Q&A with Robert Thibault
Guest Post by David Mehler
Neuroimaging. For many people, this term invokes the thought of a photographer taking a snapshot of brain activity and then looking at the still. Cognitive neuroscientists, however, know this couldn’t be further from the truth. Image parameters, data cleaning, and statistical analyses all affect the final rendering, which we call the brain scan.
Potential applications of neuroimaging have received much attention — from the courtroom to the classroom — but before we more broadly adopt this technology we must ask ourselves: What assumptions are we making when using brain imaging? What are the pitfalls, and when do measurements fail?
In their new edited volume, Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging, Robert Thibault from McGill University and Amir Raz from Chapman University collected short chapters from individuals who they consider (but which copyright would not allow in the book title) NeuroJedis. Each author provides a light-hearted chapter that casts light on a “dark side” of brain imaging. In other words, they highlight aspects of brain imaging that are often beyond the sights of non-experts, and they elucidate how these factors can weigh heavily on relevant findings.
I sat down with Robert Thibault to understand the motivation and take-home message of this new work. (Full disclosure: I co-authored one of the chapters in the book.)
Mehler: Who is this book for?
Thibault: Me when I started my Ph.D.
But more broadly, the book is aimed toward anyone training to become a brain scientist, anyone who uses brain science in their practice–think psychiatrists, educators, philosophers–and any other neuro-enthusiasts. The chapters are short, can stand alone, and are largely non-technical.
If political news is guilty of fear-mongering, then science news is guilty of promise-mongering.
Mehler: Why did you assemble this edited volume?
Thibault: If political news is guilty of fear-mongering, then science news is guilty of promise-mongering. Neuroscience, and in particular brain imaging, have received much press in the past decade, leading more and more young people to study neuroscience and more and more professionals of other disciplines to ask how neuroimaging can inform their practice. If your career isn’t centered on brain imaging, it can be hard to distinguish fruitful science from misleading neuro-babble. This volume aims to do just that.
Mehler: What was your inspiration for this book?
Thibault: I couldn’t find it on a bookshelf. In other words, it didn’t exist yet. I could find books extolling the promise of brain imaging and others nearly proclaiming neo-phrenology. A collection of more technical manuals or an advanced degree in brain imaging would provide a more balanced view…but those can take years to get through. So we tried to capture this perspective in 200 pages.
Another inspiration was the time I’ve wasted looking in the wrong direction. Before starting graduate studies, I spent months delving into the field of neurofeedback to try to understand what the next meaningful study would look like. But it was only when I took my eyes off the computer screen and flew across the ocean to meet with leaders in the field that I discovered there was widely-held knowledge that was missing from the published literature. Whether journals discourage these absent critical perspectives or researchers shy away from sharing them in formal writing, I’m not sure. With this volume, we try to save others those months of research and cross-Atlantic flights by inviting researchers to share their uncut views.
Mehler: What was most challenging in putting the volume together?
Thibault: Some scientists write for more general audiences but many don’t. We spent many hours editing the content to make it widely accessible while also staying true to the science.
Mehler: I have time to read a chapter this evening. Where should I start?
Thibault: Ideally the beginning. Otherwise, some of my favorite chapters touch on psychology: whether addiction is a brain disease (Chapter 2, Lilienfeld and Satel), how we think about statistics (Chapter 12, Munafò, Cremers, Wager, Yarkoni), and how brain imaging sits among larger research efforts toward understanding human behaviour (Chapter 27, Kirmayer).
Mehler: Why this style of book with only 3-5 page chapters?
Thibault: Short answer: So people actually read it (and hopefully enjoy doing so).
Longer answer: Each chapter provides enough information so that readers can identify the main issues when they consume brain imaging findings — why we image brains, what is being imaged, why it’s easy to mix up the statistics, the place of neuroimaging in our culture, how well brain training really works, and what the future of imaging the human brain may look like. Suggested readings follow for readers who want to dive deeper into a specific topic.
Mehler: What do you think the future of brain imaging looks like?
Thibault: Team science, rigorous methods, approaching causality, and an intersection with related disciplines. Then again, these might just be my biases at play. I hope in some way our volume helps push this direction.
David Mehler holds a Ph.D. in neuroimaging from Cardiff University. He is working as a research assistant in psychiatric translational neuroimaging and completing his medical studies at the University of Münster in Germany. Follow him on Twitter.