So this 44-year-old Frenchman—let’s call him Jacques—presented for a “mild left leg weakness“. The leg bone being connected to the hip bone, etc., it was eventually discovered that Jacques’s “skull was filled largely by fluid, leaving just a thin perimeter of actual brain tissue.”
Here’s the kicker:
And yet the man was a married father of two and a civil servant with an IQ of 75, below-average in his intelligence but not mentally disabled…
While this may seem medically miraculous, it also poses a major challenge for cognitive psychologists, says Axel Cleeremans of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
“Any theory of consciousness has to be able to explain why a person like that, who’s missing 90% of his neurons, still exhibits normal behavior,” says Cleeremans. A theory of consciousness that depends on “specific neuroanatomical features” (the physical make-up of the brain) would have trouble explaining such cases.
To say that explaining this man via current theories of the brain is a “major challenge” is like saying Bill Clinton has a “small problem” with the ladies. According to these theories, the man should be a “vegetable”. It’s always vegetable, isn’t it? I guess neurologists didn’t see the original The Thing. Skip it.
The missing matter of Jacques’s brain was noticed by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The MRI picture above is from the Lancet (under the bland title “Brain of a white-collar worker”).
Functional MRI is similar, except that fMRI takes pictures to discover functions of parts of the brain. That is the claim, at any rate. How do they work? People are asked to think about, say, vegetables and then squeezed into an fMRI machine, which duly takes its pictures. Loads of statistical manipulations then take place after which it will be discovered that certain areas of the brain glow statistically significantly more brightly than other areas. These glowing areas will then be declared vegetable-fantasizing areas of the brain.
But this wouldn’t work for Jacques, because poor Jacques is light in the head. Yet it’s a sure bet that Jacques knows his vegetables from his Peugeot.
Enter Kate Murphy, who wrote “Do You Believe in God, or Is That a Software Glitch?” in the New York Times (I’m guessing Murphy didn’t provide the article’s title: writers rarely do). Murphy reminds us of the “study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uncovered flaws in the software researchers rely on to analyze fM.R.I. data. The glitch can cause false positives — suggesting brain activity where there is none — up to 70 percent of the time.”
Murphy said, “This cued a chorus of ‘I told you so!‘ from critics who have long said fM.R.I. is nothing more than high-tech phrenology.”
No need to click on the link: I am the “I told you so.” I have long warned readers that the statistical methods behind fMRI rely on wee p-values and hypothesis tests, methods guaranteed to lead to over-certainty—as I document in nauseating detail in my new award-eligible book Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics. Another must-read book is Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel (psychiatrist) and Scott Lilienfeld (psychologist).
About those statistical methods, Murphy rightly reminds us of the dead fish hooked to an fMRI which “found neural activity in its brain when it was shown photographs of humans in social situations.” This happens because the fMRI is not taking pictures of your brain. It is showing you statistical models based on estimates of which might be happening in your brain.
Other statistical problems in analyzing fM.R.I. data have been pointed out. But these kinds of finger-wagging methodological critiques aren’t easily published, much less funded. And on the rare occasions they do make it into journals, they don’t grab headlines as much as studies that show you what your brain looks like when you believe in God.
…The fM.R.I. errors added fuel to what many are calling a reproducibility crisis.
“People feel they are giving up a competitive advantage” if they share data and detail their analyses, said Jean-Baptiste Poline, senior research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Brain Imaging Center…
There is also resistance because, of course, nobody likes to be proved wrong. Witness the blowback against those who ventured to point out irregularities in psychology research, dismissed by some as the “replication police” and “shameless little bullies.”
For the record, I am a often-shame-filled big bully.
MRIs are not useless. After all, they can show us nearly empty skulls à la Jacques. Shrapnel and other miscellaneous objects also show up nicely. But for telling the difference in brains between rational theists and ultimately irrational atheists? Nuh-uh.