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Mind and BrainReview - Mind and Brain
A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience
by William R. Uttal
MIT Press, 2011
Review by Simone Marini
Sep 18th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 38)

William Uttal's book, Mind and Brain, provides a critical analysis and in-depth discussion of the role that in the last twenty years brain imaging techniques have played in cognitive neuroscience. More specifically, Uttal's survey focuses on the contribution of the new scanning technologies toward an understanding of the neural correlates of cognitive processes. The book's central claim is that imaging methodologies, compared to traditional behavioral measurements, are driving research on the neurophysiological basis of human cognition in the wrong direction. Furthermore, they are harming the more promising experimental work in cognitive psychology by attracting most of the funding available.

Uttal argues his theses by setting out to show that brain imaging studies do not achieve what they intend to and by suggesting that they actually undermine the fundamental ontological and epistemological assumptions of current neuroscientific research. Thus, the main aim of the book is not merely a critical survey of behavioral and neuroscience research in key areas such as sensation (chapter 2), perception (chapter 3), emotion (chapter 4), learning and memory (chapter 5), attention (chapter 6), and first-person awareness and higher cognitive processes more generally (chapter 7), as well as an evaluation of medical and practical applications of imaging techniques (chapter 8). Rather, Uttal's main achievement is a systematic attempt to argue from an empirical standpoint for a radical reformulation of the conceptual building blocks of cognitive neuroscience (chapter 9). He suggests in particular that the application of brain imaging devices to the enterprise of cognitive neuroscience yields results that undermine the current paradigm of the mind/brain relationship—despite the fact that they were originally employed to support it.

Uttal's criticism rests on the premise that cognitive neurophysiology research is ultimately based on conceptualized models of the brain and its functions rather than empirically testable theories. Such an intrinsic limitation of cognitive neuroscience is essentially due to the extreme complexity of the brain, which has so far prevented to develop a detailed account of the neural correlates of mental processes. The current model of neurofunctional organization has dominated the history of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, stretching back to Hippocrates's theory of bodily humors. Its fundamental ontological assumption is that the brain is divided into regions that are anatomically and functionally distinct from each other. A corollary of this view is that each brain region represents the unique neural correlate of a specific cognitive function. Within this theoretical framework, the research technologies employed (from inducted brain lesions to contemporary fMRI equipment) carry out the epistemological task of mapping mental activity onto brain regions. 

Mental and brain modularity, however, has not been confirmed either by behavioral research or the application of imaging devices to medical science. The latter in particular have proved extremely useful in the study of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, but have produced no reliable and robust results with respect to the identification of the biomarkers for cognitive activity. Furthermore, Uttal stresses that it is very unlikely that imaging technologies will be able to achieve their goal in the future. They provide global measurements of neural activity, whereas the neurophysiology of cognitive processes seems to be instantiated at the level of the extremely complex neuronal interactions (that is, interactions between individual neurons), which are not recorded by brain imaging devices.

Uttal's overview of neuroimaging studies does not merely suggest that they fail to improve upon pre-neuroscience scientific research. As mentioned above, his stronger claim is that they positively undermine the current model of mind/brain interaction. In particular, imaging findings show widely distributed brain activation for virtually all cognitive processes. This fact alone disconfirms the central core of the locationist metaphor, namely the idea that there are fixed, stable and distinct parts of the brain that are selectively responsible for our mental activities. In sum, according to Uttal the project of employing imaging devices to solve the mind/brain problem is doomed for two reasons. First, because it works at the wrong level of analysis; and secondly, because it is based on the wrong conceptual model.

The outcome of Uttal's analysis is that the metaphor currently guiding neuroscientific research is seriously inadequate and should be replaced with a new paradigm of the mind/brain relationship, largely based on Donald Hebb's neural networks model first introduced in the late 1940s. What is worth stressing here is that, for the first time in the history of psychology and neuroscience such a model is not formulated merely on wild speculation, but also on empirical data gathered through behavioral studies and more recent neuroimaging research. More specifically, the new paradigm for the macroscopic organization of the brain advanced in the book is based on the following assumptions: (1) broad neural activation elicited by cognitive tasks in a broad range of experimental conditions and methodological parameters; (2) complex interconnections between and among most brain regions; (3) activation of most (if not all) brain areas in multiple cognitive functions; (4) overlapping of neural processing nodes and brain areas with no clear boundaries, serving a multitude of cognitive functions; (5) differential brain activation patterns recorded in comparable experimental procedures, depending on the method and techniques employed; and (6) assignment of cognitive roles to particular neural substrates as not exclusively driven by genetic selection, given the capacity of the brain to recruit new regions in order to restore cognitive functions after injury.

If the purpose of cognitive neuroscience is to rigidly assign brain areas to specific cognitive functions, it follows from these generalizations of neuroimaging results that the more data we collect the further we are from identifying specific functional localizations. Furthermore, an increasing number of meta-analyses of structural imaging findings point against a modular organization of brain functions. Cognitive neuroscience should thus give up modularity and adopt a model based on wide neural activation, which was initially formulated on purely behavioral experiments. More generally, Uttal contends that a purely psychological approach based on behavioral measurements should ultimately prevail over the current emphasis on imaging techniques. 

Uttal's radical proposal is not unproblematic and uncontroversial, especially considered in the context of his unargued (and purportedly unarguable) assumptions that: (i) a scientific understanding of the neural correlates of cognition should be grounded in the microscopic network of neural interactions rather than at the level of the macroscopic neural activations recorded by imaging devices; and (ii) the extreme complexity of single-neuron dynamics is unanalyzable, thus making the mind/brain problem ultimately unsolvable. In addition to these presuppositions, the type of behavioral information provided for instance by the study of neuronal cells on the microelectrode array overlooks the molar measurement of their interactions, which is an essential feature of the widely distributed networks hypothesis Uttal defends.

Regardless of whether the new paradigm is preferable to the current neuroscientific model, Uttal's critical assessment of the last twenty years of imaging findings offers a refreshing treatment of the hype surrounding neuroimaging methods that will undoubtedly benefit neuroscience research and philosophical accounts of the mind/brain problem.

 

© 2012 Simone Marini

 

Simone Marini, UCD School of Philosophy - simmarini@gmail.com


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