What's really going on inside your head when you make a decision, make a mistake, or have a few drinks? Researchers are using fMRI techniques to monitor blood flow through parts of the brain as it responds to stimuli. They hope to shed some light on the mysterious inner workings of the human mind. Guests discuss three recent research projects making use of the technique:
A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience looks at brain activity during the process of making a simple decision — whether to push a button with the right or left hand. The researchers found that parts of the brain activated as much as seven seconds before the person being studied was aware of having made a decision. By looking at the patterns of brain activity, the researchers could predict which button the subject would choose to push.
In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that they were able to detect patterns of brain activity about 10 seconds before the study subjects made a mistake in simple, mindless tasks.
A researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is using fMRI to study the effects of alcohol on the brain. He found that people with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 (legally intoxicated in some states) exhibit increased activity in a part of the brain associated with rewards, and a change in the brain's fear response to risks.
Though the technique is being eagerly explored in a variety of fields, fMRI has received criticism from some brain experts as being the modern-day equivalent of phrenology.
Jack Grinband, research scientist in the Department of Neuroscience and the Program in Cognitive Sciences (PICS), Columbia University Medical Center
John-Dylan Haynes, head of the Attention and Awareness research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany
Tom Eichele, Bergen fMRI Group, Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen in Norway
Jodi Gilman, research fellow at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health