Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Brain Imaging/Neurosciences/Cultural Theory

 

The Elekta Company has a machine which is called a magnetoencephalograph or MEG for short "…is presently regarded as the most efficient method for tracking brain activity in real-time for many reasons. Compared to EEG, MEG has unique sensitivity capabilities."

Real-time brain mapping allows scientists to "watch" the brain in action under controlled conditions. The Allen Institute for Brain Science (named after one of the founders of Microsoft, Paul Allen) has just completed an atlas of a mouse brain. "The goal of our inaugural project, the Allen Brain Atlas, is to create a detailed cellular-resolution, genome-wide map of gene expression in the mouse brain."

So, why is this important?

1. As more knowledge is gained about the human mind through scanning, the role of culture and images changes. Images are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions. They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology — mediators, progenitors, interfaces — as much reference points for information and knowledge, as visualizations of human creativity.

2. My main concern is the role played by images as the output of scanning procedures and the many different ways in which those images are appropriated within our culture to explain the intensity of our attraction to and dependence upon image-worlds as ways of explaining consciousness.

3. For better or for worse, depending on the perspectives that you hold and the research bias that you have, images are the raw material of scanning technologies like MRI’s and MEGS. In other words, the brain is visualized at a topological level, mapped according to various levels of excitation of a chemical and electrical nature and researched and treated through the knowledge that is gained. This is primarily a biological model and leaves many questions unanswered about the mind, thought and the relationship between perception and thinking.

4. The use of images entails far more than the transparent relationship of scanning to results would suggest. The biological metaphors at work make it appear as if the interpretation of scanning is similar to looking at a wound or a suture. The effort is to create as much transparency as possible between the scans and their interpretation. But, as with any of the issues that are normally raised about interpretive processes, it is important to ask questions about the use of images for these purposes from a variety of perspectives, including and most importantly, a cultural one.

5. The use of scanning technologies does not happen in a vacuum. Scientists spend a great deal of time cross-referencing their work and checking the interpretations that they make. (Many issues around image quality arise in the scanning process. These include, contrast, resolution, noise and distortion. Any one of these elements can change the relationship between images and diagnosis.) The central question for me is how to transfer the vast knowledge that has been gained from the study of images in a variety of disciplines from cultural studies to communications, into disciplines like the computer sciences and engineering which have been central to the invention and use of scanning technologies. In the same vein, how can the insights of the neurosciences be brought to bear in a substantial fashion on the research being pursued by cultural analysts, philosophers and psychologists?

The digital revolution is altering the fabric of research and practice in the sciences, arts and engineering and challenging many conventional wisdoms about the seemingly transparent relationship among images and meaning, mind and thought, as well as culture and identity.

 A complex cultural and biological topology is being drawn of consciousness in order to illuminate and illustrate mental processes. I labor under no illusions that this topology will solve centuries of debate and discussion about how and why humans think and act in the world. I do, however, make the point that images are a central feature of the many conundrums researchers have encountered in their examination of the mind and the human body. One example of the centrality of images to the debate about human consciousness has been the appearance of increasingly sophisticated imaging and scanning technologies that try to ‘picture’ the brain’s operations. The results of research in this area have been impressive and the impact on the cultural view of the brain has been enormous. In general this research has led to a more profound understanding of the rich complexity of the brain’s operations. Since I am not a specialist in these disciplines, I do not comment in detail on the medical or scientific claims that have been made about the usefulness of the research. My main concern is the role played by images as the output of scanning procedures and the many different ways in which those images are appropriated within our culture to explainthe intensity of our attraction to and dependence upon image-worlds. 

For better or for worse, depending on the perspectives that you hold and the research bias that you have, images are the raw material of scanning technologies like MRI’s. In other words, the brain is visualized at a topological level, mapped according to various levels of excitation of a chemical and electrical nature and researched and treated through the knowledge that is gained. This is primarily a biological model and leaves many questions unanswered about the mind, thought and the relationship between perception and thinking. In particular, the issues of how images are used to explain biological processes should not be marginalized.