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.

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?

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- 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.

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