fMRI Discovers Freud, Distribution Plushies Lurking In Brain

Erlang is the gray one with the disapproving, Freud-like moustache.
Erlang is the gray one with the disapproving, Freud-like moustache.
Regular readers will know my opinion on fMRI research. Nothing but newfangled electronic phrenologic theory-discovering machines. Well, I take it all back.

Yes, the new paper “A Triple Dissociation of Neural Systems Supporting ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO” by Steven Z. Fisher and Stephen T. Student in the obscure journal Psyence has forced me to reconsider, recogitate, and finally recant.

Our authors chased after the elusive Id, Ego, and Superego, certain sure these were nestled, hidden from prying eyes, deep inside the skulls of college students. They gathered twenty-four of these creatures, “all 19-year-old white, undergraduates who sat near each other in an Introductory Psychology course and were raised in upper middle class suburban New England neighborhoods” and slipped them into an fMRI machine.

But they had to exclude 17 for “falling asleep in the scanner.”

The remaining seven were asked to view a “fixation cross” (shades of religion?) after which the prompt “MOTHER” would appear for twenty seconds, and participants were asked “to think about their mother” (Oedipal urges perhaps?) This cycle was repeated several times, with a “jittered intertrial time” from “2 to 34 seconds…drawn from an Erlang distribution.”

Why the Erlang? It “was selected because it is our favorite distribution plushie sold on by far: link” (pictured above).

The participants were video taped and—here is the unique experimental twist—“Two independent coders viewed the videotapes and made precognitive judgments of the onset of ID-related, EGO-related, and SUPEREGO-related control of current thoughts.” They selected just those coders who had the “highest scores of precognitive ability” (the scoring was based on work from a tenured professor at Cornell—ahem).

The “onset times were convolved with a canonical hemodynamic response function and used to predict neural activity across the whole brain. The three regressors (ID, EGO, SUPEREGO) seemed reasonably orthogonal”, although, they added, “we didn’t actually check to make sure.”

This is the future of science.
This is the future of science.
The results are pictured here: three regions of the brain lit up and were associated with the three regions of the brain sought after. Critics will say there are five regions glowing (count them), but these critics will have failed to realize only three regions were theorized.

Indeed, the authors say, “A large cluster of ID-related neural activity was located in the brainstem. No other regions of the brain showed ID-related activity. This result is not surprising given well known links between the brainstem and consciouness [sic].” The authors even reference another peer-reviewed work which backs this bold statement.

But it is no bolder than this:

This region is also ideally situated to translate the ID’s drives into behavioral action (10). Finally, SUPEREGO-related neural activity was localized to lateral prefrontal and parietal cortex. These effects are consistent with the top-down control aspects of the SUPEREGO.

Footnote (10) above (a common scientific source) was this: “Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the superego, repulsed by reality, struggles…[in] brining about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it, and readily ‘breaks out in anxiety’.” Standard Freudian stuff.

As always, more research is needed:

…Social Neuroscience, Neuroeconomics, and Developmental Social Cognitive Affective Clinical Neuroscience are just not cutting edge enough anymore. Do not despair. This study represents the first of what is likely to be a productive and active new field of Psychoanalytic Neuroscience.

This is undoubtedly true. Neuroanalysis will surely join neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurophilosophy, and neurotheology and the sciences which prove, once and for all, that we are but slaves to our brains.

Update The creator of the plushies said, “I use the open-source program R to create the patterns.” This makes them reproducible, a key component of science. See also her Stat-O-Latern and the bat-winged “Standard” Normal Distribution.


Thanks to Sally Satel, co-author or the you-must-buy-it Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience for directing us to this paper.


  1. Sheri

    Let’s see: 7 subjects, two reviewers and statistics based on a stuffed toys (I am going to have to re-evaluate my objection to selling bizarre, hand-made items on the internet. I’m also going to have to change my name when I do it!). That would apply to? No wonder it was an obscure journal.

    Freud would probably not be happy either. Sure, id, ego and superego are affirmed, but psychoanalysis is out the window. We will soon have a pill for that which “corrects” problems in the brain which have nothing to do with childhood or any of that other Freudian nonsense.

  2. Briggs


    I think the prestigiousness of the authors speak for themselves. Steven Z Fisher? Stephen T Student? Where would statistics be without them?

  3. Rod

    Have I mentioned about a year or two ago a study in Australia.

    Vestibulography. The idea being that inductors stuck in the earhole of a person who is then spun in a chair might bring about a situation where the person could then be diagnosed as schizophrenic. And then possibly accused of waving his willy at 1100 am at the local shops.

    It could be that your results once checked against the other six subjects suggest a propensity to baying at the moon at least as long as the custom has been encouraged and supples of tequila provide.


  4. JH

    I just send the following message to the Psyence Magazine.

    “I love the article. Very Onion!”

  5. Sheri

    Seems the funding dried up for these guys–only one study? I think Rod had a perfect candidate for their next study!

  6. Gary

    Well done. Neuroblogging at its best. Did the test subjects wear hats during the procedure?

  7. Tom

    Somebody got fooled! Bahaha…

  8. Briggs

    Who, Tom, you?

  9. Briggs


    Then who!

  10. Curio

    Poe’s Law strikes again… it’s a spoof paper. Neuroskeptic covered it in 2012

  11. John R T

    The hot tub saline solution was guaranteed to relieve anxiety produced by being both my Mother’s favorite and the ugly middle [#3] child between brilliant older brother and sister, and gorgeous, identical twin sisters.
    Well, . . . I’ve been brining /
    “… [in] brining about harmony …” /
    long enough to be thoroughly pickled {the watery Tico lager hardly helped}, yet the colors seem just as bright and the little flecks of color remain when I close my eyes, no matter how high I elevate my vision. Harmony? not yet….
    Thanks for the up-date on Id and such; time for my nap.

  12. Briggs


    A brilliant one, too.

    (But now you’ve spoiled Tom’s fun!)

  13. Tom

    Somebody got fooled. I laughed and had fun! Tiiiime to let it go.

  14. Ray

    I think it’s great. A paper by Fisher and Student. A paper writen by such prestigeous authorities must be believed. It’s like the scientific consensus on global warming.

  15. Briggs


    Love it!



    I had no idea these plushies were available. I’m disappointed that my old favorite Bose Einstein isn’t included. I also notice that Maxwell Boltzmann is using his Normal alias.

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