#18: Rise of the Mind Readers

fMRI gives unprecedented views of the mind in action.

By Jane Bosveld|Monday, January 25, 2010

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, has become a powerful tool for evaluating brain anatomy, but a newer incarnation of the technology called fMRI (the f stands for functional) can probe even more deeply. In studies published over the past year, neuroscientists have shown that fMRI can peel away the secrets of emotion and thought; in fact, some of their findings are almost like mind reading.

­Using fMRI, New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps has identified two brain regions—the amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex, associated with emotional learning and decision making—that are crucial in forming first impressions. “Even when we only briefly encounter others, these regions are activated,” Phelps says.

- At Georgetown University Medical Center, a team used fMRI to study how we mentally encode music. When we hear a sequence of familiar songs, our brains show high levels of activity during the silence between tracks, indicating anticipation. When we hear music we do not know, our brains are relatively inactive because we cannot anticipate the song. The prefrontal cortex, premotor cortex, and basal ganglia, which signal the body to act and move, seem to direct this response.

- Other fMRI studies show how the brain discerns true statements from false ones?. According to researchers at the University of Lisbon and at Vita-Salute in Milan, false statements activate a section of the brain’s frontal polar cortex, which is related to problem solving. True statements trigger the left inferior parietal cortex and the caudate nucleus, areas of the brain related to memory.

- The work closest to mind reading comes from Demis Hassabis and Eleanor Maguire at University College London, who scanned subjects who were navigating a virtual reality simulation. Just from the pattern of activity in the hippocampus—a part of the brain instrumental to our ability to navigate—the researchers could determine where each subject was located within the simulation. “Different spatial positions are associated with different patterns of activity in the hippocampus,” Maguire says.

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