Anatomy of an Invention: The Case of MRI

The latest issue of Social Studies of Science includes a fascinating article by Amit Prasad about the invention of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  In addition to a discussion of the technology, the essay also includes several interesting comments on the current state of scientific storytelling:

The stories of scientific invention, as they have been told with regard… to MRI’s development, are not unique. They are pervasive in hagiographic historiography of science and other retrospective constructions, as has been pointed out by science studies scholars. Nevertheless, they highlight how agency is articulated in particular ways within the disciplinary regime of authorship. Such story-telling is just one element of diverse socio-epistemic processes that contribute to defining of an invention as such. The process of translating a particular techno-scientific event into an invention… is continually negotiated in different socio-epistemic domains and is a shifting and contingent outcome of these negotiations (pp. 545-546).

The reference and abstract are appended below, along with additional related resources on the history of MRI.


  • Prasad, A.  (2007).  The (Amorphous) Anatomy of an Invention: The Case of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).  Social Studies of Science, 37 (4), 533-560.

The priority dispute between Raymond Damadian and Paul Lauterbur over the ‘invention’ of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has attracted the attention of social and natural scientists for more than 30 years.  In this paper, I have used this priority dispute to analyze the complex socio-epistemic processes through which a claim for an invention is made and strengthened.  I argue that a tension exists because techno-scientific practices are embedded within a particular disciplinary regime of authorship: even though techno-scientific practices occur through distributed cognition and are contingent upon particular socio-epistemic contexts, a claim for an invention requires assigning authorship to a particular person, company, or institution in order to clearly define the origin and the novelty of that particular techno-scientific event.  Nevertheless, the outcomes of socio-epistemic practices for making and strengthening priority claims are shifting, open-ended, and contingent upon particular socio-epistemic contexts.

See also:

  • Prasad, A.  (2005).  Making Images/Making Bodies: Visibilizing and Disciplining through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).  Science, Technology, & Human Values, 30(2), 291-316.

This article analyzes how the medical gaze made possible by MRI operates in radiological laboratories. It argues that although computer-assisted medical imaging technologies such as MRI shift radiological analysis to the realm of cyborg visuality, radiological analysis continues to depend on visualization produced by other technologies and diagnostic inputs. In the radiological laboratory, MRI is used to produce diverse sets of images of the internal parts of the body to zero in and visually extract the pathology (or prove its nonexistence). Visual extraction of pathology becomes possible, however, because of the visual training of the radiologists in understanding and interpreting anatomic details of the whole body. These two levels of viewing constitute the bifocal vision of the radiologists. To make these levels of viewing work complementarily, the body, as it is presented in the body atlases, is made notational (i.e., converted into a set of isolable, disjoint, and differentiable parts).

Further readings on the history of MRI.

  • Gloor, P.  (1994).  Is Berger’s dream coming true?  Electroencephalography & Clinical Neurophysiology, 90(4), 253-266.

Discusses concepts underlying modern methods of studying the physiological correlates of human mental activity; such concepts were the focus of H. Berger’s (e.g., 1901, 1931) early research on this topic. At age 50 yrs, Berger turned to electrophysiology and discovered the EEG; thus, he was able to identify some electrophysiological facets of human psychophysiology related to attention, sleep, wakefulness, and coma. The author cites positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized EEG, and cerebral electrical stimulation studies which show that Berger’s conceptual approaches to human psychophysiology, even though he could not effectively apply them himself, were correct and have become tools of modern neuroscience.

  • Kolb, B.  (1999).  The twentieth century belongs to neuropsychology.  Brain Research Bulletin, 50(5-6), 409-410.

Discusses how neuropsychological theory went through a revolution in the 1980s and early 1990s and led to the development of a new way of thinking about the way cognitive functions are organized in the cerebrum. It is asserted that the changes in the last few years have been more methodological, especially with the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This is having the effect of shifting the field more to the study of the normal brain, which is leading to the emergence of the field of cognitive neuroscience.

  • Kubicki, M., Westin, C.-F., Maier, S. E., Mamata, H., Frumin, M., et al.  (2002).  Diffusion tensor imaging and its application to neuropsychiatric disorders.  Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 10(6), 324-336.

Magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a new technique that can be used to visualize and measure the diffusion of water in brain tissue; it is particularly useful for evaluating white matter abnormalities. In this paper, the authors review research studies that have applied DTI for the purpose of understanding neuropsychiatric disorders. They begin with a discussion of the principles involved in DTI, followed by a historical overview of magnetic resonance diffusion-weighted imaging and DTI and a brief description of several different methods of image acquisition and quantitative analysis. The authors then review the application of this technique to clinical populations. They include all studies published in English from January 1996 through March 2002 on this topic, located by searching PubMed and Medline on the key words “diffusion tensor imaging” and “MRI.” Finally, the authors consider potential future uses of DTI, including fiber tracking and surgical planning and follow-up.

  • Posner, M. I. & DiGirolamo, G. J.  (2000).  Cognitive neuroscience: Origins and promise.  Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 873-889.

Both Freud and Wundt had hoped to base psychology on an understanding of the neural basis of mental events. Their efforts were unsuccessful because the structure and function of the human brain was not available for empirical study at the physiological level. Over the last part of this century, there has been amazing growth and vitality in the field of human brain function. In this paper, we trace critical developments in the fields of cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and brain imaging related to the development of cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience has established that the decomposition of mental events can be united with an understanding of the mental and emotional computations carried out by the human brain. Cognitive neuroscience has the capability of influencing psychology in diverse areas from how children develop to how adults age; from how humans learn to how we imagine; from volitional control to psychopathologies.

  • Romano, J.  (1994).  Reminiscences: 1938 and since.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(6, Suppl), 83-89.

Originally published in 1990, the author cites significant changes in the conduct of the psychiatric profession between the 4th and 9th decades of this century. Determinants of the changes included the impact of WWII, the National Mental Health Act of 1946, the evolution of multiple modes of psychotherapy, the move from a system of involuntary incarceration and treatment in public institutions to a voluntaristic and pluralistic system, the provision of public and private insurance, the resurgence of psychopharmacology, and the pursuit of research in biological and psychosocial fields. Other trends included the development of vast numbers of rating scales, the influence of psychoanalytic psychology, the advent of the community mental health movement, and the development of brain imaging techniques.

  • Uttal, W. R.  (2002).  Précis of the new phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain.  Brain & Mind, 3(2), 221-228.

The author gives a precis of his book The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain in which he takes aim at a foundation issue in modern cognitive neuroscience–Are cognitive processes associated with particular brain regions? This is the basic question of localization. He covers some of the history of research seeking answers to this question. In particular, he discusses the new noninvasive tomographic or imaging techniques that allow us to peer into the human brain while it is actively engaged in cognitive processing. One area of concern lies with the logical structure of the modern version of localization research. Several fundamental questions need to be asked, among them: What are the cognitive processes that are being localized? He contends that the enormous effort currently being made to localize vaguely defined cognitive modules in particular locations of the exceeding complex brain is an ill-chosen path for cognitive neuroscience. He believes that it is based on incorrect a priori assumptions that, on close examination, cannot be justified and data that is highly tainted by these incorrect assumptions. Such an approach is leading us astray from thinking about cognitive activity being broadly distributed in the brain.

  • Witelson, S. F.  (1992).  Cognitive neuroanatomy: A new era.  Neurology, 42(4), 709-713.

Reviews the history of research on the correlation between structure and function in the human brain and describes current research interests. N. Geschwind and W. Levitsky’s (1968) article on left-right asymmetries in the temporal speech region stimulated current research focus. Their work was followed by studies documenting the reliability of planum temporale asymmetry and other neuroanatomic asymmetries, by studies on individual differences in the corpus callosum, and by studies concerning possible sex differences in the splenium of the corpus callosum. More recent research has focused on callosal anatomy in relation to hand preference and the potential uses of magnetic resonance imaging.

See also:

  • Varela, F. J. & Bruce, T.  (2002).  Consciousness in the neurosciences.  Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 14, 109-122.

In this interview, Francisco Varela traces the history of the development of consciousness studies and discusses the developments in contemporary cognitive neurosciences that have allowed consciousness to become an object of scientific study. From the experimental side, advances in non-invasive brain imaging techniques make possible original research on neural correlates during cognitive tasks. But a non-reductionist science of cognition must take into account not only the brain, but also the fact that experience happens in the entire organism (embodiment), that itself is situated or “coupled” with the world. The notions of emergence and reciprocal causality are keys for conceptualizing this embodied, situated subject of experience. Finally, phenomenological reduction is seen as a necessary partner in scientific research, providing “first-person” accounts of experience that are correlated to the “third-person”, or experimental data, i.e., the neurophenomenology research program.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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