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October 30th, 2010

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08:45 am - 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.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2010 09:53 am (UTC)
Yeah. The fact that brain and mind are correlated seems, well, tautological to me. And that a discovery showing that would be used to prove that the mind is caused by the brain seems...barking to me.

Have you seen the dead salmon experiment? Which showed that if you go looking at a random system for long enough you can use it to prove anything you like.
[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2010 10:19 am (UTC)
Not until now, but Google is my friend.

'To maintain the rigor of the protocol (and perhaps because it was hilarious), the salmon, just like a human test subject, “was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.”
[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Some of the comments are great - one person says 'but can they link the scans to disability benefits?' I love the idea that you have a brain scan to check if your 'subjective' mental illness is real and whether that means you're fit for work. I can see it happening.

Still wish Ben Goldacre had been given an entire afternoon at Eastercon.
[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Oh no, that's horrible. No doubt this is now being fermented as a great wheeze.

I only read one or two comments. This one annoyed me

"According to Evidence-Based Medicine, subjective mental states and individual experiences of the world are anecdotal evidence which can only be be vindicated and validated by objective measurement and double-blind randomized controlled trials, surely?"

I don't need my experiences to be vindicated thanks.
[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
While acknowledging that it's been more than five years since I worked in medical research, I don't think that commenter quite understands what EBM is. Seems to me one could do perfectly valid EBM based on people's subjective reporting of their experiences, as long as it was set up properly (appropriate things like randomizing to control/treatment branch, appropriate blinding* of the researchers and subjects to the degree possible, things like that).

*I recognize the problematic/ablist nature of the terms "blinding" and "double blind" to mean "ignorant"/"uninformed"/"kept unaware", but I don't know of a better term to use that would be clearly understandable. I'm hoping to come across a better one.
[User Picture]
Date:October 31st, 2010 06:21 am (UTC)
I particularly notice the way we (I) use 'blind' to mean unaware now I work with two blind people. First I don't want to be ridiculously over-careful about what I say, but second I found I used 'blind' a lot as a metaphor, and as it came out of my mouth talking to them I realised ... oh, perhaps I need to change my ways.

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