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Peeking Inside the Brain: Neuroimaging

6 October, 2015 - 16:07

Although the EEG can provide information about the general patterns of electrical activity within the brain, and although the EEG allows the researcher to see these changes quickly as they occur in real time, the electrodes must be placed on the surface of the skull and each electrode measures brain waves from large areas of the brain. As a result, EEGs do not provide a very clear picture of the structure of the brain.

But techniques exist to provide more specific brain images.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a type of brain scan that uses a magnetic field to create images of brain activity in each brain area. The patient lies on a bed within a large cylindrical structure containing a very strong magnet. Neurons that are firing use more oxygen, and the need for oxygen increases blood flow to the area. The fMRI detects the amount of blood flow in each brain region, and thus is an indicator of neural activity.

Very clear and detailed pictures of brain structures can be produced via fMRI. Often, the images take the form of cross-sectional “slices” that are obtained as the magnetic field is passed across the brain. The images of these slices are taken repeatedly and are superimposed on images of the brain structure itself to show how activity changes in different brain structures over time. When the research participant is asked to engage in tasks while in the scanner (e.g., by playing a game with another person), the images can show which parts of the brain are associated with which types of tasks. Another advantage of the fMRI is that is it noninvasive. The research participant simply enters the machine and the scans begin.

Although the scanners themselves are expensive, the advantages of fMRIs are substantial, and they are now available in many university and hospital settings. fMRI is now the most commonly used method of learning about brain structure.

There is still one more approach that is being more frequently implemented to understand brain function, and although it is new, it may turn out to be the most useful of all. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a procedure in which magnetic pulses are applied to the brain of living persons with the goal of temporarily and safely deactivating a small brain region. In TMS studies the research participant is first scanned in an fMRI machine to determine the exact location of the brain area to be tested. Then the electrical stimulation is provided to the brain before or while the participant is working on a cognitive task, and the effects of the stimulation on performance are assessed. If the participant’s ability to perform the task is influenced by the presence of the stimulation, then the researchers can conclude that this particular area of the brain is important to carrying out the task.

The primary advantage of TMS is that it allows the researcher to draw causal conclusions about the influence of brain structures on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When the TMS pulses are applied, the brain region becomes less active, and this deactivation is expected to influence the research participant’s responses. Current research has used TMS to study the brain areas responsible for emotion and cognition and their roles in how people perceive intention and approach moral reasoning (Kalbe et al., 2010; Van den Eynde et al., 2010; Young, Camprodon, Hauser, Pascual-Leone, & Saxe, 2010). 1 TMS is also used as a treatment for a variety of psychological conditions, including migraine, Parkinson’s disease, and major depressive disorder.

Research Focus: Cyberostracism

Neuroimaging techniques have important implications for understanding our behavior, including our responses to those around us. Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues (2003) 2 tested the hypothesis that people who were excluded by others would report emotional distress and that images of their brains would show that they experienced pain in the same part of the brain where physical pain is normally experienced. In the experiment, 13 participants were each placed into an fMRI brain-imaging machine. The participants were told that they would be playing a computer “Cyberball” game with two other players who were also in fMRI machines (the two opponents did not actually exist, and their responses were controlled by the computer).

Each of the participants was measured under three different conditions. In the first part of the experiment, the participants were told that as a result of technical difficulties, the link to the other two scanners could not yet be made, and thus at first they could not engage in, but only watch, the game play. This allowed the researchers to take a baseline fMRI reading. Then, during a second inclusion scan, the participants played the game, supposedly with the two other players. During this time, the other players threw the ball to the participants. In the third, exclusion, scan, however, the participants initially received seven throws from the other two players but were then excluded from the game because the two players stopped throwing the ball to the participants for the remainder of the scan (45 throws).

The results of the analyses showed that activity in two areas of the frontal lobe was significantly greater during the exclusion scan than during the inclusion scan. Because these brain regions are known from prior research to be active for individuals who are experiencing physical pain, the authors concluded that these results show that the physiological brain responses associated with being socially excluded by others are similar to brain responses experienced upon physical injury.

Further research (Chen, Williams, Fitness, & Newton, 2008; Wesselmann, Bagg, & Williams, 2009) 3 has documented that people react to being excluded in a variety of situations with a variety of emotions and behaviors.

People who feel that they are excluded, or even those who observe other people being excluded, not only experience pain, but feel worse about themselves and their relationships with people more generally, and they may work harder to try to restore their connections with others.


  • Studying the brains of cadavers can lead to discoveries about brain structure, but these studies are limited due to the fact that the brain is no longer active.
  • Lesion studies are informative about the effects of lesions on different brain regions.
  • Electrophysiological recording may be used in animals to directly measure brain activity.
  • Measures of electrical activity in the brain, such as electroencephalography (EEG), are used to assess brain-wave patterns and activity.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures blood flow in the brain during different activities, providing information about the activity of neurons and thus the functions of brain regions.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is used to temporarily and safely deactivate a small brain region, with the goal of testing the causal effects of the deactivation on behavior.


  1. Consider the different ways that psychologists study the brain, and think of a psychological characteristic or behavior that could be studied using each of the different techniques.