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Spiraling difficulty of reliably interpreting scans of people’s brains

This new study suggests that some people’s personalities make it more difficult to get accurate MRI (and fMRI) pictures of their heads:

Individual Differences in Impulsivity Predict Head Motion during Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” Kong X-z, Zhen Z, Li X, Lu H-h, Wang R, et al., (2014) PLoS ONE, 9(8): e104989. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0104989. The authors are at Beijing Normal University and Hangzhou Normal University.

WHY THIS MIGHT MATTER: Many psychologists enjoy using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to correlate (a favorite word among many researchers!) electrochemical activity in particular brains with the personalities of the particular people whose heads contain those brains.

Taking the MRI pictures is the straightforward, press-a-button part of this research. Understanding what the pictures mean is not so straightforward.

WHAT THIS MIGHT MEAN:  If this new study is correct, then many of those fMRI studies from the past may have produced misleading results. The researchers announce this with a grandly worded phrase: “in-scanner head motion introduces systematic and spurious biases.” This new possible complication adds to the long list of ways in which fMRI studies can produce misleading (or, in non-technical language: “crappy”) results.

WHY PHILOSOPHERS MIGHT ENJOY THIS: If people with some kinds of personalities are especially unreliable to fMRI-analyze, then… fMRI studies that try to identify personality-related brain activity are, or may be, toast. Technologically speaking, the whole effort may be, kinda sorta, in a spiraling decay.

BONUS (possibly related, in a quasi-parallel way): The Ig Nobel Prize-winning fMRI study that found brain activity in a dead salmon.

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