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Foundational Issues in Human Brain MappingReview - Foundational Issues in Human Brain Mapping
by Stephen Josť Hanson and Martin Bunzl (Editors)
MIT Press, 2010
Review by Robyn Bluhm, PhD.
Sep 30th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 39)

Foundational Issues in Human Brain Mapping is a collection of papers based on a 2007 workshop that brought together philosophers of mind and cognitive science with researchers in functional neuroimaging. The book’s editors, who also organized the workshop, note that the workshop prompted lively discussion, and this is reflected in the organization of the book. Each section contains papers in which the authors take account of or respond directly to each others’ work.  This format is very effective and makes the volume much more coherent than many other edited collections.  It also conveys the idea that functional neuroimaging is a field in which basic conceptual and methodological questions are still being settled.

The first two sections of the book are each concerned with a specific, relatively technical, problem faced by neuroimaging researchers, but in each case, the deeper conceptual issues that give rise to that problem are also raised and discussed. It should also be noted that versions of some of the papers in these sections have already appeared in print.

Section one looks at the use of “functional localizers” in neuroimaging studies, which occurs most commonly in vision research. This technique involves scanning participants during a task that is known to reliably activate a particular brain area of interest, and then using the results of that scan to localize activity during a scanning run in which a different task (one that is the main focus of the study) is performed. The papers in this section debate the use of such localizers but also discuss broader questions about the nature of localization in general and the appropriate approach to experimental design in neuroimaging research.

The second section examines the question of the nonindependence of analyses in fMRI studies that select areas for further analysis on the basis of their “activation” during a first analysis. These papers examine the conditions under which the subsequent analyses can be useful (as opposed to not adding any information to the initial analyses or even being outright misleading), and they tie this issue into other general questions in the analysis of fMRI research, notably the problem of false positive results arising from the vast number of statistical analyses conducted in these studies. The discussion highlights problems regarding the nature of statistical tests and the appropriate for determining statistical significance levels in imaging studies. 

The third section contains papers that look at what the data obtained in fMRI experiments can tell us about neural and cognitive function with the contributions describing a number of traditional and new approaches to experimental design. The final section builds on the issues raised throughout the book, providing a number of perspectives on the question of what neuroimaging research can add to our knowledge of cognition. 

The editors acknowledge in their introduction that interdisciplinary discussions always risk ending up with participants talking past each other. Similarly, some readers of the book might find themselves more drawn to some chapters and frustrated by others. The first two sections, in particular, may seem to be primarily of interest to those engaged in fMRI research, however, the authors do make an effort to explain the technical issues in sufficient detail that they can be understood by nonscientists. The overall collection does provide a solid overview of a number of key questions about functional neuroimaging. Various chapters cover questions about just what is being measured by fMRI (see the chapters by Biswal and by Roskies), and the possible effects of anatomical and functional variability between individuals (the discussion on functional localizers, as well as the chapters by Grill-Spector and Poline et al.). Others focus on the relationship between cognitive processes and brain activity (Poldrack, Roskies, Loosemore and Harley, Bechtel and Richardson, and Coltheart), or how to design and analyze neuroimaging experiments (the discussions in the first two sections and the papers by Poldrack, Grill-Spector, and Poline et al.). 

The nature of fMRI data (copious, complex, and noisy) and the relatively young age of this area of research mean that new approaches to experimental design and analysis will continue to be developed. Progress in both fMRI research and in other research areas examining cognition and/or the brain mean that new conceptual challenges will continue to emerge. Yet these facts do not mean that this book will soon become outdated. The editors were correct to claim in their title that the contributors to this volume address foundational issues. Thus, even though, for example, the question of using functional localizers acquired during a separate scan from the task being examined in a study may be resolved in the near future, the debate of their use also raises issues that should help to clarify new problems that might arise. The section titles make clear that the book addresses perennial questions in science and philosophy of science such as representation, inference, experimental design, and the underdetermination of theories by data.  Foundational Issues in Human Brain Mapping shows how these questions are relevant to neuroimaging research.

 

© 2010 Robyn Bluhm

 

Robyn Bluhm, PhD. Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA


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