October 30th, 2010

breaking bad

Life of Brain

Hurrah! Ben Goldacre in the Guardian today has picked up that same brain-mind story that I blogged about a couple of days ago, and he makes the same criticism:
All mental states have physical correlates, if you believe that the physical activity of the brain is what underlies our sensations, beliefs and experiences. So while different mental states will be associated with different physical states, that doesn't tell you which caused which.
He also makes a sensitive point about how it shouldn't take a brain scan to 'prove' that a woman's subjective experience is real:
Far stranger is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real. If someone is complaining of persistent low sex drive, then they have persistent low sex drive, and even if you could find no physical correlate in the brain whatsoever, that wouldn't matter: they still have low sex drive.
Yes, and this down-grading of personal experience is a real issue for science I think. Goldacre also reports that some researchers at the Stanford Center for biomedical ethics have published a study criticising the way brain scan studies are depicted in the mainstream media, as 'proving' that people's private experiences are real.
neuro-realism reflects the uncritical way in which an fMRI investigation can be taken as validation or invalidation of our ordinary view of the world. Neuro-realism is, therefore, grounded in the belief that fMRI enables us to capture a ‘visual proof ’ of brain activity, despite the enormous complexities of data acquisition and image processing.

But this is not just a problem with mainstream reporting, it permeates the research community:
Although it might seem surprising, we found that general news sources presented more critical discussions of fMRI studies than did specialized scientific and medical sources. The absence of ethical issues in the sample from the specialized press indicates that there is much work to be done in launching discussions within the research community.

Anyway, if a few critics start making noises like this perhaps the whole approach will be questioned.