L to R: Dr. Geoff Aguirre giving us his final imaging lecture this morning; Dr. Michael Kaplan stimulating a neuron in a California sea slug; Dr. Wolks intern is hooked up to the electro-cap for demonstration, and I try it on for size too. (Click on images for larger size)
Three, it’s been said (and sung) is a magic number. Day Three of boot camp lived up to its magical billing as we heard about a levitating frog, debated the awesomeness of fMRI, and then moved beyond fMRI imaging to look at electrophysiological approaches to understanding how the brain works. Highlights of the day included a panel discussion on imaging, and not one but two field trips. More of the details in a moment, but first it may be helpful to step back and talk about where we’re at in the program.
Using a tourist analogy, I think it’s fair to say that we started with the big tourist attraction (fMRI), and were taught how to distinguish between the tourist traps (bad fMRI studies) and the true gems (good fMRI studies). But until today we hadn’t ventured outside “fMRI city”. As a result, we couldn’t place fMRI on the larger neuroscience map. That began to change today, as we ventured out to explore three kinds of Electrophysiology: EEG, ERP, and MEG. We’re learning not only the differences between these different types of neuroscience, but also the relative advantages and disadvantages of each method. (Click below for more).
To use the traveling analogy one last time, think about what you do when a foreigner visits your native country. Almost instinctively, we ask: Where did you go? The question is natural because we know that not all parts of the country are the same. Similarly, because neuroscience is not a single method but a diverse set of methodological approaches, we should instinctively ask: what type of neuroscience is being used? The first two days of boot camp talked about neuroimaging, and the remainder of the program will consider a host of other strategies that can be employed.
For more great discussion of those strategies and their implications for religion, see Tom Heneghan’s FaithWorld blog. Tom is Religion Editor at Thomson Reuters, and he’s attending boot camp and blogging about the experience.
We started the day with Geoff Aguirre’s final lecture on fMRI, where Geoff talked about why fMRI is so popular. We then concluded our imaging portion of boot camp with a lively discussion with panel members Geoff Aguirre, Stephen Morse, Martha Farah, Anjan Chatterjee, and Joseph Kable(see below for some of the questions discussed). After lunch we went to the Leidy Labsbuilding to learn from Dr. Michael Kaplan about electrical stimulation of neurons (“the secret life of neurons”). Dr. Kaplan then led us on a tour of the lab downstairs, where we saw neuronal stimulation of cells from a
II. Important Lessons
We were given a lot of important details today, especially about the physics and chemistry underlying electrophysiology, but I’ll pick up on the electrophysiology tomorrow and today focus on several big-idea questions that were raised during our panel discussion. For more on the details I’m skipping, and for a great introduction to neuroscience generally, I suggest Michael Gazzaniga’s excellent text book. I have my copy with me, and I’ve been trying to work through it while here. And if you want some more MRI review, you can play the MRI game
Turning to the big idea questions, the first concerns the current status of fMRI in both neuroscience and popular culture. To borrow a phrase, fMRI is “so hot right now”, and the question is why? Geoff Aguirre suggested several reasons, including its “scientific awesomeness” (it really is a big advance over what we had before); the neuroaesthetics of the images (those pictures really catch the eye); and the sociology of how the science has developed (with a pre-packaged program, and yahoo with a scanner and internet connection can kick out one of these studies). Geoff provided some important cautionary tales, reminding us that we need to always be aware of the underlying science and the inferences being made. This is consistent with the message I heard earlier this summer at the Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience: fMRI is a powerful and important tool, but we should be mindful of how the end results are produced.
The panel discussion on imaging wrestled with a number of additional questions, each complex and worthy of an entire blog post. The questions included:
Will fMRI technology be an out-dated technology in 20 years? Why or why not?
How could you ‘beat’ the MRI machine if you were strapped in and wanted to give a bad signal?
How does neuroimaging contribute to our understanding of attractiveness?
Can you train someone to find certain things attractive? Can you train the population to want something?
Can you identify the traits that distinguish sexual predators?
What role is there for direct neuronal manipulation?
The law and many other disciplines are concerned about individual differences, so why don’t we see more individual differences work in neuroscience?
Has it become part of the agenda of cognitive science, as a matter of extending precision, to redefine the concepts being measured, e.g. redefining “love”?
Is folk psychology immune to these advancements in neuroscience?
If they could obtain them, would you want your employer getting your scans?
How are neuroimages perceived in society? Why do they have more evidentiary weight?
Can neuroscience findings be used to make the criminal justice system function better?
How might neuroscience be used differently at the responsibility stage versus sentencing stages?
Anyone want to chime in with answers? More questions?
III. Who’s at boot camp with me?
The discussion today included some very interesting questions raised by two anthropologists who are attending boot camp. Sita Kotnis is studying at the University of Aarhus, Denmark and Mark Robinsonis at