Technology has been revolutionising the field of psychology. Whereas in the past, the only evidence available to the psychologist was the first-person reports from patients telling how they felt, it is now possible to explore the brain itself.
First came the MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, which allowed researchers to examine the structure of the brain and to detect those areas which were damaged. For the first time, it became possible to correlate the changes in the responses of patients, to the damage identified in the brain.
It had already been possible to make observations from brain-damaged patients and to correlate specific areas of the brain with particular functionality. So for example, we know where the primary visual cortex is located, and the consequences of damaging it. We know where the area of the brain is that controls our motion of grasping objects. Mapping the brain into regions of particular functionality gave psychologists a crucial step forward in understanding mental function.
The next really big step though was fMRI, functional MRI, which by measuring the blood flow into particular regions of the brain, showed the increase of brain activity in real time. A patient performing a particular mental task could be monitored and changes in their brain activity could be recorded. For the first time, it was possible to see what happened in the brain when patients were thinking and feeling.
Chris Frith, a Professor of Neuropsychology, was fortunate in being in at the start of this technological advance, and in Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World he presents us with a description of the tools used by modern brain scientists. He gives us a startling insight into what our brains do for us, how they construct our model of the physical world, and our minds.
We all naturally think that our perception of the external world is accurate and correct: why else would it work so consistently for us? By and large, that view is quite correct. The model we have of the world works because our brains constantly make predictions about how the world behaves and when we test it by our actions, the errors are detected and the model is improved. This correction means that we are always improving our model of the physical world, making it more useful.