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Semblance of Fact: How brain scans are presented and consumed as photographs

LIKE PHOTOGRAPHS, brain scans are both factual records and cultural artifacts; they document real biological events and yet are interpreted within a social context. Unlike photographs, however, brain scans are not indexical, which is to say they are not direct mechanical imprints of a world beyond the image. But to most nonexperts, the products of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) appear as photographs. And, like photographs, they are often seen only for their reportorial and evidentiary qualities. Calling them “scans” suggests they present a direct empirical view of activity in the brain. In fact, the fMRI machine is just a tool: It records blood-oxygen levels in the brain as subjects respond to specific stimuli, then algorithmically manipulates the experimental data to produce an overall image, which scientists must then interpret. And since fMRI science is a relatively young field, scientists don’t agree on the best practices of interpretation, much less what the data mean.

“Semblance of Fact” is part of “Common Minds,” a series of essays and conversations on the contemporary infatuation with the brain coedited by Dawn Chan. “Semblance of Fact” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, which is supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

Excerpt from an essay by Jan Estep. Read it HERE

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