Operating at spatial dimensions and time-scales far finer than previous brain-scanning techniques, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has sparked great excitement by letting us finally watch the brain at work. Thousands of fMRI studies have explored a wide range of differences in brain activation: adolescent versus adults, schizophrenic and normal minds, the empathetic and the impassive. Researchers have used fMRI to draw bold conclusions about face and word recognition, working memory and false memories, people anticipating pain, mothers recognizing their children, citizens pondering ethical dilemmas.

Increasingly, however, arguments are stirring over the reliability of fMRI findings.

David Dobbs faces the growing controversy over fMRI scans in Fact or Phrenology? Scientific American Mind 16 (1), 24-31, 2005.

It is not only a technical debate about fMRI accuracy but also a problem of culture in neuroscience and cultural bias in neuroscientists’ interpretation. In fact, the central question is not about “if” and “where” a function is localized, but “what” a function is in brain anatomy and physiology. This view has been maintained by our member and president of BM&L Italian organization, Giuseppe Perrella: in clinical neuropsychology, neuroimaging and evoked potentials studies, some interpretations which localize psychological concepts in brain areas are close to a new phrenology.


BM&L-May 2005