Friday, February 4, 2011

Psychology does not equal alchemy

The other night I was watching this show on PBS. It's a decent episode, showcasing some sexy new results in neuroscience, and is accessible to a general audience. But then it had to end on this note:

"Our best hope [for understanding the brain] lies within neuroscientists. What are thoughts but electrical impulses among brain cells? What are ideas but novel firings of those cells? What are mental problems if not impulses that have misfired? In the same way that chemistry grows from the ashes of alchemy, neuroscience, a field still in its infancy, may one day subsume psychology"

Deep breath in, deep breath out.


This is like saying "one day physics will subsume chemistry". They are two different levels of analysis designed to answer questions at different levels of analysis. In the big picture of science, yes neuroscience will subsume psychology, but neuroscience will be subsumed by biology, chemistry, physics and then pure math. In the meantime, it's rather useful to have separate fields.

But the bigger problem is the assumption that a picture with a glowing piece of brain real-estate tells you more about how we function than does behavior. Although the pictures are hugely compelling, knowing where a process is taking place in the brain is not the same as knowing how it is taking place. Honestly, I think we're going to look back at the last 15 years of cognitive neuroscience and see them as lost years where we got distracted by brain porn. As a thought exercise, I've tried to think of any finding from fMRI that is a unique contribution to what we know about the brain that wasn't already known with cellular recording, behavior and/or patient studies. I'm having a hard time coming up with one, but please send me your examples if you have them!


  1. Presume you're aware of this fascinating discussion in Cortex a few years back, sparked by Max Coltheart:

  2. This note is not what you asked for, but I feel compelled to blow my horn for "NARSAD, The Brain and Behavior Research Fund," 800.829.8289.

    I've been reading their Newsletters and Quarterlies about elevan years now, "looking for leads, looking for answers, looking for optimism." Their research funding and reporting spans the speculative theoretical to the applied practical. In their liturature you might be able to find what you are asking about.

    -ct, pdx.

  3. You will go crossed-eyed if you keep worrying about how a popular press talks about anything in science.