How Neuroscientists Observe Brains Watching Movies

Unless you have been deaf and blind to the world over the past decade, you know that functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI) can look inside the skull of volunteers lying still inside the claustrophobic, coffinlike confines of a loud, banging magnetic scanner. The technique relies on a fortuitous property of the blood supply to reveal regional activity. Active synapses and neurons consume power and therefore need more oxygen, which is delivered by the hemoglobin molecules inside the circulating red blood cells. When these molecules give off their oxygen to the surrounding tissue, they not only change color—from arterial red to venous blue—but also turn slightly magnetic.
Activity in neural tissue causes an increase in the volume and flow of fresh blood. This change in the blood supply, called the hemodynamic signal, is tracked by sending radio waves into the skull and carefully listening to their return echoes. FMRI does not directly measure synaptic and neuronal activity, which occurs over the course of milliseconds; instead it uses a relatively sluggish proxy—changes in the blood supply—that rises and falls in seconds. The spatial resolution of fMRI is currently limited to a volume element (voxel) the size of a pea, encompassing about one million nerve cells.