Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Seeing the Mind in the Matter: Functional Brain Imaging as Framed Visual Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Seeing the Mind in the Matter: Functional Brain Imaging as Framed Visual Argument

Article excerpt

In June, 2003, Newsweek devoted a special issue to what its cover boldly proclaimed were "Inventions that Will Change the World." Along with quantum cryptography, designer babies, and rain-producing machines, functional brain imaging was pegged as one of ten inventions poised to impact life in the twenty-first century significantly. One article described how brain imaging "shows what happens when liars lie and patients feel sad," predicting that the technology one day could be used for lie detection and the diagnosis of mental disorders (Zimmer 60). In 2005, the Los Angeles Times began a series entitled "Mapping the Mind." One article described studies of preference that explore how the brain responds to "cool" versus "uncool" celebrities (Hotz, "Searching" A26); another reported on imaging studies of trust (Hotz, "Anatomy"). These articles represent just a fraction of the extensive coverage of brain imaging studies in the popular press. In fact, since the beginning of 2000, Newsweek has published more than twenty articles about functional brain imaging, or that at least refer to imaging research. Imaging studies become news stories so frequently because their results are intriguing and often bear significant implications for society. Just as importantly, such studies frequently are accompanied by attractive pictures of brain activity.

Images serve an important role in the communication of scientific ideas. However, the layperson's understanding of science sometimes becomes indistinguishable from visual illustration. When asked to depict a dinosaur, most people could provide a rough sketch of some kind based on images they have seen. Few, however, know how scientists developed these approximations of dinosaurs' appearance. Thus, the layperson's verbal knowledge of dinosaurs tends to pale in comparison to her visual knowledge. Similarly, although few people are familiar with Watson and Crick's discussion of DNA in their famous 1953 Nature article, most instantly recognize Watson and Crick's illustration of the double helix (Myers). Indeed, this image of DNA's structure may comprise a person's entire understanding of DNA. Visual knowledge of science sometimes eclipses verbal knowledge when that science travels beyond the specialized realm in which the illustration was initially produced. Scientific images, therefore, are salient points of reference regarding popular understandings of scientific arguments. Quite recently, functional brain imaging has produced pictures of the brain with colorfully highlighted regions that indicate where the brain is working. These images are becoming almost as recognizable as the double helix. Indeed, when the Pittsburgh Steelers played in the 2006 Super Bowl, a local newspaper used the conventions of the functional brain image to suggest that the city could think of nothing but its football team (see Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

When they appear in the popular press, scientific findings are translated to suit an inexpert, popular audience (Fahnestock). Technical terminology gives way to colloquial language while details and caveats are lost to a more general presentation of findings. Scientific images, however, are translated minimally, if at all. The same functional brain image that appears in a scientific journal may well appear in the pages of newspapers and magazines, and on television newscasts. In this paper, I suggest that, although the same functional brain image may appear in scientific and lay contexts, the argument made by this image often varies considerably. I propose argument frames as a way of understanding how functional brain images argue differently, and perhaps misleadingly, as they move from scientific to popular contexts. Argument framing is an approach to visual argument that is particularly well-suited to the study of images that, like functional brain images, shift among different contexts. In what follows, I first will explain how functional brain images are produced. …

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