Posts Tagged ‘Anne Beaulieu’

That’s the 2nd part of a three-easy-steps-guide to neuroeconomics (see previous post).

Image with fMRI

Image with fMRI

As is obvious if you ever perused through an article in neuroeconomics, brain images have a central role in social neuroscience. So a question that is often asked in the corridors and conference rooms is how trustful those visual representations are. In particular, how trustful are the visuals showing well-defined zones of activations in the brain?

An entry point to this issue can be to develop a critical comparison between the localizationist view of brain activity (cognitive skills would be organized in independent scattered patches) and the old-time phrenology.

Brain in the phrenology mode

Brain in the phrenology mode

This is the view suggested by the cognitive neuroscientist Guy Tiberghien, who recently made a presentation “against spectacular neuroimaging” (in French), indicting the simpleness of the localizationist view. Clever replies to this argument exist (the connectivist, network view), but it remains that by definition, brain images display a very static snapshot of the mind-in the-brain.


Anne Beaulieu

A different perspective consists in studying the emergence of brain imaging technologies from the sociological and historical point of view, focusing on the transformations in their use since the 1970s. This is precisely the topic of Anne Beaulieu‘s PhD dissertation (2000). In “The Space Inside the Skull“, she unraveled the “archeology” of brain functional imaging (mainly PET at the time). She shows how in the late 70s and 80s, brain imaging was conceived primarily or exclusively for clinical applications, like for mapping the brain of a patient before surgery, or to obtain a standardized brain atlas. It is almost as an afterthought that in the late 80s, functional imaging technology was used to trace “mind” activities, diverging then from the agenda of the clinicians.

This history of functional brain imaging is supplemented by a reflection on the epistemic status of the visuals, drawing on the work of Michael Lynch and Karen Knorr-Cetina. Doing anthropological field work in the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre at McGill University, the center which designed maps of “average” brains, Anne Beaulieu reveals in detail how neuroscientists build a justification for their use of brain images. In interviews, they display a love-hate relationship with images: both useful for synthesizing large amounts of data, convenient to communicate results to a large audience, but also threatening the seriousness of science because of their non-quantitative nature, and their aesthetic properties.

I find this approach promising: instead of attempting to define a border separating “real” from “fake” science in brain imaging, as the title of this post would provocatively suggest, I believe rather that tracing the changing practices and conventions in the field allows for a deeper understanding of the meanings of brain images.

The next step probably consists  in comparing the epistemic status of images in neuroscience, with their status in economics. To do that, you’d have to read another PhD dissertation (in French) by my colleague Yann Giraud, precisely asking “Is Economics a Visual Science? (1932-1969)“. But that’s enough dissertations for today.

Read Full Post »