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fMRI in Film: Take it With a Grain of "Salt"

The Angelina Jolie film portrays brain imaging without an imager

2 min read
fMRI in Film: Take it With a Grain of "Salt"

Angelina Jolie in 'Salt'

I was already politely suspending my disbelief to watch Angelina Jolie's new Cold War-turned-modern thriller, "Salt." I was prepared to play along with the premise that the thin-boned CIA operative she plays could kick muscle-bound male butt for the hour and a half I was paying my $12.50 for. What got me giggling was the film's portrayal of fMRI, the technology featured on the cover of this month's IEEE Spectrum.

The movie's big question hinges on a scene in which Jolie's Evelyn Salt interrogates a "walk-in" claiming to have information about Russian spies well placed in the United States government. When Orlov states that Salt herself is one of them, the audience has to determine the truth of that statement. The CIA operatives, however, claim to be relying on fMRI. Sitting in the next room, apparently looking at brain scans, they claim that the fMRI says that he's telling the truth. So it must be true!

Having just worked on our article, I started laughing. It's always baffling when screenwriters use real technology (Image enhancement! Tritium!) but use it in a way that is futuristically incorrect. Not only was there no evidence of an actual MRI machine--and the enormous magnet that goes with one--but I could spot no wires, and nothing to show how they were pinpointing the brain functions of Orlov himself. Maybe all that acoustic tiling is supposed to be helping. Though maybe they were doing iPhone4 antenna research there as well.

Maybe one day we will be able to do MRI's without an MRI machine or wires. If you want to learn more about what fMRI's are capable of in real life, read our article.

What's the most absurd movie technology that drives you nuts?

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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