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How Realistic is fMRI?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 31, 2011 12:21 AM


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How representative are fMRI experiments? Is "the brain" that we investigate with fMRI the same brain that we use outside the MRI scanner?

A new paper from Bernhard Hommel and colleagues of Leiden in the Netherlands offers some important caveats. They looked to see what effect playing some recorded MRI scanner sounds had on people's ability to perform some simple cognitive tasks, while sitting outside the scanner.


MRI is notoriously noisy. When you have an MRI scan you have to wear earplugs to protect against the sound but they only block out some of it. Opinions differ on whether the sound is pleasant or not. Personally I find the repetitive tick-tock rather soothing now, but then I've heard it many times over the years. First-timers can find it quite overwhelming.

Anyway, Hommel et al found that while scanner noise had no overall effects on reaction time or accuracy, it actually improved performance on three measures of "cognitive control".

For instance in a task in which participants had to respond to the colour of a circle by pressing the left or the right arrow key, they were slower to react when the circle appeared on the "wrong" side of the screen, i.e. on the left when the correct answer was the right arrow. This slowing of responses caused by a stimulus-response clash is called the Simon effect.

The results showed that the Simon effect was reduced by noise. The same thing happened in two other studies: noise meant better performance.

All of the noise effects were modest and the sample sizes were also quite small (14-18 per task, with everyone studied twice, noisy vs silent) but this paper joins a number of others raising questions about the representativeness of fMRI, with evidence that fMRI activates the brain and maybe even improves mood (although I doubt that last one).

The authors' interpretation is that the noise made people pay more attention to the tasks, to compensate for the distraction, and that this means that fMRI studies may be biased in their measurements of cognitive control:

Generalizing from fMRI findings to behavioral observations and vice versa seems to be more problematic than commonly thought, at least as far as control processes are concerned. In a sense, then, investigating cognitive processes by means of fMRI... is inevitably facing Heisenberg’s (1927) uncertainty principle, according to which the act of measurement can change what is being measured.

To my mind the biggest weakness of this is that it only looked at noise. While scanners are noisy, that's not the only distracting thing about them: during an fMRI study you also have to lie down, in a small confined tube, and your only way to see the "screen" on which experimental stimuli are shown is indirectly via a small mirror which often doesn't give a good view.

So ironically, I'm not sure how realistic this study is...


Hommel, B., Fischer, R., Colzato, L., van den Wildenberg, W. and Cellini, C. (2011). The effect of fMRI (noise) on cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance DOI: 10.1037/a0026353

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