Skip navigation
Hardcover | $45.00 Short | £37.95 | 254 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 figures | September 2012 | ISBN: 9780262018524
eBook | $32.00 Short | October 2012 | ISBN: 9780262312035
Mouseover for Online Attention Data

Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience

A Meta-Meta-Analysis


Cognitive neuroscientists increasingly claim that brain images generated by new brain imaging technologies reflect, correlate, or represent cognitive processes. In this book, William Uttal warns against these claims, arguing that, despite its utility in anatomic and physiological applications, brain imaging research has not provided consistent evidence for correlation with cognition. Uttal bases his argument on an extensive review of the empirical literature, pointing to variability in data not only among subjects within individual experiments but also in the new meta-analytical approach that pools data from different experiments. This inconsistency of results, he argues, has profound implications for the field, suggesting that cognitive neuroscientists have not yet proven their interpretations of the relation between brain activity captured by macroscopic imaging techniques and cognitive processes; what may have appeared to be correlations may have only been illusions of association. He supports the view that the true correlates are located at a much more microscopic level of analysis: the networks of neurons that make up the brain.

Uttal carries out comparisons of the empirical data at several levels of data pooling, including the meta-analytical. He argues that although the idea seems straightforward, the task of pooling data from different experiments is extremely complex, leading to uncertain results, and that little is gained by it. Uttal's investigation suggests a need for cognitive neuroscience to reevaluate the entire enterprise of brain imaging-cognition correlational studies.

About the Author

William R. Uttal is Professor Emeritus (Engineering) at Arizona State University and Professor Emeritus (Psychology) at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including The New Phrenology: On the Localization of Cognitive Processes in the Brain (MIT Press).

Table of Contents

  • Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta-Analysis
  • Books Written by William R. Uttal
  • Real Time Computers: Techniques and Applications in the Psychological Sciences
  • Generative Computer Assisted Instruction
  • (with Miriam Rogers, Ramelle Hieronymus, and Timothy Pasich)
  • Sensory Coding: Selected Readings (Editor)
  • The Psychobiology of Sensory Coding
  • Cellular Neurophysiology and Integration: An Interpretive Introduction.
  • An Autocorrelation Theory of Form Detection
  • The Psychobiology of Mind
  • A Taxonomy of Visual Processes
  • Visual Form Detection in 3-Dimensional Space
  • Foundations of Psychobiology
  • (with Daniel N. Robinson)
  • The Detection of Nonplanar Surfaces in Visual Space
  • The Perception of Dotted Forms
  • On Seeing Forms
  • The Swimmer: An Integrated Computational Model of a Perceptual-Motor System
  • (with Gary Bradshaw, Sriram Dayanand, Robb Lovell, Thomas Shepherd, Ramakrishna Kakarala, Kurt Skifsted, and Greg Tupper)
  • Toward A New Behaviorism: The Case against Perceptual Reductionism
  • Computational Modeling of Vision: The Role of Combination
  • (with Ramakrishna Kakarala, Sriram Dayanand, Thomas Shepherd, Jaggi Kalki, Charles Lunskis Jr., and Ning Liu)
  • The War between Mentalism and Behaviorism: On the Accessibility of Mental Processes
  • The New Phrenology: On the Localization of Cognitive Processes in the Brain
  • A Behaviorist Looks at Form Recognition
  • Psychomyths: Sources of Artifacts and Misrepresentations in Scientific Cognitive neuroscience
  • Dualism: The Original Sin of Cognitivism
  • Neural Theories of Mind: Why the Mind-Brain Problem May Never Be Solved
  • Human Factors in the Courtroom: Mythology versus Science
  • The Immeasurable Mind: The Real Science of Psychology
  • Time, Space, and Number in Physics and Psychology
  • Distributed Neural Systems: Beyond the New Phrenology
  • Neuroscience in the Courtroom: What Every Lawyer Should Know about the Mind and the Brain
  • Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta-Analysis
  • Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta-Analysis
  • William R. Uttal
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2013
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • MIT Press books may be purchased at special quantity discounts for business or sales promotional use. For information, please email or write to Special Sales Department, The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142.
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited, Hong Kong. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Uttal, William R.
  • Reliability in cognitive neuroscience : a meta-meta analysis / William R. Uttal.
  •  p. ; cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and indexes.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01852-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
  • I. Title
  • [DNLM: 1. Mental Processes—physiology—Review. 3. Brain—physiology—Review. 3. Brain Mapping—Review. 4. Cognition—Review. 5. Meta-Analysis as Topic—Review. 6. Reproducibility of Results—Review. WL 337]
  • 612.8′233—dc23
  • 2012016250
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • For Mitchan
  • We face an abundance of information. Our problem is to find the knowledge in the information. We need methods for the orderly summarization of studies so that knowledge can be extracted from the myriad individual researches.
  • —G. V. Glass (1976, p. 4)
  • Mental faculties are notions used to designate extraordinarily involved complexes of elementary functions. . . . One cannot think of their taking place in any other way than through an infinitely complex and involved interaction and cooperation of numerous elementary activities, with the simultaneous functioning of just as many cortical zones, and probably of the whole cortex, and perhaps also including even subcortical centers. Thus, we are dealing with a physiological process extending widely over the whole cortical surface and not a localized function within a specific region. We must therefore reject as a quite impossible psychological concept the idea that an intellectual faculty or a mental event or a spatial or temporal quality or any other complex, higher psychic function should be represented in a single circumscribed cortical zone, whether one calls this an “association centre” or “thought organ” or anything else.
  • —K. Brodmann (1909; translated and edited by Garey, 1994, p. 255, as located by Ross, 2010)
  • It’s easy to sell simple stories with memorable take-home conclusions (the amygdala is the seat of fear, etc.), but it’s harder for people to understand and accept more complex models, I think.
  • —Tor Wager (personal communication, 2011)
  • Contents
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • 1 Meta-analysis: The Idea 1
  • 2 Meta-analysis: The Methodology 27
  • 3 On the Reliability of Cognitive Neuroscience Data: An Empirical Inquiry 79
  • 4 Macroscopic Theories of the Mind-Brain 139
  • 5 Current Status and Future Needs 185
  • Notes 197
  • Bibliography 209
  • Name Index 223
  • Subject Index 229


“This longtime critic of neuroscience and author of numerous books on the subject, believes that brain imaging techniques…reveal nothing about cognitive processes.... This kind of criticism should not go unanswered.... Researchers in neuroscience would not be wise to ignore.”—Sciences Humaines
“A timely topic... there is a lot of good stuff here... worthy of serious consideration.”—Philosophical Psychology


“This provocative book challenges the bulk of fMRI research aiming to find a mapping of cognitive function onto brain regions that is consistent and stable across individuals. The contentious challenges raised by William Uttal's empirical arguments will need to be addressed as neuroimaging continues to develop.”
Ed Vul, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego
“William Uttal's critique of the limitations of brain imaging studies and their syntheses offers useful implications for future meta-analytic selection criteria in this area. One implication could be for brain imaging studies to focus on specific neuropsychological tests or structural measures rather than a process, privileging tests known to be well-operationalized. Uttal's work here lays important groundwork for future directions in developing cognitive science.”
Alexa Smith-Osborne, University of Texas at Arlington, Cognitive Science Initiative