, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 229-244
Date: 02 Dec 2010

The Inheritance, Power and Predicaments of the “Brain-Reading” Metaphor

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Abstract

Purpose

With the increasing sophistication of neuroimaging technologies in medicine, new language is being sought to make sense of the findings. The aim of this paper is to explore whether the “brain-reading” metaphor used to convey current medical or neurobiological findings imports unintended significations that do not necessarily reflect the genuine findings made by physicians and neuroscientists.

Methods

First, the paper surveys the ambiguities of the readability metaphor, drawing from the history of science and medicine, paying special attention to the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Next, the paper addresses more closely the issue of how metaphors may be confusing when used in medicine in general, and neuroscience in particular. The paper then explores the possible misleading effects associated with the contemporary use of the “brain-reading” metaphor in neuroimaging research.

Results

Rather than breaking new ground, what we see in current scientific language is a persistence of both a constraining and expansive set of language practices forming a relatively continuous tradition linking current neuroimaging to past scientific investigations into the brain.

Conclusions

The use of the readability metaphor thus carries with it both positive and negative effects. Physicians and neuroscientists must resort to the use of terms already laden with abstracted meanings, and often burdened by tradition, at the risk of importing through these words connotations that do not tally with the sought-after objectivity of empirical science.