Yes, I’m doing my Psychology Postgrad, no I still can’t read your mind

Picture this:

You’re a Psychology student. It’s Christmas time, food and wine are in full flow, as is the merriment and good cheer, but also the numerous family events. Most of the time you can self-indulge but there’s always the point where you’re met with rather distant one-time-a-year relatives, about whom you know nothing. They hear “university” and they ask, which goes as follows:

“So…what are you studying?”
“Oh! Psychology! *Insert statement about very tenuously linked person who also studies Psychology, but at another university*
“So I bet you know what I’m thinking! And I just know you’re analysing everything I’m doing now…”
*Refills wine and hopes for the best*

I often contemplate sticking post-it notes on my head for these gatherings, similar to the one below:


One time someone actually asked me if I was doing research and I let out a sound which was a mixture of a yelp/gasp/sigh of relief. I had recently completed a research project as part of SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) and I was about to carry on the research for my dissertation. Needless to say, I was thrilled to talk about it and the other person seemed genuinely interested!

I’m now starting my Postgraduate degree in Psychological Research Methods and Advanced Statistics. Sounds fancy, eh? If this doesn’t elicit the question of research over mind reading and analysing this year, there’s no hope for any Psychology students.

As part of the course we learn about different research methods, and we recently learnt about a technique which caused a brainwave (figuratively, of course). This technique is called Bold Oxygenation Level Dependent Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, also known as BOLD fMRI to friends. In a nutshell, it looks at brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow in the brain.

“Why am I telling you about this?” I hear you ask. Bear with me.

BOLD fMRI uses a technique called reverse inference. This uses brain activation patterns seen in BOLD fMRI to infer engagement of specific mental processes in response to a task. So, upon seeing a brain area (e.g. hippocampus) activated whilst performing a task requiring a cognitive process (e.g. long term memory), one can infer that said area activated is demonstrating engagement of a certain process performing the task at hand (i.e. the hippocampus is required in long-term memory).

So, from seeing the patterns, and thus the areas of brain activated, you can gauge which processes are in use, and so what one is thinking. Despite various doubts and qualms, it still boils down to a certain phrase.

Abstract Mind Reading.

So there we go! Next time I’m at a family event, I can tell them all about BOLD fMRI and how we could possibly read minds. Or maybe, just maybe, that nice family member will be there again so I can tell them about my new degree and my research project, or even the results of my previous research.

But Sod’s law, that won’t happen. I think I’ll bring the post-it just in case.

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