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Can Brain Imaging Read the Mind?

October 23, 2019

Brain imaging or brain scanning methods are used to observe and manipulate the brain and its activities. Imaging is also useful for locating brain injury. There are various brain-imaging methods, including electrical recordings, brain stimulation, X-ray imaging, and dynamic imaging (Kolb and Whishaw 2009). Brain imaging has led to important psychological and behavioral discoveries and accelerated the progress of neuroscience. Modern brain imaging devices have allowed researchers to look farther into the brain than ever before; these techniques have helped identify brain correlates of behavioral, social, developmental, and emotional processes. One of the newest methods is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and studies using it have attracted major funding and media interest. 

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

fMRI Scanner

Everything the brain enables us to do is associated with changes in oxygen consumption and regional blood flow. When engaging in a task, specific regions of the brain are activated, and an increase in blood flow and oxygen occurs in those specific regions. The increased blood flow and increase in oxygen levels are used as proxies for increased activation of brain cells. As Satel and Lilienfeld (2013) point out, it is important to include the term increased when describing fMRI “because the entire living brain is always on; blood is always circulating and oxygen is always being consumed. The only truly silent brain is a dead brain.” The fMRI is an indirect measure for detecting brain activity; it doesn’t directly measure electrical activity.

The key to detecting increased brain activity is measuring the concentration of oxygen dissolved in the blood. There is a powerful magnet within the fMRI machine that measures the influx of blood to areas of the brain. The relative concentration of oxygenated and oxygen-depleted blood creates a signal known as the BOLD (blood-oxygen-level-dependent) response. The higher the ratio of oxygenated to oxygen-depleted blood in a specific area, the more energy consumption in that area (signifying higher levels of activity). When measuring brain activity, participants are engaged in a task (such as viewing visual images) and the activity during the task is compared to the activity that occurred while engaging in a baseline task (such as sitting with eyes closed and relaxing). The computer generates an image showing regions that become more active in one condition relative to the other. 

fMRI BrainScan

The final brain image seen in magazines or on television generally represents the average results of all participants in the study; the image doesn’t represent an individual brain in action. The photos used to illustrate brain imaging studies are often colorful and appealing to a wide audience. These photos are powerful, and to many they represent an unfiltered view into our deepest thoughts. According to many journalists, high-tech brain imaging devices are the window into our desires, complex psychologies, beliefs, and wishes (Jarrett 2015).  

Neuroscience Misunderstood          

Advances in neuroscience have led to a better understanding of brain function, brain processes, psychology, and behavior, in both human and nonhuman animals. Many of the advances in neuroscience can be attributed to dynamic brain imaging. Being able to view the brain in action is exciting and has a promising future. To be clear: this article is not a critical evaluation of neuroscience but rather a discussion on the misuse of neuroscience. The misuse of neuroscience involves the oversimplification, misinterpretation, and premature application of brain science to various domains, including the legal, commercial, and clinical domains. Often, neuro- is a prefix used for persuasion. 

Neuro-persuasion is prevalent; attach the word neuro to your product or message and watch its value increase. In the words of one cognitive psychologist (paraphrased), if you are unable to persuade others, use a neuro-prefix and influence grows or your money back (Jarrett 2015). Offering brain-related explanations or brain imaging photos often goes a long way in influencing consumers and participants in research studies. As an example, you have probably seen photos comparing brains of people consuming sugar with brains of people consuming drugs. The photos look similar, so according to proponents, consuming sugar is like taking addictive drugs. Consumption of sugar can activate the same brain reward mechanisms (dopamine pathway referred to as mesolimbic dopamine system) as the consumption of addictive drugs. The problem with the claim is the way it is presented and the inferences made regarding the claim. Rewards have positive value and facilitate feelings of pleasure and positive emotion; they act as positive reinforcers. Not only do rewards lead to the activation of the brain reward mechanism, so do expectations or anticipation of rewards. “The flow of dopamine is set off by the simplest expectation of pleasure, even though the pleasure may not materialize” (Kandel 2012). The brain’s reward mechanisms are activated when we enjoy art, experience beautiful scenery, are exposed to attractive faces, listen to pleasant music, are exposed to humor or novelty, drive a sports car, and experience romantic love. The sugar-brain could easily be called the love-brain. It is a drastic oversimplification to suggest that because consuming sugar may lead to activation of brain reward mechanisms it’s similar to drug use. 

In one study, it was found that merely inserting the phrase “brain scans show” led undergraduates to accept logically flawed explanations derived from neuroimaging studies (Weisberg et al. 2008). A study of college students reported that including useless neuroscience information in the description of studies increased the likelihood of participants accepting explanations as logical (Schwartz et al. 2015). 

Can brain imaging be used to diagnose psychiatric disorders? Most psychiatric disorders are diagnosed based on behavioral and cognitive symptoms. The neural correlates of psychiatric disorders are not distinct enough to allow a diagnosis. Currently, there are no brain imaging biomarkers that are clinically useful for any diagnostic category in psychiatry. Brain imaging in combination with other levels of analysis may be useful in psychiatric diagnoses, but brain imaging alone isn’t enough when attempting to identify disorders. 

Neuromarketing is an area that is concerned with using the supposed mindreading capabilities of fMRI as it relates to marketing and consumer behavior. One popular publication reports this sort of marketing has revolutionized advertising and marketing. A review of neuromarketing, as published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, doesn’t support the revolutionary progress made by neuromarketing. The authors of the review concluded that it isn’t clear yet whether neuroimaging provides better data than other marketing strategies (Ariely and Berns 2010). There are ways that brain scanning could complement existing marketing strategies, but that doesn’t mean it can replace these strategies—nor does it mean they are superior to current strategies. 

Brain imaging devices are not mind-reading devices. As one researcher noted, “We’re not doing mind reading here. We’re not really peering into your brain and reconstructing pictures in your head. We’re reading your brain activity and using that brain activity to reconstruct what you saw. And those are two very, very different things” (Nishimoto et al. 2011). 

Be cautious when reading about breakthrough brain imaging studies. Journalists often make logical leaps in their writing: inferring causation from correlation, assuming strictly neural processes are all that is needed to understand complex behaviors and thoughts, and assuming brain imaging data is a more reliable than data derived from cognitive and behavioral measures.              


Ariely, D., and G. Berns. 2010. Neuromarketing: The hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11(4): 284–292.

Jarrett, C. 2015. Great Myths of The Brain. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kandel, E. 2012. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain. New York, NY: Random House.    

Kolb, B., and I. Whishaw. 2009. Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology 6th edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Nishimoto, S., et al. 2011. Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies. Current Biology 21(19): 1641–1646. 

Satel, S., and S. Lilienfeld. 2013. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Schwartz, S.J., et al. 2015. The role of neuroscience within psychology: A call for inclusiveness over exclusiveness. American Psychological Association. Available online at

Weisberg, D.S., et al. 2008. The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20: 470–477.