The Complexity of the Brain and Neuroimaging

This blog post is based on the book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lillenfeld. Please bear with me as this is the second post that I’ve written based on a source viewed on my Kindle.

The notion that a specific area in the brain is solely responsible for a given mental function is intuitively appealing, and it would definitely simplify matters. Unfortunately that is rarely the case. Mental activities do not map neatly onto discrete brain regions. At one time a specific area of the brain, Broca’s area was believed to be the brain’s one and only language-production center. Subsequent research has found it to be one of the key nodes, or convergence centers, for the pathways that process language. Similarly, there is no one designated site in charge of speech comprehension as it also relies on patterns of connectivity across multiple brain regions. “Although neuroscientists regard a few cortical regions as being highly specialized for particular operations—such as the perception of faces, places, body parts, ascribing mental states to others (“theory of mind”) and processing visually presented words—most neural real estate is zoned for mixed-use development.”1 This is most fortunate as the brain can rewire itself and allows the newly discovered remarkable plasticity of the brain. So when the brain is damaged it can rewire itself to regain its lost functionality. This rewiring might partially account for those individuals whose autopsies revealed the neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but who never exhibited the symptoms. People who are born blind are able to use their visual cortex to perceive touch and learn to read braille letters.

This complexity of the brain should be kept in mind both when viewing images and when reading reports that draw conclusions from neuroimages. As will be seen many reports are overstated, incorrect, or only partially correct.

1Satel, S. & Lillenfold, S.L. (2013) Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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