It is widely known that the brain perceives information before it reaches a person’s awareness. But until now, there was little way to determine what specific mental tasks were taking place prior to the point of conscious awareness.That has changed with the findings of scientists at Rutgers University in Newark and the University of California, Los Angeles who have developed a highly accurate way to peer into the brain to uncover a person’s mental state and what sort of information is being processed before it reaches awareness. With this new window into the brain, scientists now also are provided with the means of developing a more accurate model of the inner functions of the brain.
As reported in a forthcoming (Oct. 2009) issue of Psychological Science, the findings obtained by Stephen José Hanson, psychology professor at Rutgers; Russell A. Poldrack, professor at UCLA, and Yaroslav Halchenko, (now a post-doctoral student at Dartmouth College), have provided direct evidence that a person’s mental state can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research also suggests that a more comprehensive approach is needed for mapping brain activity and that the widely held belief that localized areas of the brain are responsible for specific mental functions is misleading and incorrect.
The research was funded with grants from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the James S. McDonnell Foundation and National Science Foundation. The McDonnell Foundation recently awarded Hanson another $1 million for ongoing studies in this area.
Over the last several years, much of neuroimaging has focused on pinpointing areas of the brain that are uniquely responsible for specific mental functions, such as learning, memory, fear and love. But this latest research shows that the brain is more complex than that simple model. In their analysis of global brain activity, the researchers found that different processing tasks have their own distinct pattern of neural connections stretching across the brain, similar to the fingerprints that distinctively identify each of us. Rather than being a static pattern, however, the brain is able to arrange and rearrange the connections based on the mental task being undertaken.
“You can’t just pinpoint a specific area of the brain, for example, and say that is the area responsible for our concept of self or that part is the source of our morality,” says Hanson. “It turns out the brain is much more complex and flexible than that. It has the ability to rearrange neural connections for different functions. By examining the pattern of neural connections, you can predict with a high degree of accuracy what mental processing task a person is doing.“
– via Rutgers