A Real Science of Mind
December 27, 2010 10:50 PM   Subscribe

A Real Science of Mind Neurobabble piques interest in science, but obscures how science works. Individuals see, know, and want to make love. Brains don’t. Those things are psychological — not, in any evident way, neural.
posted by shivohum (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

There seems to be a certain ... bitterness in the article's tone. A bit of side-taking for psychology, as if it necessarily is in some way contrary or incompatible with neuroscience. Perhaps I'm reading it uncharitably, but I think it's unfortunate if this is the case.

As far as I can tell, the situation as it exists right now seems to involve two competing armies -- one of psychologists and one of neuroscientists -- both driving towards each other, like the Allies on Berlin, both trying to reach the other as quickly as possible and thus secure as much intellectual territory for 'their' side (meaning, to describe as much phenomena as possible using their preferred language and explanatory frameworks, and integrate it with other parts of their field). We have, on one side, the neuroscientists, working from the wet grey stuff upwards, beginning with Phineas Gage. On the other are the various branches of psychology, from the abstract beginnings of structuralism on forward. They must at some point run into each other and at that point a reconciliation must necessarily occur, and perhaps some are already working on it, but nobody seems exactly sure what that meeting will look like.

If neuroscience seems to have been covering ground faster, in part it might be simply because it's the more approachable science to the layman; anyone who has ever known someone with a head injury can point to the links between physiology and psychology. Reductionism is not a particularly tough sell to most educated Western audiences (you pretty much have to start tossing around "love" and "God" before you can even raise any eyebrows).

Throughout much of its history, psychology might have seemed unapproachably abstract by comparison. And it has a complex technical vocabulary and its own jargon, some of which is more hostile to understanding by the layperson than the traditional Latin-infused vocabulary of physiology (principally, I think, because it tends to overload complex ideas onto existing words and phrases -- witness the author's multi-paragraph explanation of "representation" -- rather than simply unfamiliar ones).

But fundamentally, both fields appear to be working towards the same end goal; an understanding of consciousness from its roots in the physiology of the brain to its realization in introspective theories of mind. One appears (at least on the surface) to be a bottom-up while the other a top-down approach, but they're studying the same thing.

The author makes some offhand comments that there are things being studied (and funded) under the heading of 'neuroscience' that aren't worthy of the attention, but doesn't really delve into this. Without a convincing argument that there's truly bad neuroscience going on -- science that's actively leading us down some sort of incorrect, luminiferous aether-esque path -- I fail to really see the problem. Eventually, neuroscience and psychology are going to come crashing into each other; for now, they survey each other over a wide gulf of what we don't know. It's a fascinating area that could use more attention and funding on both sides, not less.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:39 PM on December 27, 2010 [19 favorites]

Oh the brain
Is not the Mind
and the Mind
Is not the Brain.
Oh the Brain
Is not the Mind
and the mind is certainly dif-fer-ent from the brain.

From the brain.

Froh-ohm the brain.

props to dan reeder.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:54 AM on December 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Generative linguistics — another relatively mature psychological science — explains psychological structures better than psychological processes.

Like, uh, wow. The king of sciences, indeed.
posted by Wolof at 3:37 AM on December 28, 2010

I remember when I was in grad school and cognition was grappling with similar issues like whether mental processes should be represented by rectangular flow chart boxes or round connectionist nodes. If I were still an academic I would probably have tried to be cutting edge by finding a way of using triangles but the amorphous blobs of neuroscience would have also done nicely.
posted by srboisvert at 4:32 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I disagreed with the author on some of the specifics the basic point is something that needs to be said, over and over again, I think. In cognitive science it's not uncommon to distinguish between three levels of analysis.

Computational level - the abstract problem that the mind needs to solve, and why.
Algorithmic level - the procedures that the mind follows to solve it.
Implementation level - how these procedures are played out in neurons.

To a first (but somewhat inaccurate) approximation, you can think of these as the domains of artificial intelligence, psychology, and neuroscience. The critical point is that you need all three in order to understand the mind. As David Marr put it, "trying to understand vision by studying only neurons is like trying to understand bird flight by studying only feathers". In other words, a "neuro only" approach is a foolish reductionism that treats only the implementation level as important.

Maybe it seems obvious that this should be true, and when faced with the Marr quote everyone would say that they believe in the importance of psychology, but I suspect that it's only skin deep: but there really is evidence that laypeople find neural level explanations to be more compelling, even in cases where those "explanations" are gibberish. Whether we like it or not, neural level explanations "feel" more scientific to people. And this creates a real problem - it means that a bad neural explanation is more likely to believed by laypeople (which includes policy makers) than a good psychological one.

So someone really does have to write these kinds of articles in public fora, just to remind people that we do need psychological science as well as neural science. Because neuroscience is just too damn pretty.
posted by mixing at 4:46 AM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

They're both wrong.
posted by spitbull at 5:04 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's the same in every field. See, one day the observational physical sciences, the astronomers observing their whirling bodies, the geologists scraping away bits of mountain, are going to go crashing into the lab guys with their vacuum tubes and Leyden jars and meters and their theories of atoms and fields...
posted by localroger at 5:21 AM on December 28, 2010

Interesting reply to Burge from a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist who works at University of Houston:

posted by MultiplyDrafted at 6:17 AM on December 28, 2010


Whoops, sorry. Here it is.
posted by MultiplyDrafted at 6:18 AM on December 28, 2010

Brains need love too.
posted by Not Supplied at 7:46 AM on December 28, 2010

For example, a recent article reports a researcher’s “looking at love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.”

I read this in Robert Krulwich's voice. I can't hear it in any other
posted by motorcycles are jets at 7:50 AM on December 28, 2010

Peter Hacker comes down hard on neurobabble in this interview.
posted by stonepharisee at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2010

“looking at love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.”

This is gibberish. If I put my mp3 player into an MRI machine while it's playing Bach, am I looking at a fugue?
posted by phliar at 11:09 AM on December 28, 2010

If I put my mp3 player into an MRI machine while it's playing Bach, am I looking at a fugue?

No, you'd be looking at a broken mp3 player.
posted by demiurge at 11:48 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This entire argument is over language which is being twisted to deny certain unpleasant truths about reality. There is in fact a rather precise metaphor available to us which was not available to our ancestors, but whenever you compare brains to computers certain folks start yammering about how they're not the same at all and it's simplistic and demeaning to even make such a comparison. However:

One gets the sense that none of these philosophers, on any side of the argument, has a clue about information theory. Information is real and it is not equivalent to matter, but we can't work with information unless it is expressed by an arrangement of matter. The matter doing the expression isn't the information; if I make twenty-seven chairs of the same design the design is expressed in the form of each chair, but none of those chairs is this very real thing, the "design," which exists and can be described and without which the chairs could not exist at all.

No, an individual isn't a brain, but an individual person's personality certainly is information and the usual biological expression of that information is a human brain. The idea that there might be other, just as valid expressions is one that science fiction is just catching up to.

Now there is another distinction which requires us to go from chairs to computers and that is the difference between the personality, which is all the information you might need to construct a working copy of a person, and that working copy interacting with the world doing stuff like seeing, knowing, and making love. A copy of OpenOffice that is on my hard drive is a word processor, but it is not word processing until the information is moved into RAM and subjected to various processes by the microprocessor which allow it to express its purpose.

The problem is that we don't have a common language to distinguish between information and matter reliably, or between information that is expressed in stored or inert form versus information that is being used to drive an active process. And when we make the metaphor that I just did, some people freak out and accuse you of comparing people to word processors. People have a vague understanding that there must be something like information that makes a mind different from five pounds of Jello, but they think this means there must be some kind of metaphysical woo driving the works. And there is no need at all to think that. Computers show us very directly how matter can express dynamic information. Brains just express a lot more of it in different ways.

What will inevitably happen if the art continues to progress is that just as physics explained electricity and chemistry and chemistry is in the process of explaining biology, the biology will continue to explain more and more complex neural behaviors. Eventually there will be a model based on physics, chemistry, biochemistry, and most likely a layer of chaotic active self-assembly which fully explains everything that animals and people do.

And once that model exists, it will seem as crazy to say "that reaction is psychological, you can't put it down to mere neural activity" as it does today to say "that color change in my test tube is due to an action of metaphysical humours, you can't put it down to mere interactions between physical particles."
posted by localroger at 12:47 PM on December 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

[...] whenever you compare brains to computers certain folks start yammering about how they're not the same at all and it's simplistic and demeaning to even make such a comparison.

Whenever you compare brains to computers certain folks start yammering about how they're not the same at all and it's simplistic and demeaning to even make such a comparison.

Whenever you compare brains to steam engines certain folks start yammering about how they're not the same at all and it's simplistic and demeaning to even make such a comparison.

posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:08 PM on December 28, 2010

People have a vague understanding that there must be something like information that makes a mind different from five pounds of Jello, but they think this means there must be some kind of metaphysical woo driving the works. And there is no need at all to think that.
Beautiful. Between localroger and Kadin2048 I feel like my position has already been defended perfectly. But I'd like to pile on a little more for the sake of enthusiasm.

This contest between psychology and neurology has always seemed plain silly to me. How can anyone say that psychology is 'better' than neuroscience? This is like saying that physics is better than math. Physics IS math. And chemistry is physics. And biology is chemistry, and neuroscience is biology. And if you continue to look at it this way, psychology IS neuroscience.

The real scientists are not concerned with these departmental divisions, they are only concerned with trying to understand what we are. This will involve all of our methods for understanding.
posted by sunnichka at 12:15 AM on December 29, 2010

Crabby, if you had read past the first sentence of my comment you might have noticed that it specifically addresses a difference between computer metaphors and not-computer metaphors (although I used a chair instead of a steam engine as the counterexample).
posted by localroger at 5:47 AM on December 29, 2010

This article is a criticism of popular science writing, not of neuroscience itself
In recent years popular science writing has bombarded us with titillating reports of discoveries of the brain’s psychological prowess. Such reports invade even introductory patter in biology and psychology.
Ok, he does say that neuroscience gets more funding because of pretty brain pictures, and he is absolutely right about that.

As previous commenters have pointed out, plenty of psychologists read and are fascinated by neuroscience. Perceptual psychology (my field) also needs neuroscience too.
But what we resent is that there are some phenomena which we should seek to explain in psychological terms (I am not so sure that representation is always the best way, but that's another matter).

Psychology is neuroscience, true, but we should not comfort ourselves that we have explained something just because we have a picture of brain activation. Blood oxygen level dependent activation does not an explanation make.

Again, the problem is not necessarily with the science itself, but with the popular reporting of the science. In this domain, neurobabble is a real problem, and a bigger problem that the psychobabble, which has been nearly completely replaced by neurobabble.
posted by cogpsychprof at 1:35 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

cogpsychprof, I disagree. I think the OP is criticizing the popular science writing because he thinks it is probably accurately but unfairly favoring a view he disagrees with. The constant snarks at "neurobabble" aren't directed at the reporting, but at the thing being reported.

As to the validity of that criticism, I'd be willing to meet him half-way, but he probably wouldn't be willing to meet me there. "Looking at love" is indeed a bit of an overstatement, but it is also a very significant thing to know exactly what areas of the brain are active during certain significant cognitive events; combine that with the fairly detailed map we have now of the interareal wiring and you might have a foundation for starting to explain exactly what triggers those feelings and what they trigger in turn.

And one gets the very deep sense that the people who use words like "neurobabble" are very afraid of the implications of being to explain things like that. Because they don't want it to be explicable, they want it to be inexplicable because if you can explain it then some woo fantasy is lost.
posted by localroger at 7:18 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

localroger, I read your entire comment before I posted mine. The digital computer may be a good metaphor. That doesn't mean that a better one won't be found in the future.

I don't think it's an adequate model for the human mind. I could be mistaken, of course.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:25 PM on January 3, 2011

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