You and I know that there are distinctions between serious breaks of the moral code and actions that are not very serious. Researchers have found that the brains of psychopaths are deficient in moral processing. The brains of psychopaths showed no difference when shown moral versus non-moral images, where the brains of the normal subjects showed a greater activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex for moral pictures.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging can also detect who is more racially biased. Part of that complex study involved correlating amygdala activation with other kinds of tests of racial bias. Which may lead into your next question…

How do you believe fMRI machines could be used in ten years from now that we do not have the technology to do?

Once scientists identify what parts of the brain respond to what kinds of stimuli, it may be possible to reduce negative social behaviors, such as racial bias. I would hope they would find ways to help people live in peace with one another, perhaps drive less aggressively, perhaps be more compassionate to the needy. I don’t mean they will fiddle with the insides of our heads directly. By determining what factors are most likely to make a change in some part of the brain’s activation, they can then design experiments to help move people in the desired direction.

What are your thoughts on neuromarketing?

Marketers already influence our buying choices by associating their product in ads featuring other things we want. Drink this beer and all the girls (or guys) will want to be with you. Apply this make-up and the man of your dreams will walk through the door. Buy this car and you’ll experience thrills and a sense of freedom you never thought possible. Neuromarketing makes me uncomfortable though. People need to be aware of how our wishes and dreams and barely conscious preferences are being manipulated right now by advertisers, because it’s only going to get more subtle and sophisticated. Knowledge gained from studies using fMRI will surely be applied to persuading us to buy stuff we really do not need or cannot afford.

Are there any possibilities that psychotherapists use fMRI to help patients or it is only useful for a diagnosis? (Or none of them).

That sort of application is in the future, so I can’t really say. Some psychologists will probably want to make use of any new technology that may help their clients for whom talking therapy and current medications are not enough.

Are there any studies made with this machine you would recommend reading?

For that, I’ll defer to the authors of the book Sex, Lies, & Brain Scans (the book I used to compose my blog post). They discuss all the relevant studies, so pick one or more from their Notes section for further specific information.


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Written by Camila

Interviewer at psych2go. International Relations student and coffee lover. Looking forward to seeing this web be one of the most important psychology webs.

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