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Sunday scrolling: the MRI image that misled many Mums

Sunday scrolling: the MRI image that misled many Mums

At Feed HQ, Sundays are for two things: chilling, and a little bit of #ScienceSunday! This week, as we scrolled through social media catching up on the burning issues in the infant feeding world, we came across this beautiful and powerful image:

The MRI image, of neurologist Prof Rebecca Saxe and her baby, had been shared by an infant feeding account with thousands of followers and described how the Mum and baby’s brain differed. So far, so amazing, right! Indeed. 

BUT – ah come on, you knew it was coming –  the post then went on to add additional information about how a burst of oxytocin is released during kissing or breastfeeding and, while it didn’t explicitly say that the coloured areas on the image showed oxytocin being released, it strongly hinted at that due to the presentation. From the comments under the image and in subsequent captions written by those sharing the image, this had definitely been the obvious conclusion reached by many, us included.

We clicked ‘like’ but our Skeptical Spidey Senses were tingling. Luckily, we have google, and a super quick search – literally, like 5 seconds  – brought us to the original image and accompanying blog post written by Prof Saxe.

Mum and baby MRI.
(Rebecca Saxe and Atsushi Takahashi / Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT / Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT)

This particular MR image, though, was not made for diagnostic purposes, nor even really for science. No one, to my knowledge, had ever made an MR image of a mother and child. We made this one because we wanted to see it.

Rebecca Saxe

The image hadn’t been taken as part of a study, the functional MRI signals (the ones that show brain areas lighting up) were added later by Prof Saxe, and it had nothing to do with oxytocin production or feeding (the study was actually looking at brain response to visual images in babies). None of this had been clarified in the original post and by the time we had noticed the omission the post had been shared over 90 times and by accounts with thousands of followers. We’re not sure how many parents have seen the image and accompanying text but we would be confident it’s likely to be in the five figures.

Just think about that for a moment; it’s pretty likely that in one lazy Sunday afternoon scroll through Instagram, upwards of 10,000 parents saw this post and that a proportion of them, understandably, believed they were seeing visual proof of the oxytocin response described as being due to kissing or breastfeeding. Some of those Mums will not be breastfeeding and may have felt a bit crap because the post omitted to mention that oxytocin production is largely induced via touch so no matter how baby is fed – bottle, boob or tube – Mum and baby will both get high on snuggles.

At this point, I was feeling a mixture of frustration and resignation. Women are disproportionately affected by this kind of bollocksology and we deserve more. Granted, I’m sure many of those who shared the picture did so innocently believing it to exemplify the information in the accompanying text and being pretty amazed – because it IS pretty bloomin’ amazing. However, and I say these words with kindness, it’s 2019 and “sorry Guv, I didn’t know it was hooky gear” doesn’t cut it anymore. Misrepresentation of science has consequences (understatement of the year) and once something is out there it’s almost impossible to take it back. The horse hasn’t just bolted, she’s buggered off to the races for a photo finish (no pun intended). 

We all have a collective responsibility, to ourselves and others, to check our sources and not to perpetuate misinformation or omit the real facts. We’d love to say we’ve never got it wrong here at Feed but that would be a big fat fib! We had a little oopsie ourselves a few weeks ago. It’s easily done, especially when the post really reasonates or triggers strong emotions, but we need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Share the facts, not the fake news.

If you want to join us in ridding the world of flim flam, here’s our top tips:

  1. Always check the original source. Seriously, it’s like, the first rule of Science Club. Google is your friend. Mostly. And, as I always say, “if in doubt, leave it out”.
  2. Think about your audience; the caption may be crystal clear to you but could it be easily misinterpreted? Does the image or data show what you are suggesting it shows? Ask someone to check it, or better yet, gather a posse, call your Whatsapp group The Titterati and spend countless hours editing each other’s captions/blog posts/life choices. Take it from us, it’s hella fun and the bonus is that you’ve less chance of sharing something that you’ll regret.
  3. Accept you will cock up and when you do, own it and apologise. See Exhibit A.
  4. If you encounter bollocksology in the wild, call it out kindly. Never be a dick, like, never ever ever.

It’s not clear why the image was presented as being linked to oxytocin production or feeding, or whether that was even the intention. I do know however, that by not taking care to present the full facts and thereby presenting the image as something that it was not, whoever did so has done a disservice not only to the Mums who are not breastfeeding, by causing potential concern, but also to the education and celebration of breastfeeding, thanks to the confusion and mistrust caused. They’ve also – in my best Mammy voice – done a disservice to themselves and they should go to their room and think long and hard about it.  By not giving the full facts they’ve also ensured that the original scientific curiosity behind the image and, even worse, this badass scientist Mum’s story, was completely sidelined.

Like parenthood, the original MRI image of Prof Saxe and her baby is beautiful and powerful. It doesn’t need to be exaggerated to prove a point. It’s feckin’ amazing. Just the way it is. 

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