According to this alternate model of brain function, individual regions of the brain are not dedicated to performing tasks in specific cognitive domains, but instead offer their computational services in multiple contexts. What differentiates the cognitive domains like language and motor control is less a difference in which brain regions are assigned a task, and more a matter of which partners a given region works with.
Naturally, not everyone is a convert to this new model of brain function, and MIT has been home to some of the staunchest defenders of regional selectivity as a fundamental principle of the brain’s operation. But lately the data have not been going their way, and scientists only have two choices when that happens: modify (or abandon) their theory; or question the validity of the data. In this paper, the Kanwisher lab has elected the latter strategy.
What they argue, in essence, is that all the studies that purport to show overlaps in the neural tissues dedicated to different functions are in fact mistaken, because they rely on data that has been averaged over many participants. If anatomical differences shift the “language” regions a bit forward in one brain, and a bit back in another, then averaging these will put it in the middle, where neither brain actually computes language. Looking at a third and fourth brain in another study, the same kind of averaging might make it appear that “attention” functions are being computed by the very same neural tissue that computed the language functions, even though this would not be true in anyone’s individual brain. In neuroscience, the authors conclude, you have to study things one brain at a time.
So it is somewhat misleading to suggest–as one of the authors of this paper did in the interview with the MIT press office–that the choice we face is between a brain with selective regions, or “one big mushy multifunctional thing in there.” Instead, the choice is between a brain with selective regions and a brain that assembles functional coalitions–and between the study of idiosyncratic anatomy, and a general science of the brain.
A misleading title as science is progressive not absolute truth. fMRI right now is at its beginning stage but will move to a better state. Starting from average is OK now.