What a dead fish can teach you about neuroscience and statistics
The methodology is straightforward. You take your subject and slide them into an fMRI machine, a humongous sleek, white ring, like a donut designed by Apple. Then you show the subject images of people engaging in social activities — shopping, talking, eating dinner. You flash 48 different photos in front of your subject’s eyes, and ask them to figure out what emotions the people in the photos were probably feeling. All in all, it’s a pretty basic neuroscience/psychology experiment. With one catch. The “subject” is a mature Atlantic salmon.
And it is dead.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a powerful tool that allows us to capture incredible amounts of information about what happens in our brains. It’s relatively new — neuroscientists began using fMRI in the early 1990s — and it produces colorful images that help bring numbers to life for the general public.
All of those things are strengths for fMRI. Unfortunately, they’re also all weaknesses. New tools vastly expand our understanding of the human body … but they also mean that we have to develop new standards so that different studies using the same tool can actually be compared to one another. Images of the human brain help make science more understandable … but they can also be incredibly misleading when the public doesn’t have a good idea of what the pictures show. Amassing vast quantities of information is great … but it also makes it easy to end up with false positives — coincidences of chance that look like something a lot more important.
Enter the dead salmon.
A fascinating interview that cleared up some misconceptions I had about fMRI.
Higgs boson within reach?
The ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN today presented their latest results in the search for the long-sought Higgs boson. Both experiments see strong indications for the presence of a new particle, which could be the Higgs boson, in the mass region around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV).
Live webcast here, BBC article here.