I have commented on the ridiculous ways in which the media can use results from scanning experiments before, but I feel I should clarify my position on the issue, particularly with regards to MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging).
(In the interest of fairness, I should point out that I've not had much experience with actually using MRI scanners in my previous research, but I have been a subject for the experiments of others many, many times. I'd estimate I've spent over a day in total in an MRI scanner of some form, so I feel sufficiently qualified to comment on MRI scanning in general in the following piece. However, I may well have many more experienced scanning-centric neuroscientists read this who are able to pick me up on errors that I've made. If so, please feel free to leave comments about this and I'll link to them)
First and foremost, I'm all for MRI scanning and other imaging techniques. It's amazing technology, and a modern privilege that I don't think enough people really appreciate. Until relatively recently, seeing your own brain was very rare. It was possible, but given the typical circumstances that would allow someone to see their own brain in the old days, it was probably the last thing they experienced. What they thought about it was impossible to determine. However, thanks to MRI scanners, seeing detailed images of our own, living brain is a common occurrence these days. One could get quite philosophical about that kind of thing, looking directly at the source of our minds, memories, thoughts, feelings, everything we are and every aspect of our being. The fact that it resembles nothing so much as a steroid-abusing walnut just makes it more unnerving for many.
There seems to be this weird view among a lot of non-neuroscientists (or as we call them, Morlocks) that the only thing preventing a complete understanding of the brain's inner workings was the fact that we couldn't directly observe it. Ergo, once you can observe the brain doing its thing, you can figure out how it works. But it's not like this, at all. A smartphone is an impressive bit of technology, but I doubt many people understand exactly how they work. Prising the cover off and looking at the guts of the device probably won't make it less complicated, more likely the opposite. The brain is like this, except orders of magnitude more complex and made of wobbly grey bits.
So, simply putting someone in an MRI machine and making them do a task will not inevitably show which specific part of the brain processes that task. Human's aren't that simple, any task or action will use several faculties at once, and the relationship between mind and brain is still relatively poorly understood. Useable results from MRI, or more accurately in this context, fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) are obtained by analysis of the blood flow to certain brain regions observed during specific activity. Not neural activity directly, but the (supposedly) associated changes in blood flow as the metabolic demands of certain areas increase in line with activity. This is not as easy as it sounds, and I have not tried to make it sound easy. You need baseline activity rates, threshold readings, anatomical precision which differs from person to person, and so on. It's a very useful, but complicated and time-consuming task.
However, most media mentions of scanning 'experiments' seem to think that you just put someone in an MRI scanner, and if you stimulate them in some way then a bit of the brain will light up. That isn't neuroscience, that's 'Operation'. But still, brain scanning is 'cool', so is often shoehorned into the most meaningless 'science' stories.
This is something that irks me a lot, but you learn to put up with it. But sometimes, this sort of thing can reach satirical levels.
I was recently contacted by Dr Petra Boynton via that there twitter. As a rather clued up and intelligent Sex educator who works with the media quite a lot, she's often contacted by TV types who want to get her input on their latest sex-based documentary, a programme format which seems to show no signs of going away. This is understandable, as they offer an intellectual discourse on one of the more intriguing yet taboo aspects of human society. But also, tits!
Sadly, the majority of sex-based programmes seem to deserve the degree of cynicism with which I've just described them. Many seem to be far more concerned with titillating, provoking strong reactions, conforming to the prejudices of a target demographic, or just mawkishly parading the intimate details of strangers around for the audience to gawp at. An evidence-based and rational discussion of sex, sexual behaviour or its myriad features seems to be way down the list of priorities.
But like I said, sometimes these attempts to dress up our morbid fascination with sex as serious scientific investigation crosses a line, and the whole thing just becomes farcical. Dr Boynton was recently contacted and asked to give an opinion on a new programme which aimed to investigate whether a new type of sex toy could provide measurably more pleasure in women who use it (compared to other sex toys). Why? I don't know, even though I was forwarded the email conversation that occurred. But there you go. They did specify that they wanted to do a proper and respectful analysis of women's sexual behaviours and needs, and if that's true then it's a reasonably noble aim. Dr Boynton's response was very reasonable, what with sex research and education being a lot more complex than most people realise. She advised against the use of things like MRI scanners, on the grounds that a) they are usually just used as a shorthand for impressive science visuals and b) have little or no practical use when it comes to sex research.
The TV people have seemingly decided to go with the use of MRI scanners anyway, purely on the grounds that they look impressive and make for good TV. Lacking sufficient expertise in the area, Dr Boynton then tried to get some more persuasive arguments against this approach from more neuroscientific people. Sadly for her, the discipline of Neuroscience, the media and you good people reading this, that included me. So, if you're someone from the media and are thinking about putting together a programme with a setup like this, please let me explain why this is unwise.
If I've interpreted them correctly, the suggested experiment aim(s) can be summarised as follows;
Use advanced brain imaging techniques to quantitatively demonstrate that a specific sex toy gives women using it more pleasure than other sex toys, and do this in a way which makes enjoyable television
Now, as you can probably tell from my previous ramblings, I have several problems with this. Let's go through them all.
- Measuring 'pleasure' is very difficult: It would be in this context, anyway. There are numerous brain regions that are involved with the processing of rewarding and enjoyable stimuli, I'm not arguing that. But 'pleasure' as a term is like 'intelligence', or 'irony', in that everyone knows what it is, but it's actually quite hard to write down a coherent explanation of it that everyone would agree on. This is even more true of sexual pleasure. How do you measure such a thing? There is no one single thing that every woman finds sexually stimulating (as far as I know), and a person's sexual preferences are a complex neurological system based on their own experiences, biology and so forth. You could feasibly scan the brain activity of a large number of women attempting to achieve sexual pleasure in the exact same way, but the readings would probably be very different. Any data applicable to all of them would probably be too general to be of any use in studying a neurological effect as complex as sexual pleasure. A reputable science programme wouldn't show some meaningless data and then just make their own conclusions, would they?... Would they?... Hello?
- Sex and masturbation aren’t the same thing: A minor point, but possibly relevant if you're wanting to make a programme about how sex is perceived/experienced. Although they have a lot of biological and anatomical processes in common, sex and masturbation are perceived and experienced differently. Obviously, as with sex there is at least one other person there, and they tend to be very close (spatially, if not in other ways). This is a very big stimulus (even if one partner does not possess a particularly big stimulus, so to speak) and something that is by definition absent during masturbation, so the sendory processing being done by the bain will be drastically different. Some experiments have apparently revealed that intercourse is a qualitatively different (better?) experience to masturbation, so any results obtained from this TV study may not be applicable to sex, per se.
- fMRI requires stimulus to occur in real time: Obviously I don't know the exact set-up for this potential experiment, but I do know that if you want to see what parts of the brain activate in response to specific stimuli, you have to scan the brain while that stimuli is occurring. Ergo, if you want to see what effect a sex toy has on a woman's neural activity, she has to be experiencing it while in the scanner (in this case hving the stimulation occur and then scanning them will give you 'post-coital comedown' data, and that's probably even more vague). Given the remit of the experiment, is this something you can get away with showing on national television? Even if you use the classic 'thermal imaging' cop-out, that's still potentially quite a graphic image to broadcast. I imagine you'll have trouble getting that past the censors, but then I'm not an expert.
- fMRI is very sensitive and subjects are secured in place: This is something that really should be flagged up in advance, if you plan to go through with this. Obviously, there are many different types of MRI and maybe I have the wrong idea here, but if you want to do an fMRI, in my experience you have to be very still indeed, as the machine is trying to measure very subtle changes in blood flow through tiny capillaries in a small region of the brain. The precision required to detect such small changes means the subject has their head secured in place very firmly, and usually the rest of the body too. Even minor movements can render the whole thing pointless. Bearing all this in mind, how exactly are you going to measure women's responses to masturbation when they're not allowed to move? Some may prefer to have sex in this manner, but I know women masturbate in a different way to men (this is normally where I'd link to something to back this up, but to be honest writing this piece has already rendered my browser search history quite unspeakable) and it logically must involve a reasonable degree of body movement, particularly if using a sex toy. MRI scanners are also usually require the subject to be inserted into a tube, which necessitates a 'legs closed' bodily arrangement, thus compounding the problem. If you do want to do this right, you'd probably have to have someone using the sex toy on the women while she's being scanned. In all honesty, I don't think lab techs are trained for this sort of thing. And even if you do somehow get approval to do this, getting to show it on TV would be even more of a headache than the last issue.
- Taking mechanical devices into an MRI is seriously not a good idea: Even if you were to get approval for all of the above, and somehow manage to work out a system where you can 'run the experiment', so to speak, how do these sex toys work? Hopefully they're just shaped plastic, but I'm getting the implication that they're mechanical in some way. This should present an insurmountable hurdle as you can't take any metal into an MRI scanner, particularly if it's ferrous. It's best not to even have it in the same room. A lot of people are surprised by this, because if an MRI is completely safe for humans, surely an inanimate metal object would be even less affected by it? But you can use this same logic for a typical bath; a human can sit in the bath without experiencing any ill effects, but throw a toaster in there too and you've got problems. MRI's use incredibly powerful magnets to pick up minute changes revealed by movements in our iron-containing blood. If you've ever watched House, they like showing what happens when tiny amounts of metal find their way into an MRI (I know it's just a TV show, but they've done their research there). Some professionals have also kindly arranged some practical demonstrations. In summary, if you want to have women use a metal-containing sex toy in an fMRI scanner, you may as well have them masturbate using a lit stick of dynamite. It's just as safe, and the results of any 'accidents' would be just as spectacular. I suppose this would make for impressive visuals, but I imagine the sort of audience you'd get for them is not going to be your target demographic.
So, that's why I don't think that programme would work. Even if you do manage to overcome all the problems I've mentioned, what are you left with? Nothing that would give you any useable information, at any rate. It would be cheaper and easier just to set up a fake MRI and have the subjects do whatever it is you want them to do, and just use footage of a different MRI scan, there are plenty around. This may seem dishonest, but it's as scientifically valid as the proposed experiment, and this way is probably much cheaper and frees up an expensive MRI in case anyone wants to do some actual science.
Rant over. I apologise to well intended media types and any disappointed men who have found their way here as a result of a more 'questionable' web search.