Brain-Hate Link Roundup

There’s been some interesting bloggin’ on brain hate recently. Some notable entries:

There’s discussion here of some of Max Coltheart’s complaints about cognitive neuroscience. Quoted from p. 22 of Coltheart, M. (2004) (Brain imaging, connectionism and cognitive neuropsychology. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 2, 21-25.) is the following:

No amount of knowledge about the hardware of a computer will tell you anything serious about the nature of the software that the computer runs. In the same way, no facts about the activity of the brain could be used to confirm or refute some information-processing model of cognition.

Re: “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations” by Deena Skolnick Weisberg*, Frank C. Keil, Joshua Goodstein, Elizabeth Rawson,
& Jeremy R. Gray, there’s very nice discussion to be found here and here. Link to draft here.

From the article’s abstract:

Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

2 Responses to “Brain-Hate Link Roundup”

  1. Eric Thomson says:

    The second phenomenon is quite annoying. Just because some pretty colors on brains have been shown to accompany behavior X, that doesn’t mean that X has been explained.

    As for the first opinion, the neurophobia, I am surprised that still exists. Essentially for such folk the only data relevant for building a psychological theory is behavioral data, and that data will be sufficient to constrain the space of cognitive models consistent with the behavioral data. My question is, what is it about behavior that makes it so special when compared with other biological phenomena? For instance, why don’t we have people arguing that all we need is the inputs and outputs from the digestive system to understand the nutritive processing going on in an organism? Or the inputs and outputs of respiration to understand the respiratory processes? The complexity and sometimes surprising nature of the processing going on in all these cases (respiration, digestion, and behavior) seems to demand that we go under the hood to see what is going on. Not just to look at the meat, but to get the functional story right (Bechtel has a great case study with digestion of a guy in the 1800s developing a very detailed, but very wrong, functional decomposition of digestion based on studying the inputs and outputs of the digestive system).

    I’d like to see them explain the leech local bend response without recourse to neurons. Or, more to the point, I’d like to see them come up with the right information processing story without recourse to neurons. It cannot be done. But, for some reason, in systems orders of magnitude more complex, we’ll be able to get it right by ignoring the hardware, to get the right information-processing story by just looking at the system’s inputs and outputs.

    Sheesh. I can’t believe that used to be a popular view.

  2. Pete Mandik says:


    It would be fun, for purposes of parody, to see a non-neural explanation of leech local bend response. Perhaps it would utilize the vocabulary of folk psychology and explain the behavior in terms of the beliefs, desires, and intentions of the leech. Or perhaps some cognitive scientific jargon could be used postulating mental schema or frames or something.