Weird tasks for weird brains: Constraints and biases in brain imaging research

Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Biobe­hav­ioral Sciences; Director, Tran­scra­nial Mag­netic Stim­u­la­tion Lab, Department of Psy­chi­a­try & Biobe­hav­ioral Sciences, University of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les   Web­site  |  Pub­li­ca­tions   |  @marcoiacoboni

Abstract: Brain imag­ing research suf­fers the same WEIRD selec­tion bias dis­cussed by Heine in behav­ioral sci­ences. Does it really mat­ter for brain sci­ence? On one hand, brains tend to be evo­lu­tion­ar­ily highly pre­served. This is why ani­mal research find­ings can be used to under­stand the human brain. On the other hand, a mul­ti­tude of human cul­tural tra­di­tions shape neural activ­ity, likely pro­duc­ing a rich vari­ety of brain pat­terns. Brain imag­ing labs have cap­tured so far only a tiny frac­tion of such vari­ety. Fur­ther­more, brain imag­ing has an addi­tional prob­lem, com­pared to the behav­ioral sci­ences. The scan­ner envi­ron­ment strongly lim­its the kind of things that sub­jects can do in the lab. Exper­i­ments are often biased toward stimulus-response par­a­digms with iso­lated sub­jects, or as in recent years, rest­ing state (here sub­jects do noth­ing). To move the field for­ward, it is nec­es­sary to estab­lish inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions that require cre­ative solu­tions regard­ing the lim­it­ing con­straints of imag­ing labs.

Bio: Marco Iacoboni is Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Biobe­hav­ioral Sci­ences and Direc­tor of the Tran­scra­nial Mag­netic Stim­u­la­tion Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Map­ping Cen­ter of the David Gef­fen School of Med­i­cine at UCLA. Iacoboni pio­neered the research on mir­ror neu­rons, the “smart cells” in our brain that allow us to under­stand oth­ers. His research has been cov­ered by the New York Times, Los Ange­les Times, Wall Street Jour­nal, Newsweek, Time, The Econ­o­mist, and major TV net­works. Marco Iacoboni’s book on mir­ror neu­rons is enti­tled Mir­ror­ing Peo­ple: The Sci­ence of Empa­thy and How We Con­nect with Oth­ers.