During this year's 'Brain Lab' course, our task was to build a model that would allow us to predict the genre of a movie a person was watching from the pattern of brain activation (specifically, BOLD data obtained by functional MRI). A particular challenge was to use multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA), a method that has become the gold standard of statistical analysis in neuroscience over the last few years (see Norman et al., 2006, for an introduction).
In popular media new ground-breaking findings in brain research pop up every now and then, with bold statements like “some of us have fat brains that make us crave for too much food” (www.thesun.co.uk) or “our consciousness houses on a highway underneath our skull” (www.volkskrant.nl). When you read these articles, brain research seems so very simple: you put participants in an fMRI, show them a stimulus, measure their brain activity, analyse which brain areas get activated and draw a conclusion. A piece of cake.
During the four week intensive course Brain Lab we analysed previously established fMRI data using MATLAB. The data was collected by a fellow Amsterdam University College (AUC) student who researched whether film genre can be predicted by brain activity and cognitive states for her thesis. Initially, I was somewhat surprised that we were spoon-fed the original data and given the task to build upon previous research. If the course was longer, I hope we would have gotten the chance to construct our own experiment and collect our own data.
This semester I went on an excursion into the brain cosmos, the world of neuroscience. I am a science major with focus on physics, but as a student at the Amsterdam University College I am able to take courses in other fields of interest. I thus followed two neuroscience courses over the past few months, and have realized that even within the same major, in this case within the natural sciences, approaches to understanding a phenomenon differ widely.
For the last 4 weeks, we have been using Matlab to analyze fMRI data, a fresh new wind with regards to the, until now, mostly theoretical teachings we had in other courses. Finally being given an opportunity for a more “hands on” approach to science, the last few weeks have been a journey, with highs and lows.
When it comes to the brain, there are numerous theories and myths that attempt to explain its workings. With the growing body of knowledge about the brain, it is surprising that so many myths still exist. Neuromythologies are those popular stories that are used to attract consumers to using particular services, so-called ‘brain-based educational applications’ (Geake, 2008). A popular example of such a neuromyth is the ‘ten percent myth’, which states that humans only use ten percent of their brain.
I’d call myself a passionate movie watcher with a broad range of interests. Driven by my Cineville membership, at least one cinema visit per week is not unusual, whether it is to catch some vague art-house film, the latest James-Bond, or anything random at the sneek previews. Never did I ever ponder my seemingly flawless ability to categorize movies into their respective genres though. It seems to be one of those automatic, subconscious processes of which you can only guess what it is that actually drives them when you make an attempt to dissect them.
Last year I came across an interesting newspaper article playfully titled “You are your connections” (van Hintum, 2011), referring to the immensely popular book by neurologist Dick Swaab called “You Are Your Brain” (2010). While the latter has been thoroughly criticized for its overly reductionist perspective by scientists and philosophers alike, the connectome-movement seems to provide an integrated view of the human brain, susceptible for environmental influences while adhering to the genetic bases as laid down in the organism’s genome (Seung, 2012).