Review of I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, February 2016

Original here

I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy, Edited by Richmond , Rees  and Edwards

 

In 2010, Dartmouth University neuroscientist Craig Bennett and his colleagues subjected an experimental subject to functional magnetic resonance imaging. The subject was shown ‘a series of photographs with human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive’. The subject was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photographs were experiencing. The subject was found to have engaged in perspective-taking at p<0.001 level of significance. This is perhaps surprising, as the subject was a dead salmon.

This may sound like a parody, or a debunking of neuroimaging, but in fact it was intended to point out the considerable challenge of neuroimaging research, and more specifically how the vast number of potential variables inherent in this research pushes ‘traditional’ statistical methodology to its limit.

In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

The title of this book alone leads one to expect that it is an exploration of one widespread popular notion about neuroimaging; that it is a way of reading thoughts. Some of the essays do explore this theme; but most don’t, at least not that directly. Notwithstanding the inclusion of an essay by the former editor of this journal, the book is something like the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts (without any partiality, Professor Kelly’s contribution is one of the good parts).

There are four sections to the book. First, an overview of the state of the art of neuroimaging and of the conceptual questions raised. Second, a focus on medical applications of mind reading through brain imaging. Third, a section on criminal justice, and finally one on mind reading and privacy.

Among the contributors, practitioners of neuroimaging-based research alternate with (relative) skeptics of the approach. It is interesting to observe the actual researchers, rather than being zealots, are tentative and provisional in their suggestions; the skeptics are more forthright. For instance, Colin Campbell and Nigel Eastman baldly evoke the ghost of phrenology – evidently a nearby shade for many contemplating this area – in the conclusion of their essay on neuroimaging on the law. Although this is a valid point – and undoubtedly some commercially promoted ‘mind reading’ technologies are pure hokum – it is rather jarring conclusion to their essay.

There is nevertheless much useful and stimulating material here. John-Dylan Haynes provides a useful overview of brain imaging technology itself and some of the possibilities and limits of the field. The second section, rather alarmingly titled ‘Medical applications of mind reading through brain imaging’, is generally comprised of thoughtful, nuanced discussions of the issues in non-responsive patients, pain, and mental health.

However, the essays are overall quite mixed in tone and content. Some bear the hallmarks of generic essays on particular topics with relatively little directly on the topic of the book (for instance, Annabelle Lever’s chapter on ‘Neuroscience versus privacy’ which is rather an extended discussion of privacy with some mentions of neuroscience). Contributors often rehash discussions that are covered at greater length, sometimes rather tediously so, in other essays.

The Hastings Centre Report ‘Interpreting neuroimages: an introduction to the technology and its limits’ – available at http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/SpecialReports/Detail.aspx?id=6841 – covers much of the same ground as this book but more concisely and more accessibly, particularly Martha J. Farah’s essay in the ‘Brain images, babies, and bathwater: critiquing critiques of functional neuroimaging’. With the Hastings Centre Report freely accessible in the public domain it is hard to advise readers to part with their money for this volume.

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