When Brain Scans Deceive & Scientists Lie

(Note: This is a bit of a heady (pun intended) post, but I think it’s crucial the yoga community get more familiar with science. Science in recent years has become so specialized that even scientists in different subdisciplines have difficulty communicating with one another. There’s so much jargon that a “lay-person” can’t read an article and decide for themselves whether the data support the conclusions. The public is asked to accept what scientists claim on blind faith. I encourage you to read on, even if something seems over your head. Dialogue begins with learning to speak one another’s language.)

Continued from Part 1, here are 2 more things all yogis should know about science:

4. Brain imaging doesn’t measure your thoughts.

Contrary to popular opinion, brain imaging technologies are not a direct measure of your thoughts or feelings. You know those pretty pictures of brains “lighting up” all kinds of pretty colors? Well, in my opinion, they’re one of the most misleading tools journalists use to lure readers to their articles.

Pictures have a powerful effect on the mind. Something about seeing a brain “changing” before our own to eyes seems to make it all the more real. What most yogis don’t realize is that those images do not depict brain activity per se, but rather the magnetic characteristics of blood in about twenty peoples’ brains. Say what?! Let’s break it down, Iyengar-style:

fMRI (functional magnetic imaging) is one of the most sophisticated and popular imaging technologies used in neuroscience today. Neuroscientists have a lot of tools in their toolbox, but this one in particular measures the amount of oxygenated blood flow in different regions of your brain.

What does oxygenated blood have to do with brain activity?

Well, as you probably remember from high school biology class, when you inhale your lungs bring lots and lots of oxygen molecules into your bloodstream. Your circulatory system then bathes the rest of your organs and tissues with oxygen-rich blood, and those sweet little O2 molecules are crucial fuel for processes like — you guessed it — brain activity. Yes, it really is all about the breath!

Where does the magnetism come in?

Neuroscientists have figured out a way to measure whether blood in different areas of your brain has oxygen based on its particular magnetic characteristics. Blood with less oxygen (deoxygenated blood) gives off a stronger magnetic field than oxygenated blood (thanks to hemoglobin). So, in very simplified terms, what fMRI does is (1) shoot giant radio waves through your skull and (2) compare the magnetic echoes (resonances) that bounce back. From those echoes, scientists can determine which areas of your brain have oxygenated or deoxygenated blood at a given time.

Why should we care whether blood has oxygen or not?

In theory, we should find deoxygenated blood in brain regions where neurons are active. The idea is that when neurons fire, they use oxygen to acquire energy.

Inside
Creative Commons License photo credit: Andrew Mason

But here’s the kicker! Many researchers are starting to question whether fMRI is really a dependable measure of brain activity. See, the oxygen content of blood may be altered by other types of cells and activities in your brain (not just neurons firing — more on this here). Plus, the statistical methods used to calculate results in fMRI have come into question… and are easily manipulated by over-ambitious scientists. This doesn’t mean fMRI studies are completely invalid (the beauty of the scientific process is that we replicate research and use lots of different tools before accepting something to be “true”), but it’s important to keep in mind that they’re not as clear-cut as those pretty pictures made them look.

If I lost you in all that, here’s the big takeaway: Brain images can be severely misleading. Neuroscience studies are vastly oversimplified by the press. Even science is chock full of uncertainty (and that’s not a bad thing!).

5. Scientists are biased too.

Scientists by themselves are not objective. Personal biases, funding organizations (pharmaceutical companies, governmental institutions, and even the military), and pressure to uphold the status quo (i.e. do research that supports existing theories) have a strong influence on the topics and methods of scientific research today. When I realized this as a young and developing researcher, I began to question the findings of many studies cited by the popular press. What I found rocked the very foundation of my “faith” in science.

I believe the scientific method to be one of the greatest intellectual contributions the West has made to the world, but my experience has been that science today is not always practiced with integrity. I have seen researchers fudge data. I have seen scientists crumble under the thumb of powerful funders who demand positive results. In short, I’ve seen how the pressure to make money off of human suffering (“your sadness is a brain disease… here, let me give you a pill for that!”) has eroded the validity of a beautifully comprehensive method for understanding the world around us.

Strike a pose
Creative Commons License photo credit: mhofstrand

The public treats today’s scientists like gods.

The white lab coat has become synonymous with genius, power, great upholder of “Truth”. We forget that the practice of science is carried out by human beings with all the same faults and frailties as Johnny-down-the-street. Researchers have caught red-handed lying about the results of their studies. Corporate interests have become so engrained into the structure of our academic institutions that it’s ever more difficult to conduct experiments not skewed by watchful funders. Many professors are so busy trying to achieve tenure and churn out as many publications as possible that they lack time to sit back and just wonderthink outside the box… consider the possible cracks in our existing theories about how the world works.

Now that does all this mean we toss up our hands and say “Science is useless! Let’s just think positive thoughts and meditate our way to a a cure for cancer”? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, I believe scientific research is an enormously valuable tool. My intention with this article is not to disparage research, but to encourage yogis to get more informed and involved in conversations about science. Read the research studies on yoga and the brain. Subscribe to a neuroscience blog. Educate yourself.

I’d also like to see more scientists communicating directly with the public in language they understand, so regular people aren’t being asked to accept the findings of science on faith. Wasn’t it Einstein who said, “If you can’t communicate it simply, you don’t understand it well enough“?

Moreover, I think we could all benefit from a bit more transparency in research. I love the idea many science bloggers have proposed: do away with the hierarchical peer-review system and create an online review process in which other scientists can respond to papers, with comments weighted based on their publication records.

If you’ve stuck with me through this entire nerdy shebang, you have my utmost gratitude. Now, how ’bout we start the conversation? Tell me: Do you consider “science” an authority on truth? How do you decide what you believe about the world?

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

28 Responses

  • If you are treating scientists like god or taking science on faith then you don't understand the scientific method. The method is designed to weed out the very problems that you list. You are being disingenuous in listing these problems but not offering a better alternative to how we should examine our natural world. What you are saying is, we are human, we have flaws. We know that, so how do we deal with it?

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-2-798578520 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks very much for your comment, and I'm sorry to hear you think I was being disingenuous. It certainly wasn't my intent to point out cracks in the existing methods without posing an alternative.

      I want to be clear,I'm not at all trying to suggest we need a different method for examining the natural world altogether. I think modern science, as well as many of the other contemplative traditions, provide a fantastic method for investigating both the natural world and our subjective experience. My goal in this article was to point out how most REPORTING of science falls short — it often creates an illusions certainty and infallibility that fail to capture what's actually happening in research labs.

      I do think there are problems with the way science is conducted today, and I did suggest how we can improve it:

      "I think we could all benefit from a bit more transparency in research… do away with the hierarchical peer-review system and create an online review process in which other scientists can respond to papers, with comments weighted based on their publication records."

      A more transparent system that sets the stage for more accountability and honesty among scientists would, in my opinion, help eliminate many of the problems I highlight in this article. Most importantly though, I think we as journalists and readers need to be willing to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in scientific findings. There's nothing wrong with saying "maybe", "it's most likely", or "we just dont know yet". Instead of "science proves yoga works", how about "researchers find yoga improves symptoms of _____."

      That, to me, is a much more honest approach to examining the natural world.

      • You might want to review your own attempt at reporting. Although I can find what you say here in your comment sprinkled throughout the article, if you look at the highlighted text, the headings and the goofy guy in the lab coat, you get the idea you are bashing science. I agree we could have more accessibility to studies. The internet started as a way for universities to share data, but studies remain behind pay-walls. However we can’t treat science like product reviews. Scientists do respond to each other, but they do it by repeating experiments or coming up with counter hypotheses. That takes time.

        Thanks for linking to the Feynman quote. I think we all forget that science begins with wonder, the drive to understand our world. But I don’t think it is just scientists who forget to stop and just appreciate how amazing everything is.

        • Chelsea Roff says:

          Thanks for that constructive feedback, John. It’s certainly always dance trying to make articles directed at the general public attention-grabbing and accessible while maintaining integrity in reporting throughout the article.

          RE: your comment about science not being like product reviews…. Of course it’s not. But I don’t think an online review system would necessarily make it that way. Today’s technology provides a huge range of opportunities — I’m not suggesting an Amazon-like comment system. Increased transparency in science, in my opinion, would benefit everyone (the public and scientists). Scientists would still respond to one another with counter experiments, but the dialogue might be crucial in inspiring those experiments. I think universities are a good example of how we already recognize the value in joining together a (hopefully) diverse group of individuals for the exchange of ideas.

          If there’s something happening in the review process presently that we feel needs to be kept behind closed doors, confined to the private conversations between scientists…. well, that troubles me. I think there’s always a little resistance to trying something new when we’ve had a tradition like peer review in place for so long, but in my opinion the next generation of scientists are really making it inevitable. I hope it’s only a matter of time.

  • harikirtana says:

    Einstein is also credited with saying “we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Yoga is about solving a problem: suffering. Science is presumably pursuing a solution to the same problem. But yoga is a spiritual science; a psychosomatic process designed for the elevation of consciousness. The a priori assumption in yoga is that consciousness exists independently from and precedes matter. “Science” requires a qualifier: “material” science. Science, thus qualified, operates in a categorically different realm and on an entirely different set of assumptions: that matter precedes and produces consciousness.

    Yoga posits that misidentifying the eternal self as the temporal body – or, in other words, thinking that matter produces consciousness – is a state of ignorance and the root cause of suffering. Science operates under just this condition. If we take Einstein’s word for it that the same kind of thinking that created the problem of suffering will not be able to solve the problem of suffering, then we can conclude that science will fail. In fact, when translated into technology and combined with industry, it will probably just make matters worse, as anyone who wishes there was one clean river left in this country knows.

    Furthermore, it is impossible to separate science from Scientism; the belief that science is the sole proprietor of verifiable truth and that all other forms of acquiring knowledge, such as the classical yogic methods of self-realization, are either inferior or altogether invalid. Insisting that scientific claims are the only truly meaningful claims is not a scientific claim in itself so, philosophically, scientism self-destructs: another good reason not to have faith in science.

    Ironically, faith is the mandatory pre-requisite for acquiring knowledge, scientific knowledge or any other kind. The Neuroscientists who figured out a way to measure whether blood in different areas of your brain has oxygen based on its particular magnetic characteristics began their education by sitting down in a classroom and taking notes on the lectures of a professor in whom they had faith; they had no way of knowing whether or not the professor was telling them the truth. Later they could find out for themselves. But if you back the process up the starting line, it always begins with faith.

    So no, I emphatically do not consider “science” an authority on truth. You have eloquently described the many reasons why I shouldn’t: an impressive array of flaws that run the gamut from imperfect senses prone to mistaken apprehension to cheating of the most egregious variety.

    How do I decide what I believe about the world? I begin with faith: I try to learn the truth by approaching, with an attitude of humility, those who I think have seen the truth. How do I determine who has seen the truth? By observing the degree of detachment a person has from worldly pursuits that bind the consciousness to the dictates of the mind in relation to the degree of attachment they have to transcendental activities meant to free the consciousness from the influence of the mind. When I see someone who practices compassion for all beings by offering knowledge of the eternal nature of the self with no motive other than to offer that knowledge for the benefit of others and as a service to their own teacher from whom they acquired the values and knowledge they in turn convey, then I have faith that they’ve seen the truth and can impart that truth to me.

    • Your last paragraph, except for the beginning part about faith, describes a scientist following the method. They are detached from an outcome, from a predetermined conclusion, they want to learn the true essence of nature for the benefit of others, they acknowledge the teachers that have come before them.

      • IfeTogun says:

        I think it describes an IDEAL scientist following the method, John. But let's be truly honest, how many of those still exist? How many scientist can say their chose of subject or data reporting is completely uninfluenced by the demands of the departments or the universities or the grant funding agencies?

        I do not mean to suggest that this scientist doesn't exist, though he is a rare beast indeed. I make a distinction between the scientist and the research. A scientist cares only for truth, and it doesn't matter one bit what that truth is as long as it is just that, truth. The researcher on the other hand is driven by different motives: success, tenure, and many other things Chelsea highlights in her article.

        While science is a beautiful thing ( I should hope so it has been my world for the last 16 years), it also oversteps its boundaries–and I think that is the point (at least partly) that this article is trying to make. When we come to believe (and we do!) that only answers attained through the scientific method are of any value, then we inevitably become fools. Knowledge is attainable by an infinite number of methods including the scientific method. But when science positions itself as the gate keeper of knowledge, ah, there's the rub…

        • Chelsea says:

          I totally agree with what Ife says here and think it's also important to mention that there's a degree of faith involved even in science. If you study the scientific method in depth (Karl Poppers' writings especially), you recognize that the science itself operates based on a set of unprovable assumptions.

          For example, scientists assume there are natural causes for what happens in the world around us and that those causes are consistent, observable, and predictable by the methods of science. In some ways, we are placing faith in the scientific method and trusting (guessing, hoping, assuming) that the causes in the natural world are in fact consistent. Some scientific philosophers are beginning to question those assumptions, based on observations made at the quantum level. Are the natural causes in the universe in fact consistent? They appear to be, at least at the macro (non-quantum) level. But we accept that assumption on faith, because the scientific method has in fact been such an effective method in uncovering truths about the natural world thus far.

          I also think we place a lot of faith in our statistical methods, more so than most scientists willing to admit. As I mentioned in the article, it's very easy to manipulate your results by using different (still accepted) statistical analyses, which brought up a lot of questions for me about the faith we're placing both in those tests and the scientists' conducting them. As Ife points out, it's not often you find a scientist who isn't (even unconsciously) swayed by the demands of funding agencies and academic superiors…. when it's that easy to manipulate results, I think we're putting way to much faith in scientists' ability to remain "objective."

          • Thanks again Kristi. I’m still reading undefined terms like “science oversteps its boundaries” and “knowledge is attainable by an infinite number..”. All we have is unprovable assumptions, science just states it. You say “some scientific philosophers are beginning…”, but that is what all of us have always done. Quantum physics has just made it easier for people like you to say there is a scientific basis for doing the questioning. You are misinterpreting how science builds by questioning its assumptions. You are really talking about the problems with politics and corporations getting in the way of science. Pointing to science as the problem and suggesting there is something better only makes the situation worse.

      • harikirtana says:

        Yup – yoga is a science. And scientists begin with faith, too; faith in the value of what they are doing, faith in the idea that learning the true essence of nature will be of benefit to others, faith in their instruments of perception, faith in their analytical capabilities, the list goes on and on.

  • yoga-adan says:

    glad you included the following :

    "Now that does all this mean we toss up our hands and say 'Science is useless! Let’s just think positive thoughts and meditate our way to a a cure for cancer'? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, I believe scientific research is an enormously valuable tool. My intention with this article is not to disparage research, but to encourage yogis to get more informed and involved in conversations about science. Read the research studies on yoga and the brain. Subscribe to a neuroscience blog. Educate yourself." –

    yet it's also good for people to realize that scientists have their own bias', and maybe that each scientific paradigm has sometimes meant a reversal of many previously thought of scientific truths –

    faith in my internal beliefs don't have to negate or be negated by current scientific research –

    scientists are not gods, but then neither are gurus or priests, and we've seen what the latter can do when allowed to dominate government and the political arena –

    i think what i sometimes fear, and i kinda hear in this article, is the same horrible dictatorship being given to scientific dogma and their reps

    at the same time i don't want a sincerely devoted yoga teacher without "scientificly" acertained safety guidelines "working" on me ;-)

    so again, balance balance balance – thus your very wise words – "educate yourself"

    thanks for taking some hard issues head on ;-)

    • Chelsea says:

      "scientists are not gods, but then neither are gurus or priests, and we've seen what the latter can do when allowed to dominate government and the political arena"

      Yes, Adan. I think you point to a very important parallel here between what harikirtana above dubs "scientism" and the way society used to set religion as the final authority on Truth. Now I think it's important to distinguish that science is in now way comparable to a religion, and what we're putting our "faith" in (if you even want to call it that) with science is a very effective well-established method for investigating the natural world rather than supernatural deity. That said, I think the public does often treat scientists like popes and gurus and what not…. we have no way of knowing whether a scientist really did reach his/her conclusions in integrity (i.e. did not manipulate data, used appropriate statistical analyses, followed the scientific method) and as I said there are many, many biases that affect how research is carried out. In many ways, we are asked to accept findings on blind faith.

      And here we are again…. education. The only way to make for something different is to inform ourselves. Knowledge is power. :)

      Thanks for sharing, Adan. Your comments are always so thought-provoking!

      • yoga-adan says:

        absolutely, “inform ourselves” – learn science, learn meditation; learn to read research – ask for documentation; learn to read ourselves – internally verify external claims we must do this or that to attain oneness etcchecks & balances, separate church and state, science and religion, and let their separate truths mesh when they do, we'll know it when it's true in all spheres, at least i think we will ;-) that too will need its own verification thanks chelsea, nice article(s) !adan

      • Thaddeus1 says:

        Hi Chelsea…I want to thank you for both parts of this contribution. As the first part appeared on ej, I was in the process of composing some similar thoughts. This issue of "faith" in science is very interesting and worth a bit of mining in my opinion. If you've not done so, I would be interested in you checking out my piece (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/08/yoga-is-science–thaddeus-haas/) as I think it offers an avenue for migrating some of these waters. Thanks again and I look forward to future discussions on this very relevant topic.

  • yogiclarebear says:

    Chelsea,

    Your overall message is vital. We need to educate ourselves and not follow anything or anyone blindly, on ANY topic.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I find myself falling prey to those pop culture articles, only to remember that I know better. I have had some interesting conversations with some friends who actually do study brains. The reason I feel so drawn to the articles, however, is because I see them, at some level, "validating" what yogis just know to be true. One of my deepest desires is to share this yoga knowledge with the masses who think it is silly and crazy, and if poorly-researched articles can help me "prove" something, I find myself going for it. Of course, I know how silly it is. I do research (law, not science, but still I know that we should question everything, all the time). But there is that pull, the need to be validated, to not be considered weird and bizarre by people who are only convinced by scientific research.

    I really appreciate this article and the reminder. I think I also may subscribe to the blog. I have been looking for a good one. Thanks!

    • Chelsea says:

      Ah, thank you so much for sharing that Rebecca. You are exactly the audience I was hoping to reach. And your honesty is refreshing… By no means do I think you're alone in citing scientific articles to validate yourself and what you're doing. I think it's unfortunate that society suggests that something is only valid if it's proven by science– your experience, in and of itself, bestows yoga with value.

      I hope you do subscribe to the blog. We try to hold a space here for really thought-provoking and respectful conversations, and my experience has been that these conversations have only deepened my understanding of yoga. Looking forward to engaging with you more in future posts, and wish you the best of luck on your path.

  • jeffreydavis11 says:

    Chelsea: You might quite like the film "Newton and Me," a series of interviews with contemporary scientists in a variety of fields. I gained intimate glimpses into their motives, failures and limitations, and utter wonder with the world and their respective fields. That said, thanks for your piece.

    • Chelsea says:

      Thanks, for the recommendation Jeff. I did a bit of Google searching for the film, but all I came up with is a children's book. I imagine that's not what you're referring to here. :P Do you have a link where I can stream the documentary online or look into purchasing it? Sounds right up my alley!

      Thanks for sharing your very astute comments on the blog this week. You're a very sharp and perceptive reader, and the writing of your's I've read here at Yoga Modern has reflected those qualities as well. I hope you're able to contribute a piece again sometime soon. You add a wonderful perspective to the topics were exploring on the site.

  • Kristi Kang says:

    I was glad to see the fifth section "scientists are biased"… I was wondering when that one would come up. You seemed to focus a lot on the dishonesty of biased scientists, but I also want to point out that our biases can lead us to misinformation simply because we have blinders on. Unintentionally deluding ourselves, leading ourselves to the data we "want" to see, is such a huge issue in life as well as in scientific studies. It's similar to the idea you pointed out in the first part of this article- how we tend to agree with the "proof that yoga heals your brain" because we are yogis!

    Thank you for sharing, Chelsea. As always, your article is informative and thought provoking.

    • Chelsea says:

      Right on, Kristi. Whether we're scientists or not, our minds seem dead-set on finding data in our daily experience that "proves" what we already to believe to be true. In psychology, they call it "confirmation bias". Funny, you have a whole bunch of researchers studying a bias they're probably actively being deluded by as they study it! Sometimes, we just have to find the humor in it, right? :P

      • How can you miss the irony that nueroSCIENCE provided you with the understanding of the confirmation bias? How else would we have discovered that if not for science? Science has self-correction built into it. That is part of the method. Sitting in a room quietly and thinking about it does not.

  • Rohan Heart says:

    as someone with a basic scientific understanding (in a previous life I wanted to be a plant ecologist), this article really ROCKED! love the discussion.