Medicine Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp 229–244 | Cite as

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




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.


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.


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.


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.


Brain Medical imaging Metaphor Neuroimaging Brain reading 



Thanks to Alexandre Wenger for enlightening discussions which were invaluable to us in drafting the argument of this paper. Thanks to Françoise Baylis and the Novel Tech Ethics research team for feedback on earlier drafts. Research for this project has been funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research, MOP 77670, Therapeutic Hopes and ethical concerns: Clinical research in the neurosciences and by Canadian Institutes of Health Research, NNF 80045, States of Mind: Emerging Issues in Neuroethics.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frederic Gilbert
    • 1
  • Lawrence Burns
    • 2
  • Timothy Krahn
    • 1
  1. 1.Novel Tech Ethics, Faculty of MedicineDalhousie UniversityHalifaxCanada
  2. 2.History of Science DepartmentKing’s University College at the University of Western OntarioLondonCanada

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