2010 | Scanning the brain is like scanning a computer with no screen.

©Rune Peitersen 2010

Although I have the utmost respect for scientific research and am personally fascinated by the field of neurology, recently I find myself questioning the methods used to gather information about brain activity, namely the measuring of electrical fields or electrical activity in the brain. Not the specific methods themselves, whether one uses electrodes or mri scans to determine brain activity is of no interest to me. Rather the thinking behind the research seems odd. What can one really hope to gather from measuring a certain area of activity? If a subject is stimulated in a certain manner e.g. hit on the finger, told to think of something nice or shown evocative imagery, then specific parts of the brain light up and the more the subject’s finger is hit, the more accurately the area in the brain can be pinpointed. But what does that really tell us?

There’s no metaphor I reject more than comparing the human brain to a computer, but in this particular case I think it is a valid metaphor. Scanning the brain and drawing conclusions from these scans about the human mind or the human experience of the world, is like removing the monitor from a pc, putting electrodes on the outside of the tower and hammering away at the keyboard. Indeed, certain key stroke combinations seem to evoke very specific responses from the tower, and with a little patience we might be able to piece together an idea of the anatomy of the inside of the computer i.e. motherboard, cpu, gpu, hard drive etc. We may discover that repeatedly hitting ctrl+alt+del invokes a specific response, there might even be a sound, but without the screen we can never know if we’re playing a game, surfing the web, photoshopping or have crashed.

It is an old dilemma of neurology, that whatever else it is, it is always the brain examining the brain. But this is looking for sparks and trying to guess their meaning, this is the brain projecting unto the brain.