In the past, people understood the mind in terms of dualism as a nonphysical entity, separate from our physical brain. Generally, the brain was still considered responsible for many neurological functions and characteristics, but ‘higher order’ things like consciousness transcended physical basis and existed in the immaterial mind. This theory has since given way to a physicalism view in which the brain itself is the sole basis for mental faculty. People now think of the brain as encoding and being responsible for all mental traits: personality, emotion, skills, intelligence, morals, consciousness, etc. etc. etc. Brain imaging technology has contributed to this notion, as it demystifies the brain and allows people to visualize the brain’s composition and activity.  Importantly, technological innovation in the field of brain imaging has also contributed to the idea that we can not only view brain activity but also analyze and interpret it to make conclusions about the nature of an individual’s brain and, consequently, their characteristics.

fMRI and PET scans are two of the most prominent imaging techniques in neuroscience. They both measure brain activity and display the results as differently colored areas on a cross-sectional view of the brain. The amount of activity across the brain can then be analyzed to make conclusions about brain functioning. This technology has become extremely popular in society because it is able to produce aesthetically pleasing and easily understandable pictures. fMRI and PET scans are being increasingly employed outside of the laboratory to help assess the traits and characteristics of real individuals. For example, in 2010 fMRI made its debut in court where it was used on an accused murderer. The neuroscientist designed tests for his memory and emotions in an attempt to determine pre-mediation. fMRI will soon replace the traditional lie-detector test in the judicial system.

Mainstream applications of these technologies will only increase as time goes on. The government is already working on developing brain imaging technologies as a type of pre-crime tool. For example, the brains of people in a large crowd could all be scanned to look for certain activity or pathways that indicate a predisposition to violence or an extremist belief set that might lead someone to commit a terrorist act.  Additionally, I will make argument that rather than take standardized tests or personality quizzes, kids will just have their brains scanned to be assessed.

This technology and its applications are concerning and problematic because they are largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by non-neuroscientists. Drastic and contrasting colors are used to differentiate between relatively small physiological differences in activity. People are given the impression that there are different brain ‘types’ that correspond to different traits (blue means caring, red means selfish) when really these discrete colors are being used to distinguish differences in a spectrum of activity. The other issue is what these technologies are actually measuring and how irrefutable our current knowledge of the brain actually is. I will discuss this skepticism surrounding the use of brain imaging technology in society.

For my media element, my first step is to compile a large collection of fMRI and PET scans. I plan to use these pictures to create a ‘flip book’ style video. I will order the images so that a blob is growing, shrinking, moving, changing color, etc. in a brain. This will create the effect that the brain is behaving erratically and spontaneously or being ‘attacked’. I will set this to psychedelic music to give the impression of a brain on drugs. Taking the very scientific and serious fMRI images and turning them into a funny art piece serves as a critique against them as a valid scientific measurement of characteristics or traits outside of the laboratory.