If you read any contemporary research papers concerning neuroscience and cognition, you’ll likely find some mention of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). An fMRI scans portions of the brain to record levels of activity in those areas as subjects perceive various stimuli. Using magnetic fields and radio waves, an fMRI machine creates a visual representation of the brain and indicates which areas experience an increase in blood flow. With an increase in blood flow, stimulated regions of the brain also have increased access to oxygen in the bloodstream. Therefore, scientists use an increase in blood flow as a sign of increased levels of activity in parts of the brain in fMRI scans. Using this technology, researchers have been able to understand how the brain functions, develops, and processes the world around us more definitively than ever.

Though the use of fMRI appears universal in the scientific community today, it was invented in 1991 – a mere 23 years ago. Key aspects of the technique were first introduced to the scientific community by John Belliveau in his presentation at the 1991 Young Investigator’s Awards. In his presentation, he showed images of increased cerebral blood volume in key areas associated with vision after research subjects responded to simple visual stimuli. Though he won that year’s Young Investigator Award, the fMRI technique did not garner much attention because its practical applications were unclear. However, after researchers at the 10th annual Society for Magnetic Resonance Imaging meeting presented a video by Kenneth Kwong, which related blood oxygen levels to brain activity detection using MRI, scientists realized that fMRI could revolutionize the way they approached brain studies (“A History of fMRI”).

Since then, fMRI has contributed to some of the most incredible discoveries of our time. In only 23 years, this technology has enabled researchers to develop a potential cure for Alzheimer’s (Sperling), identify regions of the brain involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease (Marino et al.), emotional responses to room acoustics (Lawless et al.), dream sequences (Nir, Tononi), and even the detection of sarcasm (Shamay-Tsoory, et al.). Overall, fMRI has allowed researchers to paint a more complete picture of the brain and its interconnected parts. In the clinical setting, doctors use fMRI scans to evaluate potential risks for patients before brain surgery.

fMRI technology has also allowed researchers to quantify academic areas typically concerned with the qualitative—the humanities. In 2012, researchers at New York University measured people’s responses to visual art using fMRI and found that looking at art caused the activation of brain areas associated with emotions and self-reflection. Interestingly enough, the level and duration of responses varied from person to person, giving scientists insight on why some people may enjoy pieces of art like the Mona Lisa while others don’t see much appeal in it. In 2015, researchers at the University of Berlin discovered that reading suspenseful stories like E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” increased activity in the medial frontal cortex, lateral premotor cortex, and posterior parietal area – areas involved in development of social cognition, visualization, and, surprisingly, the integration of spatial information. As scientists continue to explore the effect of the humanities on the human experience using fMRI technology, they continue to find hidden ways the arts influence us on the neurological level and quite literally stimulate our brains.

Undeniably, fMRI has been integral in advancing scientific knowledge and helping the world better understand the underlying intricacies of the brain. Especially in the humanities, the fMRI has allowed scientists to quantify the effects of literature and art on brain stimulation and development—an endeavor that was previously impossible to explore in a very scientific manner. It’s incredible to think that within 23 years—approximately a college senior’s lifetime—technology has allowed scientists to explore the brain in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago and make such revolutionary discoveries.

As the world of science rapidly evolves, perhaps a yet-uncreated technology could once again challenge researchers’ assumptions about biological systems and revolutionize the way we approach science as well as the humanities.


“A History of fMRI.” MGH/HST Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Harvard University. Accessed 10 Apr. 2017, www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/history-fMRI

Lawless, MS, Vigeant MC. “Investigating the emotional response to room acoustics: A function magnetic resonance imaging study.” The Journal of Acoustical Society of America (2015): 417-423. Print.

Marino, Silvia, et al. “Magnetic resonance imaging markers for early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.” Neural Regeneration Research (2015): 611-619. Print.
Nir, Yuval, Tononi, Giulio. “Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2010): 88. Print.

Shamay-Tsoory, SG, et al. “The Neuroanatomical Basis of Understanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition.” Neuropsychology (2005). 288-300. Print.
Sperling, Reisa. “The potential of functional MRI as a biomarker in early Alzheimer’s disease.” Neurobiology of Aging (2012): S37-S43. Print.

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Posted by Cathy Nie

Cathy is a freshman studying Neuroscience and Writing Seminars. As a member of HMR's Medical Humanities team, she is interested in exploring the intersection of history, literature, and medicine, as well as clinical applications. She is especially passionate about the application of the humanities to neurological disorder recovery. Outside of HMR, Cathy is currently involved with Charm City Science League, Zeniada, and the JHU News-Letter. In her free time, she loves glowstringing, reading, and playing guitar.