In yet another news article on yet another of-questionable-value fMRI study, hard-hitting Discovery news came up with this doozy of a headline:
How Visiting Your Family Warps Your Brain
Really now? Warps your brain? Wow, I can’t wait to read how someone who visits their family actually finds significant, long-lasting structural changes in their brain.
Ahh, but then I’d be disappointed, because the “news” article only describes a study where subjects lay down on their backs, are inserted into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, and shown various photos while researchers monitor the subject’s brain activity.
That’s a far cry from showing something is “warping” our brains.
These studies, while having some minimal informational value, are called analogue studies, because they aren’t actually measuring the real process that happens in everyday life. You can’t very well ask a subject to bring a dozen of his friends and family into the research lab and then measure an actual response. Instead, you have to display a photo to the person, while they’re strapped into an fMRI machine.
So what were the real findings behind the ridiculous headline?
The scientists found that relatives and self-lookalikes are processed through a self-referential part of the brain. Friends and strangers who look nothing like the viewer, on the other hand, light up entirely different areas of the brain, those linked to making important and risky decisions with respect to the self.
Ahh, so that’s it. Family lights up one side of our brain, and friends — who, interestingly enough, are found to be no different than strangers in our brain’s world — light up another side.
But, as the researchers note, this finding could also be explained by previous research that showed people perceive people as more friendly the more they look like us. So that would include our family and relatives, but not most of our friends. So rather than some genetic issue at work here, it may be simply one of evolutionary design — people who look like us are less likely to be our foes.
All of which is arm-chair intellectually interesting, but not at all in the same vein as having our brains “warped.”
Read the full article: How Visiting Your Family Warps Your Brain