What use is neuroscience?
Steven Senior
674

Some time shortly after winning the Nobel for Medicine, the late Roger Sperry — the “split-brain guy” — came to our department to deliver a master seminar on mind-body dualism over the course of a week. The discussions were deep. I was struck by his pragmatism and by the manner in which he was in a healthy “open marriage” with neuroscience. At one point, in discussing the relative value of reductionism, Sperry declared that one does not explain the behaviour of a bouncing rubber ball by appealing to the structure of rubber molecules. Rather one turns to the physics of balls. By analogy, he felt that if a mentalistic concept adequately explained some behavioural phenomenon, then that was good enough for him; the true goal being the explanation of something, well-enough to be able to predict and influence it. The reduction to subordinate and component processes only added value to the extent that it iincremented to explanation, prediction and control, and should only really be pursued if it adds to understanding. It wasn’t, of itself, more exalted than good old-fashioned instrospection if introspection explained and predicted the phenomenon decently enough.

I had the pleasure of working with hippocampal-lesioned animals in a lab affiliated with 2014 Nobel-winner John O’Keefe, spending several thousand hours observing the little blighters at close range. So I have nothing but respect for neuroscience research (what we used to call “physiological psychology”) and miss it greatly. I know there is much about brain research that can help to extend our ideas about how “mind” might possibly work, and much about the pure observation of behaviour in animals and human clinical populations that informs our understanding of the brain. But there is much about the manner in which neuroscience research is used currently, that has turned it into a very expensive rhetorical device.

Often, nothing is really *added* to an explanation of behavioural phenomena that was not well-understood in the absence of functional MRIs and the like. But the mere fact that brain research on the topic has been conducted somehow gives the ideas greater authoritativeness; the stamp of believability. Truthfully, though, many of the explanations I often hear from neuroscientists about the behavioural phenomena being explored are pure poppycock. The data is certainly real, but their understanding is shallow and explanations too mechanistic to be useful or even realistic. In a sense, they have fallen into the trap that Sperry elected to avoid; the mistaken belief that pure reductionism would resolve all confusion and result in true understanding. It can’t. The behavioural phenomena of most importance and meaning to us are experienced by humans through human social lenses, and understood as such. Because of that, neuroscience reductionism often doesn’t give us anything we can use AS humans. It can certainly tell us why compound X fails or succeeds in permeating a membrane. But what compound X *does*, at the level of human affairs, remains a mystery. Is value added in such circumstances? I think not.

The task is to connect neuroscience with a more human understanding of human behaviour. For a number of years I studied so-called “memory enhancing drugs”. The state of such research seems to be exactly where I left it 30 years ago; largely hit and miss. Clinical trials have a wee bit of success with some people, no effect on others, and deleterious effects with others. To my mind, the research stagnated because it was largely the domain of folks who understood much about neurochemistry, but precious little about how memory actually *works* when humans are the ones remembering. “Mind” is poorly understood when approached as a machine, and that’s pretty much how many neuroscientists have approached it. I wish I wasn’t so doom and gloom, but I don’t often see much to give me hope and enthusiasm. Neuroscience needs a good dose of psychology to set it on the right track.

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