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Michael Egnor: Why a budding neuroscientist is skeptical of fMRI brain scans

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She’s right to wonder: The research ones may not be telling us what we might think:

She points to one of the fundamental problems with fMRI: statistical excess:

The problem of statistical excess, called multiple comparisons, looms large over this part of the analysis… Multiple comparisons means too many statistical tests. The problem of multiple comparisons is like surveying 100,000 strangers about whether they know Beyoncé personally. None of those 100,000 people are actually acquainted with her, but for each person you ask, there is a 5 percent chance they will lie and say they are, just for kicks. In the end, you tally 5,000 friends of Beyoncé, even though the ground truth is that zero of those people are friends with her. If you had asked 100 strangers, you would only end up with five incorrect measurements, but because of sheer numbers and the probability of random deception, surveying 100,000 strangers results in 5,000 incorrect measurements.


fMRI data is often unreliable in this same way:

One person’s brain data has hundreds of thousands of voxels. By the sheer number of voxels and random noise, a researcher who performs a statistical test at every voxel will almost certainly find significant effects where there isn’t really one.


Ichikawa points to a famous fMRI study in which researchers, using standard statistical methods, found brain activity in a dead salmon.

Michael Egnor, “Why a budding neuroscientist is skeptical of brain scans” at Mind Matters News

Takehome: If people are judging what the rest of us think based on this, stop letting them. It could get beyond a joke.

Michael Egnor: After reading her perceptive essay about the problems in fMRI imaging in neuroscience, I’m sad that a gifted student has doubts about a career in the field. Neuroscience badly needs skeptics to show how unreliable technology, biased handling of data, and materialism’s conceptual mess frustrate science.

You may also wish to read: Why are some scientists turning away from brain scans? Sometimes, brain scans just sound like popular opinion. What’s wrong?


Brain scans can read your mind — in a dozen conflicting ways. A recent study involving 70 research groups identified sharp limitations in the value of brain imaging (fMRI) in understanding the mind.

Sev. @ 1: You are surely aware that Christianity, for example, has been subjected to the most careful and prolonged scrutiny over the centuries, and by the most demanding of atheists, and yet has survived and flourished. Read any book on apologetics for detailed info. Of course, you may discount evidence and deny interpretations, but you cannot claim there has been no rigorous sceptical examination of every aspect of the faith. And don't hide behind "some believers" to make your point. Of course not every believer is an expert apologist, just as few evolutionists (some here would say none) have taken a "rigorous skeptical approach" to examining their faith (yes, faith!) in Darwin and related theories. As an aside, perhaps Michael Egnor should contact Ichikawa to encourage her along the lines he mentions. Fasteddious
Would that some believers took the same rigorously skeptical approach to their religious beliefs. Oh what a hoot. Sentence obviously applies to the contributor, sort of you know, projection. Somehow contributor's religion, a fake one at that, tells him for sure what does not exist. His (gender assumed, sorry) religion can't tell him where dreams come from, including ones replete with creative power, but also including nightmares. A religion that has no explanation for the onslaught of neurons which make humans do depraved wicked things against "their will". Obviously a religion that is useless in dealing with mental health versus mental illness among all the other questions of human consciousness. But also a religion telling him for sure that nature, being unconscious and therefore stupid, against all odds against stupidity, created itself at the big bang. I know it's not considered fair to laugh at religion, but what a laughable religion.. groovamos
Yes, fMRI detects differential blood flow in the brain. We knew that. It doesn't show what we are thinking, it just shows which parts of the brain are more active as measured by their blood supply demands during different mental activities. Ichikawa is right to be skeptical of more extravagant interpretations of what this might mean. Would that some believers took the same rigorously skeptical approach to their religious beliefs. Seversky

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