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Putting A Critical Eye On Brain Imaging Studies

Hardly a week goes by without some brain imaging study making the rounds in science news.

Last week we read that women had similar patterns of brain activation in brain regions associated with emotion, reward and affiliations when looking at images of their dogs and of their children. Last month we read that a man in a vegetative state who was shown a Hitchcock thriller had patterns of brain activity similar to those of healthy participants who watched the same film. Last spring we read that children with musical training — compared to similar children with no musical training — had greater activation in some brain regions associated with executive function while completing a battery of cognitive tests. The list, of course, goes on.

While an early fascination with brain imaging has been partially tempered by a "neuro-backlash," there's still a dearth of resources for those who don't just want to see a single study touted or critiqued, but hope to better understand the basics of neuroimaging and how to become a more sophisticate consumer of brain imaging research. That's why I was pleased to come across a new website featuring MIT's Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, explaining a variety of brain-imaging basics in accessible lecture form. The videos and style aren't quite as sleek as her TED talk from March, but they're clear and entertaining, with useful demonstrations and examples.

Readers might be especially interested in Kanwisher's tips for critically evaluating functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies, explained in the video below. Some tips are merely the tip of the iceberg, but they're a great place to start. Enjoy!

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo.

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.