Functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI)—the tool that creates a Technicolor map of our brains showing areas that are "lit up" where we experience anger, empathy or even morality—is either thought of as one of the greatest scientific advancements or nothing more than a high-tech phrenology—the theory that personality can be revealed by the positions of bumps in the skull.
Debates aside, the colorful brain images are a media fetish—and they have an impact on how we view news.
A study in the journal Cognition this month shows that the public views news stories as more scientifically sound when accompanied by a flashy brain image.
Researchers presented 156 subjects with news stories based on flawed science. Subjects rated the stories as more credible when accompanied by a colorful brain image as opposed to a bar graph, a colorful topographic map or no graphic at all.
The results remind us of a study done at Yale, where researchers found that gratuitous neuroscience jargon led nonexperts to believe that a story was more credible than the same story without the jargon.
So take note: When reading the news, may we never lose our skepticism.