If you’ve read the chapter on brain imaging in my book Explaining Creativity, you’ll know that the technology has limitations. Specifically: There’s no way to use this research to claim that creativity is located in a particular part of the brain. To their credit, the researchers who do this work would never say that. However, the media tend to hear about these cautious and limited findings, and publish articles with titles like “Now we know where creativity is!”
A new article in The Economist describes these limitations:
The technology has its critics. Many worry that dramatic conclusions are being drawn from small samples (the faff involved in fMRI makes large studies hard). Others fret about over-interpreting the tiny changes the technique picks up. A deliberately provocative paper published in 2009, for example, found apparent activity in the brain of a dead salmon.
The Economist article is about a new study that identifies a serious problem with fMRI methodology. The new study’s findings suggest that the statistics programs that interpret the fMRI results are “seriously flawed.” (And there’s a lot of statistics involved; take a look at my chapter for a quick summary.) The researchers used these fMRI algorithms to compare 499 subjects who were lying in the scanner while not thinking about anything in particular. With the standard fMRI statistical software, they divided this subject pool in half in 3 million different ways, and did comparisons each time. There shouldn’t have been any findings at all. But in fact, 70 percent of the 3 million comparisons resulted in false positives. That means, in 70 percent of these comparisons, there was a statistically significant finding of elevated brain activity, in half of the 499 subjects, in some part of the brain.
Because this study was just published, we can’t yet be sure what it really means. But my advice is: Be skeptical if you read an article claiming that creativity is located in a particular brain region. Creativity is a function of the entire brain, working together.