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Reading in the brain

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 13:30 authored by Frederic GilbertFrederic Gilbert, Wenger, A

From graphic brain tumors to micro-neurological lesions, the increasing sophistication of neuroimaging technologies has greatly contributed to the accuracy of neuronal diagnostics. Concurrent with the development of these technologies, metaphors associated with the readability of the brain have evolved within the scientific literature. A cursory glance at recently published articles from Nature Journals reveals many references to the brain readability metaphor, from "developments in neuroimaging... including the reading of brain states" to "neurotechnologies such as brain reading."

With increasing interest in neurotechnology from diverse disciplines from medicine to pharmacology, the readability metaphor developed within the context of neuroimaging diagnostics has extended to include reading an individual's thoughts. In a recent publication, an interviewed cognitive neuroscientist affirmed that, even if much work is involved, "the possibility of reading out a person's thoughts does exist." Somehow, the purpose of cerebral imaging has shifted from a clinical diagnostic procedure to a tool for "reading the private intentions of a person" or "mind-reading." Arguably, this shift does reflect increasingly accurate diagnoses of neuropathology and our ability to "decod[e] mental states from brain activity in humans." Whether the metaphor discusses more traditional diagnostics or the less understood concept of mind-reading, the common factor that ties these articles together is the idea that it is possible to read the neural muddle with neuroimaging techniques. Indeed, idioms such as "neural signature" and "neural code" are now part of accepted and shared interdisciplinary terminologies (see Table 1).

While medical writing, as a heterogeneous language, must evolve and adapt to explain scientific advances within and outside of the medical community, scientific discussions of mind reading are questionable, even if this expression is the product of a long evolution. Does the readability metaphor accurately describe our current understanding of blood flow, metabolic tissue activity, and the orientation of hydrogen atoms and its relationship to thoughts? In other words, what can scientists genuinely glean from these brain images?

That the modern scientific community has embraced the possibility of brain reading through cerebral imaging makes an odd juxtaposition of an ancient, unsubstantiated medical tradition with current technologies that allow us to observe brain activity with increasing accuracy. To be fair, the metaphor of "reading the brain" as an explanation of neuroimaging is not without merit; it makes the description of these technologies accessible for a multiplicity of stakeholders who would otherwise have difficulty navigating the technical language that scientists frequently use. However, because brain reading is not a new concept developed by contemporary medical neuroimaging, this metaphorical language may limit the physician’s or neuroimagist’s ability to communicate the nature of their innovative observations and discoveries to the layperson.


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Hektoen International






School of Humanities


Hektoen Institute of Medicine

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