Neuroethics Publications

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Journal Article

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Hastings Center Report





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Neuroscientists have long sought to study the dynamic activity of the human brain—what's happening in the brain, that is, while people are thinking, feeling, and acting. Ideally, an inside look at brain function would simultaneously and continuously measure the biochemical state of every cell in the central nervous system. While such a miraculous method is science fiction, a century of progress in neuroimaging technologies has made such simultaneous and continuous measurement a plausible fiction. Despite this progress, practitioners of modern neuroimaging struggle with two kinds of limitations: those that attend the particular neuroimaging methods we have today and those that would limit any method of imaging neural activity, no matter how powerful.

In this essay, I consider the liabilities and potential of techniques that measure human brain activity. I am concerned here only with methods that measure relevant physiologic states of the central nervous system and relate those measures to particular mental states. I will consider in particular the preeminent method of functional neuroimaging: BOLD fMRI. While there are several practical limits on the biological information that current technologies can measure, these limits—as important as they are—are minor in comparison to the fundamental logical restraints on the conclusions that can be drawn from brain imaging studies.

Copyright/Permission Statement

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article:Functional neuroimaging: Technical, Logical, and Social perspectives, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving (



Date Posted: 14 July 2016