“There’s a lot of art to this.”

My favorite talk of this weekend should come as no surprise to me or anyone else: it was Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s. Dr. Immordino-Yang is a fellow graduate of the Mind, Brain, and Education master’s degree program at HGSE and went on to earn her doctorate from HGSE as well. She is currently an Assistant Professor at USC and a considerable rising star in the fields of emotional development, neuroscience, and education.

I enjoyed a lot of things about her talk, but there was one moment that I wished everyone in the conference could have heard. Right before she showed a slide that revealed the results of her latest fMRI-based research, she paused. “Before I show you the next slide,” she said, “I’m going to say this very carefully.” Everyone in the room got quiet and looked more closely at the grey image of a brain behind her on the screen. “There’s a lot of art to interpreting these scans, and sometimes even the best neuroscientists get it wrong when they talk about this. So I’m going to say this very carefully.”

“When I say that certain areas of the brain are “activated” or “engaged” or “involved” during my experiment, I don’t mean that they’re the only places in the brain that are involved. Instead, these areas are the ones that are super-engaged; they’re the areas that are more engaged than other parts of the brain. Lots of other parts of the brain are working too, but these parts are especially engaged. Does that make sense?”

This cautious, conservative description of what imaging studies really tell us about the brain resonates with me–and not just because I trained in the same place that the presenter did. Instead, I think this is a much more accurate and ultimately more compelling way to approach the connections between neuroscience and education. We know a lot about the brain, but we don’t know everything. While it’s tempting to say that a pattern on a scanner indicates a particular thing about learning or thinking, we don’t know that for sure. And it’s sometimes misleading to suggest that we do.

Instead, a better way to be a responsible consumer of this information is with healthy skepticism and an informed mind. Look closely at the data you encounter, and know that it might not show the whole story.

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