Why do I believe that functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging is of highly questionable value in studying love?
The scientific community started questioning fMRI soon after its inception in 1990, and this has peaked in 2016.
First, we will look at a summary of the scandal about fMRI. Next blogs, we will analyze the basic concepts behind fMRI and see why these concepts are questioned by many in the scientific community.
The history of the scandal about Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies
- 1990: fMRI was discovered. Many studies started using it to study cognition, emotions, and personality.
- 1994: A mere four years after the discovery, neurologist Karl Friston and colleagues in London published a paper about problems in fMRI data analysis. “There is probability that one or more activated regions of a specified volume, or larger, could have occurred by chance.” This was mainly ignored. read article
- 2009: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California in San Diego looked at the statistical methods used in analysis of fMRI studies. They requested the raw, unprocessed data from fMRI researchers. Only about half of researchers submitted their data. Some submitted just one of many studies. MIT analysis revealed that 25 to 40 percent of the studies used wrong statistical methods, resulting in the report, “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality and Social Cognition.” read article
- 2009: A study on human reactions to seeing pictures of human emotions was done using fMRI scans and was published. In one real but satirical fMRI study, a salmon was shown similar pictures of humans in different emotional states. The authors provided evidence, according to two different commonly used statistical methods, of areas in the salmon’s brain of activity suggesting meaningful emotional reaction. It could easily be concluded that the salmon perceived and interacted with human facial expressions. The big problem was that the salmon was dead. It had been purchased by the researcher the morning of the experiment from a fish market. Dead Salmon study
- This study was awarded the notorious and farcical-minded IgNobel Prize.
- The story was reported in Scientific American. tread dead salmon report
- 2010: Dr. Russ Poldrack at Stanford University started an Open fMRI Repository for scientists to store and share their research data so others could look at and reanalyze them if needed. Not all researchers participated.
- 2013: Sally Satel, MD, published a book entitled Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, criticizing the deception of fMRI reports: “You’ve seen the headlines: This is your brain in love. Or God. Or envy. Or happiness. And they’re reliably accompanied by articles boasting pictures of color-drenched brains.” Dr. Satel criticized the rise of “neuromarketing” and profiteering from the marketing of neuroscience.
- Book review in Huffington Post. Read Huffington post review
- Article in Time magazine. read Times magazine article
- 2016: The most prestigious scientific journal is Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The National Academy of Science was founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as “Advisors to the nation on science.” Membership in the Academy is by invitation only. Of just over 2,000 members, nearly 200 are Nobel Prize winners. The July 12, 2016 issue of PNAS reported a study by Swedish and British scientists looking at fMRI software: “Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates.” The authors examined the three most commonly used fMRI software programs, used by 80 percent of researchers, using data from the Open fMRI Repository at Stanford University. The Swedish-British researchers conducted three million task-group analyses of fMRI data, using the data of people at rest (null data) who weren’t engaged in any cognitive activity. Scientifically, these brain images should show no activity on fMRI scans. They discovered that over 70 percent of images showed false-positive correlation. The conclusion: “These results question the validity of many of the 40,000 fMRI studies.” fMRI and false positives study. Using coin-flip to guess on brain science of love is more reliable than fMRI, as simple coin-toss gets the correct results 50 percent of the time, while fMRI gets it right less than 30% of the time.
- 2016: On July 15, the esteemed journal Science reported on the study in its “News in depth” section: “Brain scans are prone to false positives, study says. Common software settings may have skewed the statistics for thousands of studies.” Science Journal article about fMRI study
- 2016: On July 5, the journal Nature, after knowing about the Swedish study, announced that “Nature promotes research data sharing,” and set new criteria for doing so. Nature wanted to prevent similar flawed studies in their most prestigious journal. Nature Journal and fMRI false results
You should consider, both as a reader of this blog and as a medical consumer, the following two statements:
The fMRI is not the best way to see the functions inside the brain.
The fMRI is based on questionable science.
Fred Nour, M.D.