Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What passes for obvious

The most July/August issue of Technology Review (here) has a section dedicated to (MIT) advancement in Neuroscience (other places are mentioned, but given that this is Tech Review it actually is a pretty big glossy self congratulatory wet kiss). I like reading these kinds of popular presentations for it is interesting to see what is taken as so self evident, so obviously true that it can be tossed off as part of an innocent introduction or segue to the real important new stuff. As usual, I was rewarded on p. 25, the author confidently intoning as follows:[1]

More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates noted that if you want to understand the mind, you must begin by studying the brain. Nothing has happened in the last two millennia to change that imperative -excpet the tools that neuroscience is bringing to the task.

Oh puleeze. Really? Really? Understanding the mind begins with understanding the brain? Let’s hope not, for if this is true we are in for a very long wait. In fact, almost the opposite is true: to understand the brain it’s a pretty good idea to start by looking at the kinds of things brains do and the things brains engage in are mental activities.

This of hand comment (note the nod to Hippocrates, almost certainly inserted for humanistic color) betrays a view that is all too common among vulgar neuroscientists (of which, in my experience there are more than a few). They seem to think that we will understand how brains function by working bottom up from neuron to sets of neurons to ensembles of neurons to connected groups of neurons to neuronal pathways to… (I’ve always wondered why they didn’t start more basic, say with quarks to nuclei to atoms to…). The belief seems to be that once we understand the neuron and understand how they are connected up then mental life will simply pop out. It hasn’t and it won’t. Remember the behavioral opacity of c-elegans despite our having its complete wiring diagram.

Moreover, just think about the upstairs quote addressed to Turing/Mendel

More than 2000 years ago [put in some relevant Greek sage] noted that if you want to understand computation/the genetic code, you must begin by studying MacAirs/Large biochemical molecules…

So much for Turing Machines and pea plants. As you all know, the history was very different: the theory of computing preceded the building of machines and classical genetics owed nothing to biochemistry. Indeed, in both cases, rather the reverse.  And we have every reason for thinking the same will be true in neuroscience (here I am channeling Randy Gallistel). Right now, cognitive (mentalistic) investigations aimed at liming our mental structures has more to contribute to brain study than brain study has to contribute to our understanding of our cognitive (mental) life.

So why is the opposite the common view? One big problem with neuroscience is that one can win a Nobel prize in it. Or as our Tech Review writer might put it:

More than 2000 years ago the Greeks noted that if you want to understand scientific Hubris you must begin by considering the kinds of prizes available.

Those ancient Greeks may not have known much about neuroscience, but boy did they understand the perils of human self-congratulation.

[1]P. 25 print version, see here for online version. Quote is from first paragraph of section headed “Connections”.


  1. We must content ourselves to imagine the profound insights Darwin could have had if he had known about DNA transcription.

  2. haha...

    yeah, the history of medicine & physiology goes the same way. I mean, people didn't start by looking at molecular biomarkers, they started by looking at disease & illness; picking out input/output correspondences; postulating unobservables; building models of theoretical entities; making indirect measurements....

  3. A way to go is to keep in mind that the emergence of behavior is constrained by a variety of factors that don't care about the what the behavior turns out to be. It is important to tell things apart (think Chomsky's three factors), but this shouldn't and doesn't mean that the (necessary) relations among are not the most important thing. The more people divide, pick out and exclusively focus on one of many things that are related, the more the study of each of them becomes sterile in the broader context, even if successful as a circumscribed enterprise. Idealization and abstraction and isolating one's object of study are good things, but If when looking at each factor the others are left out of the rationale, there is no big picture to speak of, and the big picture is usually the interesting part in the first place.