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Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us

Colorful scans have lulled us into an oversimplified conception of the brain as a modular machine



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Over the past few hundred years, as scientists have grappled with understanding the source of the amazing processing power in our skulls, they have employed a number of metaphors based on familiar technologies of their given era. The brain has been thought of as a hydraulic machine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century) and an electronic computer (20th century).

Today, early in the 21st century, we have another metaphor driven by the capabilities of the current technology—this time colorful images from modern brain scans. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, have conceptualized the brain as a Swiss Army knife, with a collection of specialized modules that have evolved to solve specific problems in our evolutionary history, such as language for communication, facial recognition to separate friends from foes, cheating detection to prevent free riders, risk taking to raise the odds of individual or group success, and even God to explain the world and to find individual happiness in thoughts of an afterlife. Many neuroscientists have employed the module metaphor to describe specific regions of the brain “for X,” with X being whatever happens to be the task given to subjects while a machine scans their brains. Such tasks might include selecting brand logos they prefer (say, Coke or Pepsi) or political candidates they would vote for (conservatives or liberals).

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