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      Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition.

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          Abstract

          Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studiesofemotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between brain activation and personality measures. We show that these correlations are higher than should be expected given the (evidently limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality measures. The high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain much detail about how the correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 55 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine a few details on how these correlations were computed. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels and reports means of only those voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this nonindependent analysis inflates correlations while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that, in some cases, other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations. We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide accurate estimates of the correlations in question and urge authors to perform such reanalyses. The underlying problems described here appear to be common in fMRI research of many kinds-not just in studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition.

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          Most cited references 19

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          Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain.

          Our ability to have an experience of another's pain is characteristic of empathy. Using functional imaging, we assessed brain activity while volunteers experienced a painful stimulus and compared it to that elicited when they observed a signal indicating that their loved one--present in the same room--was receiving a similar pain stimulus. Bilateral anterior insula (AI), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brainstem, and cerebellum were activated when subjects received pain and also by a signal that a loved one experienced pain. AI and ACC activation correlated with individual empathy scores. Activity in the posterior insula/secondary somatosensory cortex, the sensorimotor cortex (SI/MI), and the caudal ACC was specific to receiving pain. Thus, a neural response in AI and rostral ACC, activated in common for "self" and "other" conditions, suggests that the neural substrate for empathic experience does not involve the entire "pain matrix." We conclude that only that part of the pain network associated with its affective qualities, but not its sensory qualities, mediates empathy.
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            Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion.

            A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.
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              Divide and conquer: a defense of functional localizers.

              Numerous functionally distinct regions of cortex (e.g., V1, MT, the fusiform face area) can be easily identified in any normal human subject in just a few minutes of fMRI scanning. However, the locations of these regions vary across subjects. Investigations of these regions have therefore often used a functional region of interest (fROI) approach in which the region is first identified functionally in each subject individually, before subsequent scans in the same subjects test specific hypotheses concerning that region. This fROI method, which resembled long-established practice in visual neurophysiology, has methodological, statistical, and theoretical advantages over standard alternatives (such as whole-brain analyses of group data): (i) because functional properties are more consistently and robustly associated with fROIs than with locations in stereotaxic space, functional hypotheses concerning fROIs are often the most straightforward to frame, motivate, and test, (ii) because hypotheses are tested in only a handful of fROIs (instead of in tens of thousands of voxels), advance specification of fROIs provides a massive increase in statistical power over whole-brain analyses, and (iii) some fROIs may serve as candidate distinct components of the mind/brain worth investigation as such. Of course fROIs can be productively used in conjunction with other complementary methods. Here, we explain the motivation for and advantages of the fROI approach, and we rebut the criticism of this method offered by Friston et al. (Friston, K., Rotshtein, P., Geng, J., Sterzer, P., Henson, R., in press. A critique of functional localizers. NeuroImage).
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Perspect Psychol Sci
                Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science
                1745-6916
                1745-6916
                May 2009
                : 4
                : 3
                Affiliations
                [1 ] Massachussetts Institute of Technology, San Diego.
                [2 ] University of California, San Diego.
                [3 ] University of California, San Diego hpashler@ucsd.edu.
                Article
                4/3/274
                10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01125.x
                26158964
                © 2009 Association for Psychological Science.

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