, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 275–283

(A)e(s)th(et)ics of Brain Imaging. Visibilities and Sayabilities in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging


Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s12152-011-9139-z

Cite this article as:
Fitsch, H. Neuroethics (2012) 5: 275. doi:10.1007/s12152-011-9139-z


Producing and interpreting functional brain data is part of the negotiation we imagine our brain. To take a closer look at the idea of brain imaging as a form of visual knowledge, it is necessary to put the research of today into a historical context. In my article I will point to a specific approach of functional imaging which depends on historical shifts entangled with the visual aspect of producing pictures of the brain. I will bring out the interaction of issues like techniques, models and historical assumptions of the brain and link them with the way the brain images are presented. The aesthetic dimensions (Rancière) in the pictures are also questions of ethics and normativity.


AestheticFunctional imagingNormativityGender

Lately I was pondering the possibilities of doing functional brain imaging without showing the results in the form of images. Functional brain images rely on a specific form of visual knowledge, visualizing data that is otherwise both invisible and not visual. Would the loss of images change the rhetoric about brain data that was generated in nuclear spin tomographs? What difference would it make if functional magnetic resonance research would not lead to images? Might a depiction in characters instead of pictorial, ‘statistical’ maps come to different conclusions? Would an alternation of the method change our understanding of how the brain works, and how we imagine mental activity? Would different technologies and apparatuses be necessary and if so what kind of brain data would they generate? Putting the images into question helped me to understand the specific role they play in fMRI. Or in other words, how could a localization method work without visual maps to locate the results? Isn’t it the central idea of localization to tell apart and delineate specific functional areas (in the brain) that result in more and more complex maps?

This article argues that fMRI, when used as a localization method, follows the tradition of phrenology. Functional images are not a one to one copy of a living brain. Images of the brain from a nuclear spin scanner are based on models of how scientists think the brain is constructed and their assumptions on how it works. Brain imaging means making something invisible, visible on the screen or paper. The static and constructed pictures are linked to the traditions and conditions of analogue images and of abstractions of the living body. Even though functional images can be consulted for different reasons, they do picture specific sayabilities and visibilities and rely on historical, technical and discursive traces. Functional images do not speak for themselves, the production and interpretation of functional images follows specific discourses of aesthetics and ethics based on historical and technical possibilities. Bringing together the discursive traditions these images refer to with the current practices they are produced in can help us understand the political and normative impact—hence: the ethics—they carry.

In this article I elaborate the argument that fMRI images are inherently involved in the (a)e(s)th(et)ics of brain science. To do so, I will explain in section 1 what I mean with the concept of political aesthetics. According to this concept of aesthetics, I will discuss some aesthetic examples of visualizing techniques and their implications on ethics. Beyond this background, I point at specific historical shifts that, in my view, contributed to epistemic turns concerning the role of the political aesthetic imaging conditions in section 2. Following the implementations of these historical shifts I will describe in section 3 some problematic issues fMRI is carrying in its representations. In section 4 I will bring the discussed reflections on political aesthetics in fMRI together and ask for the ethical implications.

Aesthetics: a Political Concept

First of all, aesthetics in this context does not designate the reductive view of symmetry and the golden ratio as a priori natural laws. It is understood as an essential feasability of what our societal and cultural discourses allow us to make visible.

As an introduction to his theory of political aesthetics Jaques Rancière describes the aesthetic dimension as the field of visibility and sayability within the social order and therefore as political in itself [1]. For Rancière, visibility encompasses everything that is displayed, and everything that can be displayed is liable to a specific aesthetics; aesthetics is the political prerequisite that enables specific forms of manifestations. And, what is more, aesthetics defines our sensual experiences. “The fragmentation of time and space, of the visible and the invisible, the speech and the fuss creates and defines the place and the subject of politics as a form of experience. On the basis of this primary experience, we can ask the question of common aesthetical practices” ([1]: 75, own translation). Thus, following Rancière and for the topic of this article, politics are not just a practice of power but a question of who and what can be part of social and political space mediated through what can be part in the images of brain research.

What Brain Images have to do with it

Indeed it is necessary to note that images have the possibility of changing their meaning when moving from one context to another. Brain imaging is a cultural practice and therefore the images are part of societal negotiations. The images are read differently in the laboratory than in non-scientific contexts, as Ramon Reichert ([2]: 182) points out using the example of x-ray photographs. While the doctor reads the x-ray image along particular rules, in order to make sure to be referentially accurate, the lay audience is seeing the x-ray photograph as a whole. Instead of reading the image to understand the data results, the lay person is looking at the maps and seeing a picture. ([2]: 182).

Visualizations do not just refer to the content they want to convey, but also to the ways they are displayed—and how they are displayed influences the meaning they transfer. The pictorial status also means that the statistical brain maps are attributed specific aesthetic value. This is shown in interviews by Regula Burri, where the interviewees describe their data as ‘beautiful data’ when it displays a particular regularity. Or they experience the sagittal cut through the brain as pictures with an “intrinsic aesthetic, every scientist loves” ([3]: 175 own translation). Through the visual presentation, brain images can change their status of being a statistical representation of brain data, and can become iconic. As the Director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging, Mark Lythgoe, states in his interview on BBC with the title Images that changed the world about brain scans: “Why have they become so iconic, I mean, you see advertising campaigns using them now, they started to stand for something more than just the working, thinking, wonderful brain that we have?” (Lythgoe: 7:40–8:05 min).

Visualizing the statistical data through brain images means making the production process, the technical apparatuses and the theoretical assumptions become invisible. It is this process of visualizing the statistical data within an apparently natural setting (the anatomy of the brain) that objectivizes and naturalizes the data. But brain images are highly ambivalent. On the one hand they can become icons, readily identifiable and apparently readable for everyone. On the other hand, these pictures are not interpretable without being contextualized. Without knowing the task or the construction of the experiment, one cannot understand the statistical content of these pictures. It is between these two extremes that the status of the pictures can fluctuate.

Saying that the scientific status of those pictures and the context they are used in can influence the way people look at them does not mean that there aren’t also basic representational techniques involve. These techniques also have aestheticising effects on the observer and on the content these pictures are able to show. To understand what I mean by these basic representational techniques, we have to look more closely on historical conditions that led to fMRI technologies and their aesthetic assumptions. Topics for historical inquiry in this article are two main representational techniques: linear perspective and localization of brain function. First, in order to understand the historical conditions that are inherent in fMR imaging, we have to take a closer look at the epistemic status of vision and the visible in scientific communities; and with this background try to understand the effects on how we conceive knowledge.

Historical Background on the Epistemic Status of Vision, Images and Visualization Techniques

Linear Perspective

During the renaissance, the linear perspective as a new way of painting was invented. Although the linear perspective was a manner of representation evolved in the arts, it was the result of an interest in “the fusion of art and science” ([4]: 111). Perspective, derives from a Latin word, means to ‘see clearly’ or ‘to look through’ became the basic technique of “translating […] three-dimensional space to a two-dimensional image” ([4]: 111). Through the mathematization of space, the linear perspective developed a new aesthetic understanding of pictured bodies and objects by reducing space and everything that is positioned within into surfaces and turns everything that is displayed into calculable areas.

James Burke describes the invention of the linear perspective as a revolution of “the position of man in the cosmos […]”. ([5]: 76f.). Linear perspective changed the position of the spectator through expanding the perspective outside the framed picture and including the observer as a part of it. Over the years linear perspective “lays claim to being a ‘natural’ representation of ‘the way things look’, ‘the way we see’ or […] ‘the way things really are.’ Aided by the political and economic ascendance of Western Europe, artificial perspective conquered the world of representation under the banner of reason, science, and objectivity” ([6]: 37). William Mitchell stresses the point that no other perspective representation has ever obtained an equal significance in imaging.

Bruno Latour points out that linear perspective made it possible to translate the same object from one size to another, to relate them to the same scale, and through this to transfer pictures to somewhere else. So “since the picture moves without distortion it is possible to establish, in the linear perspective framework, […] a ‘two-way’ relationship between object and figure” ([7]: 27). Latour continues that “perspective is not interesting because it provides realistic pictures: […] it is interesting because it creates complete hybrids: nature seen as fiction, and fiction seen as nature, with all the elements made so homogeneous in space that it is now possible to reshuffle them like a pack of cards“([7]: 29). Hence, the linear perspective is one of the basic changes of perception, and “a new visual culture redefines both what it is to see, and what there is to see“([7]: 30). This means that techniques of visual culture affects how we see things, and what we are able to see.

The Localization Hypothesis

Through linear perspective what can be shown is standardized. This also has an impact on personal experiences since the subjective also becomes the object of positivistic evaluation. In this move towards externalization, medicine had a substantial part. In Birth of the Clinic Michel Foucault [8] describes the epistemic shift that took place in clinics during the late 18th century: While at the start of the century a patient would characterize the illness through speech, at the end of the era the patient’s body had become the observational object of a medical gaze and the focus of sickness. This change is “based on the rediscovery of the absolute values of the visible” ([8]: xii). Foucault illustrates the effect of the medical gaze along two prototypical questions. Before the epistemic shift also means before the clinic was invented, and the doctor had to visit the patient at home, the doctor would ask the patient ‘how are you feeling’? After the epistemic shift the doctor, now in the position to receive the patients in the clinic, asked: ‘where does it hurt?’ With this illustration Foucault points out that the epistemic shift was a spatial one. Now it was the body that became ill ([8]: 136). The disease is placed in the physical structure, within the coordinates of the measured body. The spatial localization of the disease in the body is conveyed through the eye. It is the “brain-breaker” ([8]: xiii), the anatomist who opens up the skullcap to look into the brain to see that is the new typical clinical viewer, and no longer the anatomist who scales the brain to measure its weight. “The eye becomes the depositary and source of clarity; it has the power to bring a truth to light that it receives only to the extent that it has brought it to light; as it opens, the eye first opens the truth” ([8]: xiii). Linear perspective and the medical gaze helped establishing a specific framework that reduces scientific and medical perception on seeing. Through this framework, which is based on a visual logic, the eye becomes dominant in scientific knowledge production. This logic is carried to its extreme in fMRI, where something invisible (i.e. ‘brain activity’) is made visible and measurable for the human eye.

While Foucault is focusing on the abstract epistemic shift in medicine of the clinical gaze that “is no longer reductive, rather, that which establishes the individual in his irreducible quality” ([8]: xiv), Michael Hagner traces the historical development of the brain as the (only) organ we think with and in doing so depicts the more particular change of this readjustment of the discrete elements in body scopes and corporeal practices. Around 1800 the central transformation in brain research happened when the head was no longer seen as the organ of the soul but the keeper of the brain as a place of mental activity of thinking and consciousness. The change is closely linked to the localization of intellectual functions in the brain. This basic idea is still the keystone of modern brain science ([9]: 12). Georges Canguilhem asks in his article Brain and Thinking ([10]) about the meaning of the term ‘thinking’. For him it is the 19th century that intertwines our association of brain and thinking. We cannot talk about one, without mentioning the other anymore. Nikolas Rose summarizes, “however the significance of this apparent verisimilitude of this mode of visualization mind has not only been rhetorical, or clinical. It has been epistemological. The visualized living brain now appeared to be just one more organ of the body to be opened to the eye of the doctor“([11]: 196).

Canguilhem [10] and Hagner [12] contend that the ideological change takes place with phrenology’s scientific concept of projecting human qualities into the brain. Phrenology was ‘invented’ in the early 19th century by a doctor called Franz Joseph Gall. The aim of his topological model was to find intellectual properties and mental states and to allocate these into sharply delineated brain areas. Hagner [12] aligns the argumentation of phrenology with modern techniques of functional brain imaging. Both methods, phrenology and fMRI, produce brain maps of human properties and work with visual knowledge. Functional localization is a knowledge that exists only in visual representations, the statistical maps, due to the fact that the various brain areas are nowhere as clearly distinguishable from one another as in these colored models.

During fMRI brain scans two different kinds of data are generated—anatomical and functional data. The pictures made from anatomical data are referential to the original organ they picture. This is crucial for the semiotic significance of anatomical data. Visualizations of functional data, however, do not want to reproduce exact morphological structures. Their aim is to explain functions in general or rather allocate these functions to specific brain structures ([12]: 172). In order to be able to ‘read’ the functional data, the data needs to be placed ‘over’ the anatomical pictures, in the manner of a transparent foil or double exposure. Thus the ‘apparent’ measured activity in the brain is only meaningful in the context of localization.

Technical Apparatus of fMRI Representations

Now, one could ask, what do the linear perspective and the epistemic changes have to do with modern-day fMRI? These processes can be seen as the requirement for visual representations in fMRI. The epistemic shifts during the 19th century led to the eye “which opens up the truth” ([8]). So, one could say, that visualizations of generated brain data are a result of the priority of vision (this is discussed in more detail below). But why is the linear perspective such an important invention for scientific visualizations? The linear perspective as the mathematization of space and a way to bring the three dimensional into a two dimensional arrangement has highly influenced the scientific visualization of bodies. The linear perspective provided the coordinate system for developing a translation of corporeal bodies into geometric figures. The three axes—conventionally denoted as the x-, y-, and z-axes—were invented by René Descartes, who introduced the coordinate framework in 1637. The measurement of the body along x-, y-, and z-axes became the essential condition for the visual processing of the generated brain data. Through linear perspective, one was able to measure the brain and “to transfer it—to translate it—and to obtain the same object at a different size as seen from another position. In the course of this translation, its internal properties have not been modified” ([7]: 27). The linear perspective freed the representation from its original. The scientific picture became an “immutable mobile” [7].

Taking up Foucault’s line of thought, the following questions are: What is visualized through fMRI; what context do the resulting images refer to; and how are the processes of production linked? To understand brain images it is necessary to take into account the different apparatuses and contexts the images are produced and received in. Medial practices and knowledge are constitutively and mutually dependent on each other. Illustrations and visualizations are not just part of forming and producing knowledge, but rather conceptualize new forms of perception in a network of science, art and technologies. “Together with literature, movies and science the imaging techniques can be seen as a network that measures, disciplines and normalizes what becomes visible for us” ([2]: 15; own translation).

Problematic Aspects Concerning the Aesthetic Approach in fMRI

Representationalism or the Advantage of Something Visible

Although the method of fMRI has been criticized in numerous ways, one can still find a lot of unreflected assumptions. For example, when talking about functional magnetic resonance imaging, a lot of scientists assume that the images are a copy of what is going on inside, showing the brain while it’s ‘working’: “Most accounts that make use of these technologies write as if we can now visualize the interior of the living human brain and observe its activity in real time as it thinks, perceives, emotes and desires we can see ‚mind’ in the activities of the living brain“([11]: 196). Even though this simplified summary of brain imaging is not widespread in the brain science community, it is often the first statement scientists make about their method when portrayed in public media. In his manifesto titled article What we can do and we can not do with functional imaging, Nikos Logothetis brings into account: “Its popular fascination is reflected in countless articles in the press speculating on potential applications, and seeming to indicate that with fMRI we can read minds better than direct tests of behaviour itself” ([13]: 869).

‘To read the mind while it is working’ is a significant assumption. Through this assumption, the images are not evaluated as statistical maps, but as an image of individualized brain activity. Reading an article and finding the results shown in an fMRI picture, the reader is tempted to think she or he would understand the findings more easily.

So far, I have tried to trace different aspects of aesthetic logics in visual knowledge fMRI is based on. Yet one must ask: if these pictures are not the image of a working brain, then how can they make us think they are? This is what Theresa De Lauretis puts into question: “By what process do images on the screen produce imaging on and off screen, articulate meaning and desire, for the spectators?“[…] And then again we must ask: what historical factors intervene in imaging?“([14]: 39) Brain images convey the essence of the brain and the knowledge about the brain in a seemingly direct intuitive way: everyone can see it and therefore it is true. As Rita Carter, a “science writer, lecturer and broadcaster who specializes in the human brain” (self-description from her website)1 describes her experience of looking at fMRIs: “Now however, new imaging techniques make the internal world of the mind visible, much as x-rays reveal our bones. The basis of mental illness, for example, is now demonstrable: no one can reasonably watch the frenzied, localized activity in the brain of a person driven by some obsession, or see the dull glow of a depressed brain, and still doubt these are physical conditions rather than some ineffable sickness of the soul. Similarly it is now possible to locate and observe the mechanics of rage, violence and misperception, and even to detect the physical signs of complex qualities of mind like kindness, humour, heartlessness, gregariousness, altruism, mother-love and self-awareness” ([15]: 6). Carters’ comment in the introduction to her book Mapping the Mind impressively illustrates how pictorial representations are intertwined with the desire to make differences visible and, hence, understandable.

From a feminist and science criticism point of view, the naïve understanding of images as a representation of the natural brain has to be criticized. As Donna Haraway, a feminist technoscientist, writes: “There is no unmediated photograph or passive camera obscura in scientific accounts of bodies and machines; there are only highly specific visual possibilities, each with a wonderfully detailed, active, partial way of organizing worlds. […] Understanding how these visual systems work technically, socially, and psychically ought to be a way of embodying feminist objectivity” (Haraway quoted from Barad [16]: 369). Haraway takes into account that the science of nature cannot be seen as a truth somebody has to discover, but as a process that is influenced by many interactions. She is criticizing the scientific idea of measuring the world and representing the results in images, like a mirror [17]. Images should not be understood as a reflection of a somehow ‘real’ world. Joseph Rouse identifies the scientific approach of representationalism as a by-product of the Cartesian cut of body and mind ([18]: 209). And at the same time, the pre-condition of splitting up the world into the object to be investigated and the explorative subject. As Karen Barad points out, the problem with representationalism is that it is not “a performative understanding of scientific practice”. In contrast such a performative understanding would take “account of the fact that knowing does not come from standing at a distance and representing, but rather from a direct material engagement with the world“([16]: 49).

Color, as another basic illustrating technique has a central influence on concepts in Neurosciences. Geoffrey Schott points out “that color in illustrations plays an important, complex, and at times ambiguous part in understanding the nature of the brain.” Using specific colors in images is an act that gives meaning to specific data. “Thus, one need to be wary of the way in which colored illustrations can influence our ideas concerning the brain, particularly its functions. Our eye will naturally be drawn to a bright red spot on an fMRI brain scan, and we are likely to infer that this spot signals something important or significant. But this assumption, which derives from the viewer’s contribution […] may be misleading or incorrect, if the color causes us to infer more or other than justified by the data” ([19]: 10).

The Status of Seeing and Visualizations in Knowledge Production

As already mentioned above the implementation of new visualizing techniques is intertwined with our understanding of perception. There is always already a relation between the visual techniques we use and how we envisage our senses, like seeing, hearing, taste etc. Or as Friedrich Kittler puts it: “we know nothing about our senses unless models and metaphors are provided for them through media”2 ([20]: 28; own translation). Yet Walter Benjamin points out that our idea of perception can change: “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” ([21]: III). Thus, taking into account the shift of discourses regarding the brain and our understanding of cognition, our conceptions of perception are always also a question of what our techniques are able to reveal about our senses.

Inherent in Foucault’s writing about the clinic is the history of perception and how cognition is reduced to the form of seeing. In natural science there is a long tradition which identifies visual perception and, in accordance with that, seeing as cognition. When perception is reduced to seeing and seeing is equalized with cognition, the image production in fMRI is understood as a natural way to present knowledge and can no longer be criticized as a construction.

Currently, the most widespread idea of how our brain works is the concept of the brain as a subdivided network. The idea is that the brain is subdivided in different modules, each one having a specific role in processing the incoming information. As Logothetis sees it: “One of the assumptions [of brain research] is that the mind can be subdivided into modules or parts, whose activity can be studied with fMRI” ([13]: 869) The method of functional magnetic resonance imaging focuses on potential activity occurring in the brain 6 s after showing the stimuli. This supports a view in which the brain comes to be understood as a mere processing center of externally derived stimuli.

Brain research, working with the idea of brain modules, often leads to a hierarchy of sensory perceptions. It becomes apparent that visual perception is domineering. Visual perception and the visual cortex are the mechanisms in the brain that have been researched and differentiated more than any others. But the fact that the visual cortex is more often and more thoroughly explored than other brain areas is caused by a variety of other factors. For example, it poses a methodological problem to find stimuli for other senses. Visual stimuli can easily be shown on a screen in the scanner. Underlining the visual specificity of locating methods as fMRI, Rose points out that not every theory that tries to understand the brain is necessarily dependent on the eye. There are and always have been different kinds of research about the brain. “The psychiatric science moved away from the eye with Kraepelin and Freud. The Freudianian psychoanalysis was oral, not visual as it was by Charcot, Freud’s teacher.” ([11]: 194)

Hence, we can say that cognitive brain research is a tautology, a self-explanatory circuit. First, human beings are identified as visual beings, seeing is understood as the sense that gives sense; and is thus thoroughly investigated. Through the labeling of seeing as an activity that takes place only in specific neuronal areas in the brain, the process of cognition is naturalized. Functional attributes are attached to anatomical areas through the assumed links of (visual) stimuli and their direct counterparts in the anatomy of the brain. Thanks to this special alliance of anatomy and operating mode of every specific module, the brain is constructed as a pre-discursive place; a site of nature in contradiction to culture.

The desire to understand human nature through seeing is combined with the expectation that new technologies could finally reveal the truth of that nature. The central research principle in brain science since the psycho/physical turn in the late 18th century posits that, in order to understand human behavior, we have to look into the human brain. With every new technology, the hope is revived that this method will finally lead to a break-through in understanding the inner secret of human nature. This becomes obvious when looking at how neuroscientists have raved about their methods throughout time.

In 1912, the German neurologist Robert Gaupp glorified the cinematograph as “one of the most wonderful inventions of the modern time, one of the most interesting progresses in the field of photographical reproduction of life in all its diversity. What no era before was able do to is now possible with the cinematograph: characterizing the act of natural processes, showing the movement of everything that is alive and describing humans while acting in their environment and conveying all of this to posterity; always reproducible.”3 (Gaupp, quoted after Reichert [2]: 172). Today, 100 years after Gaupp in January 2010, Lythgoe stated in the BBC report his opinion on functional magnetic resonance images: “These images have moved us out of an era when we saw the brain as a black box, into a world where we can picture the inside of our mind and for the first time, we can start to ask the previously unanswerable question: what is it that makes us human?” ([22]: 11:26–11:42 min). Both scientists, even though 100 years apart from each other, apply the same rhetoric when talking about brain research and their ambition to unveil the secret of humanity. It is a rhetoric that presents the technique used in their time as the one that can help to understand “what makes us human”. Thus, it introduces the method in a way that has an impact on how we interpret these images.

Bringing Aesthetics and Ethics Together

FMRI is designed to measure the brain space to locate brain functions and in doing so, fMRI refers to maps that are only available as visual knowledge. In combining the historical background of how visualization became a relevant factor for brain science with Rancières political aesthetics one can say that through specific epistemic shifts, new aesthetic regimes are installed. As cognition and consciousness are reduced and lineated to the area of the brain, the brain is established as a space where the ‘nature’ of humanity is negotiated.

In this article I am trying to trace the interdependency of research interests and visualizing methods with the common scientific understanding of the mind and brain. As I pointed out, the specific ways to generate and visualize brain data are not—and have never been—objective inventions that simply reflect nature. Imaging technologies have a history that matters to what they make visible. The statistic maps of fMRI are not pictures of the original brain but visualized knowledge of a normative and categorizing regime. Hence, aesthetics as the structure that defines the displaying modes as well as what can be made visible and seen at all, is part of this regime. Within this meaning of aesthetics the concept is always already an ethical project.

Following Rancière’s theory of political aesthetics, functional images can be understood as a product of the epistemic practices of today. The aesthetics thought as the subjunctive of visualizing matters because it is always already part of the scientific object and what it can tell us. One example of the (ethical) aesthetic dimensions in brain images is the basic concept of showing the brain from three different angles, in front of a ‘neutral’ black background and extracted from the rest of the body. It is just one—of many other—accesses to the brain, thinking the brain as totally self-sufficient, like the living president heads preserved in a glass jar in the TV-show Futurama.4 In these pictures, the anatomy seems like a static matter and the measured thoughts have an accurate beginning (between 4 and 10 s after showing the stimuli) and a set end. FMR images are not just the aim of an analyzing process, they become epistemic themselves.

Gauged Thoughts—Measured Minds—Standardized Brains

As I argued, fMRI is a method to map the brain, through locating functions in the human anatomy. The way this method works and what it is able to make visible is part of the aesthetics in Rancières understanding. And it is also an ethical question: Because mapping is always already a project to install a norm. A map defines a landscape, so that everyone finds his or her way, with the help of an exact chart. And it is the same in fMRI. The aim of this method is to install a norm brain, that helps on the one hand to map the standard modules of the brain and hence to understand how the brain processes stimuli. On the other hand, creating a norm brain apparently makes it easier to find abnormalities.

Therefore I understand the production processes as well as the interpretations in fMRI as highly political, because they are part of our understanding of what we call brain (and its functions) and through this who and what we acknowledge as a subject. FMRI pictures are used in societal debates about the very nature of human beings. In these debates, these pictures play a political and ethical role, because they stand for a specific interpretation of how we image our brain, thinking or the free will.

Coming back to Carters comment on fMRI, one can comprehend that functional brain images have the same effect on recipients as the standardized brain diagrams of 20th century. “No one can reasonably watch […], and still doubt these are physical conditions” ([15]: 6). Still it is not just what you see, but also with what categories in mind you see these highly political images. It is the difference between healthy and normal, male and female that is visualized and yet apparently easy to notice. How else could somebody ‘see’ a dull glow of a depressed person, without having in mind the comparison of a healthy glow in mind structure? Carters description of what kind of categories these images are able to make visible—such as rage and violence on the on side; kindness, altruism and motherly love on the other side—she opens up the whole universe of gendered categories localizable in the brain. Through this “tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities” ([23]: 56), i.e. by locating them into the human brain, fMRI images become strongly relevant in the normalizing discourses of our society.


man weiß nichts über seine Sinne bevor nicht Medien Modelle und Metaphern für sie bereitstellen. (Kittler [20])


Original: “[…] eine der wundervollsten Erfindungen der Neuzeit, einer der interessantesten Fortschritte auf dem Gebiet der photographischen Wiedergabe des Lebens in all seiner Mannigfaltigkeit. Was kein Zeitalter vor uns gekonnt hat, das ist mit ihm möglich geworden: den Ablauf der Naturvorgänge, die Bewegungen alles Lebendigen und die Handlungen der Menschen in der Mitwelt objektiv getreu zu schildern und der Nachwelt zu stets möglicher Reproduktion zu überliefern.” Gaupp 1912: 1


Futurama is an American animated science fiction sitcom created by Matt Groening televised from 1999 to 2003 in the American television.



I would like to thank Anelis Kaiser and Judith Coffey for their detailed and insightful comments that helped to improve this article.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011