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fMRI in popular science magazines: Neuroscience Communication
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fMRI in popular science magazines: Neuroscience Communication

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Neuroscience communication

The depiction of fMRI in popular Dutch science magazines (Natuurwetenschap & Techniek and Psychologie Magazine)

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  • Initially only articles containing the key words fMRI and functional MRI were collected by searching in the database on the websites of the selected magazines. Often ‘MRI’ was mentioned in the popular articles while fMRI was meant, for example an article on humour in the brain which says; ‘14 participants listened to jokes while the researcher visualized the active brain areas by use of a MRI-scan.’ [1] [1] Translation of the Dutch quotes was done by the researcher Only articles in popular magazines that were based on a peer-reviewed scientific journal were selected.  differences and similarities in academic and popular science magazines
  • were arranged into categories which regularly appear in neuroscience literature; (localization functions and basic cognitive functioning).
  • For example a statements such as: ‘our results suggest’ of ‘this might indicate that’ were coded as ‘somewhat likely’. Conclusions such as ‘this will lead to new treatment’, was coded as ‘certain’. ‘More research is necessary to prove..’ was coded as ‘unlikely’. For example an article ‘ He thinks the government should prohibit every use of fMRI– lie detection until it is effective and save. ’ was coded as critical (2). An article elaborating on possibilities and not mentioning limitations; for example: ‘This results might lead to a diagnostic test which allows early detection of children with dyslexia’ was coded as moderately positive (6) Valuation tone was assessed in both academic and popular articles and was used to score explore differences between the academic and popular journals.
  • Facts communicated in the popular journals are not wrong, the contextual relation differed from the academic journals
  • Neuro-realism: human behaviour often just explained by brain activity in different brain areas: Neuro-essentialism: diminishing human personality to biological brain activity:


  • 1. Neuroscience communication through popular science magazines The depiction of functional brain imaging (fMRI) in popular science magazines Eva Lems, BsC 22-06-09 Management, Entrepreneurship and Policy Analysis in the Health and Life Science
  • 2. OUTLINE
    • Introduction
    • Research objective and questions
    • Methods
    • Results
    • Discussion and Conclusion
    • Recommendations
    • Society lacks knowledge concerning science and technology
    • Knowledge gap
    Science Public
  • 4.
    • Media: overcoming the knowledge gap science <> society
    SCIENCE COMMUNICATION ? Science Public Science communicators
  • 5. An analysis of disseminations on fMRI in Natuurwetenschap & Techniek and Psychologie Magazine POPULAR SCIENCE MAGAZINES
  • 6. FMRI?
    • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a brain imaging technology providing insight in dynamics and functional processes in the brain
    • fMRI scan shows regions of the brain with heightened or lowered neural activity
    • Research cognitive functioning and more controversial topics
    • Potential influence on society
    • Neuroscience raises ethical questions
  • 7.
    • To explore science communication through popular science magazines by demonstrating:
    • (i) How fMRI is portrayed by two Dutch popular science magazines
    • (ii) Which applications and ethical issues concerning fMRI are being communicated
    • (iii) Implications for neuroscience communication
    • To what extent is fMRI research correctly depicted in popular
    • Dutch science magazines (Psychologie Magazine and Natuurwetenschap & Techniek)?
    • Study questions
    • How does the depiction in the popular magazine differ from the associated academic source?
    • What applications and what ethical concerns are communicated to the public through Dutch popular science magazines?
    • What are the implications for neuroscience communication?
  • 9.
    • Literature review
    • Selection of magazines
      • Natuurwetenschap en Techniek (NWT)
      • Psychologie Magazine (PM)
    • Selection of articles on (f)MRI
      • Popular magazines and associated scientific journals
    • Coding
    • Analysis
      • Quantitative (SPSS, descriptive statistics and independent sampled t-test)
      • Qualitative (content popular versus associated academic articles)
  • 10.
    • Basic features: magazine, title, summary of content,
    • references and context primarily or secondary on fMRI,
    • main subject, ‘fMRI’ or ‘MRI’
    • Applications: most common in science literature (Torvino, 2007)
      • Clinical/health
      • Racial evaluation and social evaluations
      • Lie detection
      • Cooperative and altruistic behaviour and empathy;
      • Sexual arousal and love
      • Ethical decision making
      • Neuro-marketing
      • Other
  • 11.
    • Neuro-realism, neuro-essentialism and neuro-policy (Racine, 2005)
      • Neuro-realism: disorders/abnormalities exclusively explained by brain-abnormalities
      • Neuro-essentialism: personality differences reduced to brain differences
      • Neuro-policy: how fMRI findings can be communicated to society and used in political context and policy making
    • Neuro-ethics
      • Issues associated with the application of neuroscience research findings or technologies to human needs, interests, public policies, or societal concerns (Bird, 2009)
  • 12.
    • Accuracy
      • Use of references
      • Research methods
      • Technical details
    • The likelihood of research results
      • 1 (very unlikely) to 7 (certain)
      • In both popular and scientific articles
    • Valuation tone (judgement)
      • fMRI’s potentials and limitations
      • 1 (very to extremely critical) to
      • 7 (Very to extremely positive)
    • Sample characteristics
    ‘’ The researchers tried to prove this relation between intimacy and empathy and captured brain activity with MRI scans (PM, 07-03, Intens meeleven) 46% N= 6 54% N=7 38 % N=5 62% N=8 Natuurwetenschap en Techniek 42% N=11 58% N=17 77% N=20 23% N=8 Psychologie Magazine MRI fMRI Secondary Primary Mentioning ‘fMRI’ Focus article 100% 67 Total 41.8% 28 Academic journals 19.4% 13 Natuurwetenschap en Techniek 38.8% 26 Psychologie Magazine % N
  • 14. APPLICATIONS * Including; communication on new research centres or systems, science awards, adolescent brain development, personality, humour, differences between men and women, decision making, making mistakes, social reward, hypnosis, paranormal skills and meditation ** Including; basic research, racial evaluation, personality, deception and neuro-marketing ‘ What’s his name again-area discovered’ (NWT,10-05,Hoe heet ie nou-hersengebied ontdekt) ‘ Give me your hand…’ (PM, Geef me je hand, 03-07) ‘ Serves your right, thinks man’ (PM, 04-06, Net goed denkt man..) ‘ Pinokkio in the brainscanner’ (NWT, 12-07, Pinokkio in de hersenscanner) ‘ Bad Habits’ (PM, 05-06, Slechte gewoontes) 100.0 39 Total 2.6 1 Multiple** 46.2 18 Other* 15.4 6 Basic research 2.6 1 Sexual arousal and love 10.3 4 Cooperation and empathy 7.7 3 Deception, lie detection 15.4 6 Health % N
    • Compared to academic articles, popular articles:
    • Hardly mention limitations of fMRI applications
      • ‘ Men love revenge, as shown by a research of the university college in Londen’ (PM, 04-06, Net goed denkt man..)
        • No significant results for women (Nature Neuroscience, 06)
    • Focus more on gender differences
      • ‘ What is remarkable too, brain of women ‘resonate’ stronger than those of men (PM, 04-06, Inlevingsvermogen)
        • Only 14 men were used in the original study (Wicker and Keysers,2003)
    • Discus more issues with practical relevance or news value/human interest
      • ‘ the Gambling Brain’ (NWT, 05-01, Gokkende hersenen )
        • To map human hemodynamic responses to the expectation and experience of monetary gains and losses (Neuron, 01)
      • ‘ Brain scanner finds penis’ (PM, 06-06, Hersenscan vindt penis)
  • 16.
    • Tend to exaggerate
      • ‘ You cannot hide sexual preference for the eye of the scanner: the brain gets excited of men, women, animals…or children. ’ (PM, 05-05, Binnenkijken in het brein)
        • the anterior cingulate, medial prefrontal, orbitofrontal, insular, and occipitotemporal cortices, as well as in the amygdala and the ventral striatum display increased activity during watching sexual erotic stimuli compared to watching at neutral images (Kamara et al, 2002)
    • Exceptions, i.e. both promises and limitations of lie detection by fMRI were stated
      • ‘ Brain reveals lies’ (NWT, 11-01, Brein verraad leugens)
      • ‘ .. as if fMRI always shows results clearly, that is not the case, a scan is an ocean of brain activity .’(NWT 12-07, Pinokkio in de hersenscanner)
    • Neuro-realism: Activity in the Ventral Striatum points to a feeling of reward, the medial prefrontal cortex to a warm feeling of feeling ‘one’ with a friend or clothing brand, the putamen to sensory pleasure and the prefrontal lobe points to the sense of self esteem.’ (subtitle of PM, 05-05, Binnenkijken in het brein)
    • Neuro-essentialism: ‘Addicted persons are no weak persons, they just have bad luck; pitifully born with a hankering-brain’ (PM, 03-07, Verslaafd)
    • Neuro-politics: hardly discussed , only in relation to education and funding of research
    • Neuro-ethics: not regularly present
    84.5% N= 35 15.5 % N= 6 10,5% N=4 7,5% N=3 23% N=9 59% N= 23 Total 77% N=10 23% N= 3 7.5% N=1 15.5% N=2 31 % N=4 46% N=6 Natuurwetenschap en Techniek 88.5% N=25 11.5% N=3 11.5% N=3 4% N=1 19.25% N=5 65.25% N=17 Psychologie Magazine No Yes No trend Neuro- politics Neuro-essentialism Neuro-realism Neuroethics Neuro trends
  • 18. ACCURACY
    • 23% used more than one source, source not clear in 23%
    • NWT often more precise than PM
    * significant difference (t= 3,27, df = 55, p= 0.002) ‘ Not only the fair-centre lighted-up when participants looked at people of another race, but also brain-areas which indicated that the brain tried to suppress pre-justice were active. Even the wish to hide, cannot be hidden for the brain scan. You are warned: who wants to commit the perfect murder should stay away of brain researchers. ( PM) Versus Interracial interaction may interfere with cognitive functioning in people with racial bias….it must be interpreted in contemporary society… and future research is necessary’ ( Nature) Researchers in Montreal observed… .911 4.64 28 Academic articles 1.370 5.66 29 Popular articles SD Mean N Presentation of likelihood results* 42% 58% 46% 54% NWT 85% 15% 95% 5% PM No yes incorrect correct Technical explanation Research methods
    • To what extent is fMRI research correctly depicted in popular science magazines? And what are the implications for neuroscience communication?
    • The depiction of fMRI-research in popular magazines is not entirely correctly representing academic literature concerning fMRI
      • Complex fMRI studies are transferred into uncomplicated human interest articles
      • Doubts, questions, limitations and ethical concerns concerning fMRI are downplayed
      • Research methods and explanation of the technique rarely communicated
      • Lack of proper references
    • Applications discussed in popular articles differ from academic literature
      • Focus on human interest/nice to read
      • Controversial issues (neuro-marketing, homo sexuality) rarely mentioned
      • Not in line 7 categories Torvino; large percentage ‘other’
      • Not communicating about social implications
    • Neuro-realism and neuro-essentialism are common ‘trends’
      • ‘ Brain = person’
      • In line with other research
  • 20.
    • Some limitations of current study, however results provide insight into neuroscience communication and indicate:
      • Conflicting interests journalist < > scientist
      • Popularisation discards punctuality, accuracy and context of the original research findings
      • Under representation of social impact, ethical concerns, limitations and risks
      • Over reporting benefits and biological explanations
      • Neuroscience might have social implications, however this is not communicated through popular science magazines
    • The social meaning of brain research is part of a wider debate
    • ‘ Does Neuroscience Threaten Human Values?’
    • More critical approach towards fMRI could contribute to the improvement of communication and social discussion on this technology
    • Popular magazines could play a part in this discussion more than they do now
    • Who is responsible for the content of popular science articles?
      • Journalist should write more critical and accurate
      • Scientists should be more open for input from society
    • Closing the gap science <> society
  • 22.