Reverse inference problem

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Chapter 11 endnote 30, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

The brain regions mentioned by Albertani’s defense team are among the most highly connected hubs in the entire brain. They show increased activation for just about every mental event you can list, from language to pain to math skills. So, sure, they might play a role in aggression and impulsivity in some instances. [...] This is called the “reverse inference problem.”

Forward inference
Inferring what brain activity means by observing the behavior of test subjects. Given that a test subject is performing a psychological task (involving feeling, thinking, decision-making, perceiving, etc.), what neurons or voxels change their activity?
Reverse inference
Inferring what someone is thinking or feeling by observing brain activity. Given that certain neurons or voxels show a change in activity, occurs what psychological task is being performed? Reverse inference is a problem because neurons (circuits and networks) are usually multipurpose (also called domain-general).[1][2]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Poldrack, Russell A. 2006. "Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data?" Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (2): 59-63.
  2. Barrett, Lisa Feldman and Ajay B. Satpute. 2013. "Large-scale brain networks in affective and social neuroscience:  Towards an integrative architecture of the human brain." Current Opinion in Neurobiology 23 (3): 361-372.