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MRI’s for Fun and Profit

Most people who need to have an MRI aren’t thrilled about it. It’s not a very pleasant experience, and it generally means that something’s wrong with you.

A few years ago, however, I was clamoring to get my brain inside an fMRI machine (the “f” stands for “functional”; an fMRI is capable of measuring neural activity). I was about 18 months into researching a book on the psychology of money, mostly about behavioral economics and its real-life manifestations. I’d been spending a lot of time with economists and other researchers, including Colin Camerer at Cal Tech, a brilliant and creative guy who had just gotten hold of an MRI machine. Colin planned to run a lot of experiments by putting people’s heads inside the machine and seeing what lit up as they viewed various images or had various economic experiences. Once he got things going, Colin said, I’d be welcome to use my own brain for some experiments.

As it turns out, I never got the chance. I wrote an article about this guy named Levitt and then we started writing together and I shelved my book on the psychology of money. (I did write a couple of articles on the subject, here and here.)

So it was with considerable envy that I read John Tierney’s excellent debut column in the Science Times section of the N.Y. Times. (Most recently, Tierney wrote from Washington as an OpEd columnist; but he wised up and has returned to science, his first love.) In the column, Tierney explores whether there is a significant neural difference between someone who spends a lot of money and someone who doesn’t. Here’s my favorite part:

These schemes are a blessing for pathological tightwads, but they leave spendthrifts worse off. Paying cash is the usual cure suggested, but that hasn’t worked for me, presumably because my insula is such a slug. So I asked the Stanford psychologists to test another approach. After the shopping experiment, they scanned my brain while showing me a copy of my $2,178.23 Visa bill and a control image of Dr. Knutson’s credit card bill for a similar amount.

“When we compared your responses,” Dr. Knutson told me, “we saw a little spot of insula activation when you saw your own bill.”

This gives me hope for a technological cure for spendthriftness: a credit card that would remind you of your outstanding balance every time you started to buy something. It could flash the total in large numbers, or announce it in a voice (say, Simon Cowell’s) designed to arouse any insula.

Tierney is also keeping a blog, here. I have long been an admirer of his work, and was lucky enough to be his editor at the N.Y. Times Magazine for a few years. This meant I got to work on his “Recycling is Garbage” cover article, which remains one of the most notorious articles in the history of the Magazine. (Here’s a non-gated version.)

Tierney is not my first writer friend to stick his head in an fMRI for the sake of science. Steve Hall did it, and so did Melanie Thernstrom. All of their articles are well worth a read — although I do imagine that, looking back from 20 years hence, these early days of fMRI readings will seem very rudimentary. I am fully in favor of this kind of experimentation, as long as we understand how narrow the findings are.