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Neuromyth: Brain Scanners “See” Thinking

There are hundreds of intriguing headlines that combine with the general feeling of Big Brother watching your every move to result in the myth that we can somehow “see” brains thinking. Headlines like “Brain Scan that Shows Researchers What You Are THINKING About” are even more disturbing and declare, “brain scans now allow researchers to know exactly what a person is imagining.” 109 Other headlines like, “Mind-Reading Computer Instantly Decodes People’s Thoughts” 110 and “This Camera Records the Thinking Brain” 111 sound amazing, but less so when you see that they relate to mice studies and spatial memory, a sub-element of complete cognition.

Where the Myth Comes From

“Can a Brain Scan Tell What You’re Thinking?” is the million-dollar question.112 As we develop better technologies, surprising findings emerge almost monthly, and depending on how they are shared with the public, they are easily misinterpreted as meaning more than they actually do. For example, in his TED Talk, Christopher De Charms explains MRI imaging of parts of the brain used to move a hand. This is not thinking, but the title of his talk, “Looking Inside the Brain in Real Time suggests that “we can look at his mind” as he shows his colleague’s MRI scan, which can mislead people to think they are seeing “thinking.” De Charms says that we can learn to manage our pain better and avoid pills, psychiatrists, and surgery by controlling our bodies with our minds. While much of this is positive and can often be true, it can be argued that it is overreaching to think that “you will be able to look at all the aspects that make you yourself, all your experiences.” 113 While it is true that technology is marching forward, it is probably unrealistic to think “all” of this will be available soon.

While sensationalist, the video is based on serious work by Nathan Spreng at Cornell University114 that celebrates the complexities of thinking by considering agreeable and disagreeable descriptors, and the context in which social exchanges occur. By piecing together multiple images across variables, Spreng and colleagues suggest they get an idea of what people are imagining. While this is not thinking per se, the actual research was far less sensationalistic than the headline it earned and far more interesting to serious researchers.

In another extreme example, Grabianowski115 writes that there are “Six Ways Science Can See Into Your Brain,” which is actually a nice summary article about imaging techniques electroencephalogram (EEG); computerized axial tomography (CAT); positron emission tomography (PET); magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); and magnetoencephalography (MEG). This article seems to go hand in hand with another, “Brain Researchers Can Detect Who We Are Thinking About,” 116 which explains how imaging techniques work. The belief that brain scanners can see people’s thinking is due to lack of scientific literacy and/or expert knowledge about the limits of technology. In general, these headlines simply overextend the actual research findings. This is not their fault, however, as that is the job of a headline. The fault is in not reading beyond the headline, which is the reader’s decision.

What We Know Now

Each brain imaging machine can, at best, measure a single dimension (electrical, chemical, or structural) of one sub-skill set (e.g., symbol to sound correlation; semantic memory; identifying mistakes in word spelling; mental rotation, alerting system, and so on). No imaging machine can measure thought, only a sub-element of a thought. The truth of the matter is that we now know that the act of thinking involves perception (all the sensory systems working together), memory, attention, executive functions, domain area networks, and other complex mechanisms to result in a single thought. “Thinking” is not a single firing in the brain, but rather the combination of dozens of networks (and thousands of connections) working in synchronous rhythm. While we can detect the neural networks that are important in each of these mechanisms, we cannot actually tell what they mean collectively. That is, we can see the networks related to semantic retrieval of information, but not necessarily the exact word “dog” as someone thinks of it.117

It’s now clear that there are many different pieces to a single thought and that “the distinctive cognitive demands of each stage [of thinking] will produce a brain pattern that can be used to estimate temporal boundaries of that stage.” 118 This means that, to actually see thinking, multiple simultaneous images would be needed. The closest we have to seeing this “big picture” of thinking is the Connectome Project,119 which gives us images of neural networks. But a neural network is not a thought. It is easy to understand how the public can be misled by the alluring headlines that seem to promise a glimpse into individual thinking, but this technology does not yet exist.

Neuromyth: Brain Scanners “See” Thinking

Did You Enjoy this Myth? Check Out the Book

Excerpted from Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain © 2018 by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.

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Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Ph.D.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, PhD, is a Professor at Harvard University's Extension School and is currently an educational researcher affiliated with the Latin American Social Science Research Faculty (FLACSO) in Quito, Ecuador. She is also the founder of Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform, and an Associate Editor of the Nature Partner Journal, Science of Learning. Tracey has taught Kindergarten through University and works with schools, universities, governments and NGOs in more than 40 countries around the world.

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APA Reference
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2019). Neuromyth: Brain Scanners “See” Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Apr 2019 (Originally: 19 Apr 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Apr 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.