Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Lehrer, Jonah. "Picturing Our Thoughts." BOSTON GLOBE August 17, 2008.
In May 1991, Dr. Kenneth Kwong, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, became one of the first scientists to enjoy a new vision of the human brain. The experiment was simple: Kwong would show a subject some visual stimuli - such as a sequence of flashing red lights - and then monitor the brain to see how it reacted. To Kwong's surprise, even a brief light show triggered a telltale pattern of activity in the visual cortex, as the brain processed the sensory information. "It took a few months before I believed what I was seeing," Kwong remembers. "I was actually watching the brain at work." This ability to peer inside the mind was made possible by a new technology known as fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging. The technology quickly became one of the most popular tools of neuroscience. Last year, an average of eight peer-reviewed papers using fMRI were published per day, and more than 19,000 fMRI papers have been published in the last 15 years. The past few months have brought articles on everything from the neural substrate of sarcasm to the patterns of brain activation triggered by pornography. The technique is invading other fields as well, as psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, and even economists increasingly rely on these powerful machines. The brain scan image - a silhouette of the skull, highlighted with bright splotches of primary color - has also become a staple of popular culture, a symbol of how scientific advances are changing the way we think about ourselves. For the first time in human history, the black box of the mind has been flung wide open, allowing researchers to search for the cortical source for every flickering thought. The expensive scanners can even decode the hidden urges of the unconscious, revealing those secret feelings that we hide from ourselves. The machine, in other words, knows more about you than you do: It's like a high-tech window into the soul. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/08/17/picturing_our_thoughts/.