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What we can learn from the limits of brain scanning

By on July 21, 2014
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Lets face it, brain scanning technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. The advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) has allowed researchers to track brain activity in real time by measuring changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain. Because neurons require blood to fire, increased blood flow is directly linked to increased brain activity. In addition, sophisticated computer modeling with graphical interfaces allows fMRI information to be combined with information from other scanning technologies such as EEG, MRI, PET and so on to develop highly detailed and sophisticated maps of brain activity as the subject performs various mental tasks.

However, there is a dark side to this new technology that allows anyone and everyone who has the financial resources to be able to buy or rent the necessary equipment, to carry out amazing and original research. This dark side is that many researchers are seeking to make their reputations based upon some startling discovery but can only afford to scan a few subjects carrying out the relevant mental task, and scan them only once or twice. The research therefore becomes subject to at best overgeneralization, and at worst errors arising from the small samples used. When we are reading the latest research we should keep these potential over generalizations and errors in mind.

Of course most of those working in the hypnosis or coaching fields are using neuroscience research as metaphors to build belief in our clients. You can therefore allow yourself a little latitude in presenting neuro science research as being ‘true’!

You can better understand the nature of this issue by considering some research from 2012 which used fMRI to scan subjects performing a couple of very simple mental tasks (such as looking at pictures of faces), but using much larger samples of subjects, or many more repetitions of the task for each subject, and over a more extended time for the scan itself which allowed the researchers to observe mental activity prior to, during, and after the task. By combining these large samples, the researchers were able to get a more nuanced view of the mental activity taking place.

A couple of very interesting results came out of this research. The first was that although brain activity was indeed concentrated in one or two brain areas, as most neuroscience research indicates, it was not concentrated in these areas to the exclusion of the rest of the brain. In fact, it seems for even simple mental tasks, majority of the brain is lighting up in some way or another. This conclusion makes a lot of sense to get the tests and other practitioners who bring in multiple sense systems (“What does that look like? What does that sound like? What does that feel like?”) and multiple representations (“Where is it? What color is it? Is it moving or still?”) when building up a particular state.

Another interesting result was that brain areas would fire off in sequence, for example with one brain area firing off both at the start of the mental task, and also at the end of mental task. In terms of NLP we can think of this as being similar to a ‘strategy’, i.e. a particular sequence of mental representations fired-off in order. Although both Richard Bandler and John Grinder have moved somewhat away from talking about strategies, and more towards ‘clusters’ of representations (meaning a set of representations but not necessarily fired off in a particular order), perhaps this new research puts the idea of strategies back in play as a function of brain activity.

In conclusion we would certainly encourage you to continue to use neuroscience research as metaphor to support your client’s change. at the same time, be cautious about referring to some of these neuroscience conclusions as being ‘true’ when interacting with your peers, the press, or the scientific community. Lets face it, brain scanning technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. The advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) has allowed researchers to track brain activity in real time by measuring changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain. Because neurons require blood to fire, increased blood flow is directly linked to increased brain activity. In addition, sophisticated computer modeling with graphical interfaces allows fMRI information to be combined with information from other scanning technologies such as EEG, MRI, PET and so on to develop highly detailed and sophisticated maps of brain activity as the subject performs various mental tasks.

The first study was carried out by Javier Gonzalez-Castillo and colleagues from MIT and the National Institute of Mental Health. In this study subjects were scanned not once or twice, but 100 times each.

http://www.pnas.org/content/109/14/5487.full

The second study carried out by Benjamin Thyreau and colleagues used a large sample of subjects (over 1,300) and scanned them using the same tasks.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811912002753

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