About Brain Imaging
Why Is Brain Imaging a Hot Topic?
Recent advances in brain-imaging
technology — notably
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance
imaging) — are allowing medical scientists not only to detect
anatomical brain abnormalities such as tumors and cysts, but also
to diagnose various functional losses in the brain caused by stroke,
traumatic injury, or neurological disease. It is even becoming possible
to associate specific brain areas with certain behavior, emotions,
and psychological traits. As promising as these developments are,
they also raise thorny ethical questions: How far should we permit
science to go in analyzing human thoughts and emotions? How could
the findings be misused? Under what conditions does brain scanning
become like mind reading — and
pose the ultimate threat to personal privacy?
||Functional imaging during language
tasks. Different brain areas are involved in specific aspects of
language. (courtesy M. Mesulam)
Is it all in your head?
Neurologists know that damage to the brain can change personality and behavior.
These changes often take the form of
extreme nonconformity to social norms: excessive aggression, a lack
of empathy, inability to control impulsive or inappropriate feelings
and speech, etc. Using brain-imaging devices, some experimenters are
trying to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated when people
react to ideas or stimuli: Exactly where and how does the brain process
thoughts on provocative issues like crime, racism, or injustice, for
instance? Are anger, fear, joy, love, or sorrow detectable in the brain
by any physical means? What does a lie “look” like
in the brain? This research assumes that by peering into the brain,
science can begin to answer these questions; but underlying this assumption
is a broader one — namely, that the brain and the mind are essentially
one and the same.
“My underdeveloped brain made
me do it!”
imaging technologies make the brain more accessible to scientific
study and potentially more revealing of the personality than ever,
some long-standing questions about the nature of human behavior may
be reframed in “neuroethical” terms.
For example, if the ability to tell right from wrong springs from
observable, measurable activity in the brain, can we conclude that
moral sensibility is inborn? Can environmental factors such as parenting
or privilege fundamentally alter this and other brain-based capacities?
If an MRI shows any part of a person’s brain to be abnormal,
can he or she be expected to behave according to societal norms? The
brain science experts participating in the “Imaging the Brain,
Reading the Mind” discussion will
describe in accessible terms how images of the brain are acquired
and what kinds of information they can reliably provide. Further they
will discuss the ethical and social implications of attempts to read
people's thoughts, attitudes, and personalities using brain imaging.