What multiplexing means for the interpretation of functional MRI data

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Despite technology advances that have enabled routine acquisition of functional MRI data with sub-millimeter resolution, the inferences that cognitive neuroscientists must make to link fMRI data to behavior are complicated. Thus, a single dataset subjected to different analyses can be interpreted in different ways. This article presents two optical analogies that can be useful for framing fMRI analyses in a way that allows for multiple interpretations of fMRI data to be valid simultaneously without undermining each other. The first is reflection: when an object is reflected in a mirrored surface, it appears as if the reflected object is sharing space with the mirrored object, but of course it is not. This analogy can be a good guide for interpreting the fMRI signal, since even at sub-millimeter resolutions the signal is determined by a mixture of local and long-range neural computations. The second is refraction. If we view an object through a multi-faceted prism or gemstone, our view will change–sometimes dramatically–depending on our viewing angle. In the same way, interpretation of fMRI data (inference of underlying neuronal activity) can and should be different depending on the analysis approach. Rather than representing a weakness of the methodology, or the superiority of one approach over the other (for example, simple regression analysis versus multi-voxel pattern analysis), this is an expected consequence of how information is multiplexed in the neural networks of the brain: multiple streams of information are simultaneously present in each location. The fact that any one analysis typically shows only one view of the data also puts some parentheses around fMRI practitioners’ constant search for ground truth against which to compare their data. By holding our interpretations lightly and understanding that many interpretations of the data can all be true at the same time, we do a better job of preparing ourselves to appreciate, and eventually understand, the complexity of the brain and the behavior it produces.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1134811
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding was provided by NIH R01 NS123482 to CO.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2023 Olman.


  • fMRI
  • feedback–FB
  • neural circuits
  • predictive coding
  • primary visual area (V1)

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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