Brainstorms: Emory and the Changing
Climate of Neuroscience
and Science: Closer
Than You Think
--Sidney Perkowitz and
Juliette S. Apkarian
Academic psychology has developed
on the widespread assumption that the methods successful in the
natural sciences (paradigmatically, physics) are applicable in
psychology. The announcement of a $20-million National Science
Foundation grant to fund a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience
(CBN) at Emory ("Brainstorms," Academic Exchange,
February/March 2000) will no doubt be celebrated by many as a
major step in this development.
But alongside considerable scientific sophistication, I suspect
that conceptual confusion resides in the culture and goals of
the CBN. In this essay, I examine how René Descartes'
seventeenth-century conception of the mind continues to entrap
psychology since it left philosophy's armchair to become an experimental
science. For although psychology roundly rejects Descartes' ontological
solipsism, it continues to inquire after the nature of emotion
and cognition as though these phenomena can be accounted for
without the cultural context of thought, feeling, and behavior.
The conceptual parameters of CBN's research program fit within
this methodological tradition, and because of this, I submit,
its mission falls victim to what Ludwig Wittgenstein identified
as "experimental methods and conceptual confusion"
in psychology. "The existence of experimental methods,"
Wittgenstein wrote in Philosophical Investigations, "makes
us think we have the means of solving the problems which concern
us; though problem and method pass one another by."
According to the Exchange article, "In recent decades
. . . , scientific insight into the physiological roots of behavior
have altered . . . [the] intellectual climate drastically. .
. . Even love, fear, and memory--the accustomed stuff of humanistic
inquiry--are now being tracked in laboratories." Tom Insel,
the CBN's director, states in the article that the center's mission
will be "discovery based on experiments linking brain and
behavior." Insel also remarks, "We really are not going
to understand pain without taking a view from molecular changes
at a single-cell level up to the subjective experience of people."
Clearly, I believe, the strain of psychology these comments represent
bears the structure of Cartesian thought. For example, just as
Insel proposes to look at pain both as a physical phenomenon
and as a "subjective experience," Descartes postulated
a proximate connection between the pineal gland and subjective
experience. Now, while the post-behaviorist acknowledgment of
experience is welcome, what should be rejected is the accompanying
identification of experience with subjective, or inner, realitiesitems
typically postulated as either caused by or identical with brain
states and processes.
In Consilience, E.O. Wilson clearly outlines the global
of the mind that arises from such thinking: "Virtually all
contemporary scientists and philosophers expert on the subject
agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and rational
process, is the brain at work." At this point in research
on this conception, writes Wilson, "the fundamental properties
of the elements responsible for mindneurons, neuron transmitters,
and hormonesare reasonably well known. What is lacking is a sufficient
grasp of the emergent, holistic properties of the neuron circuits,
and of cognition, the way the circuits process information to
create perception and knowledge." I would argue, however,
that Wilson's "lacks" are due not to the relative immaturity
of the research program, as he suggests, but to what Wittgenstein
would diagnose as "problem and method [passing] one another
The troubling methodological assumption implicit in both Wilson's
remarks and the Academic Exchange article (and explicit
in the illustration accompanying it) is that psychology is the
study of an individual's capacities and behaviors from the point
of view of what goes on within the individual from the skin in.
Research based on this assumption theorizes as though fear, love,
belief, indeed, cognitive and intentional states generally, are
names identifying phenomena like water or lightning. That is,
they are items whose natures will one day yield to scientific
accounts, versus things like status, which are dependent upon
the nature of the world one inhabits.
But it is wrongheaded to think about such matters as love, fear,
and belief only in terms of the brain and body, as distinct from
relationships to the external world. Wilson's notion that knowledge
is one of the "emergent properties of the brain" illustrates
this well. For it is universally agreed that one cannot know
what is false. So the truth of, "Dr. Insel is the director
of the CBN" is required for the truth of, "I know that
Dr. Insel is the director of CBN." But the truth of the
former statement (which is required for this knowledge) is in
no way dependent upon (let alone guaranteed by) me or my states.
So there can be no such thing as a state of me (or my brain)
which constitutes knowing such a thing. This is not to say there
can be no such knowledge; rather, it is to say that knowledge,
like status and unlike water, "is not a something and not
a nothing, either" (to adapt a remark of Wittgenstein's
in Philosophical Investigations).
If research "linking brain and behavior" is to improve
our understanding of human action and emotion, then "behavior"
must include in its meaning external circumstances and their
significance to the subjects being studied. For if behavior only
means the play of facial expressions, gestures, and such, these
data will not yield a real account of action or emotion. In different
surroundings, the same gesture or movement will manifest very
different actions or feelings. As Charles Taylor notes in Human
Agency and Language, "acts and feelings are partly characterized
in terms of the thoughts, intentions, and ways of seeing of the
people concerned. . . . [We] have to understand the agent's vision
of things in order to know what he is doing: is he trying to
save face or is he really expressing indignation?"
Moreover, the significance of things for human beings is shot
through with culture and language. For example, contemporary
Americans cannot experience the pride of a Samurai warrior. Why?
We lack the words, of course, but more fundamentally, we lack
their "world": the web of customs and the institutions
in which their use was embedded and attendant conceptions and
feelings expressed. (I owe this example to Stephen Mulhall.)
I bring out these complexities in human emotion and action to
suggest that, contrary to Insel's implications in the Academic
Exchange, the "interpretive sciences" will have
a role in deepening our understanding of such matters. Indeed,
most of what interests us about the psychology of people has
diverse manifestations in life. Correspondingly, the words we
use for them--"arrogance," "anger," "love,"
"pride," "joy," "jealousy," "intelligence"--cover
widely scattered manifestations of life. There is nothing to
be abstracted from this multiplicity that is the essential nature
of these phenomena. Constructing such "essences," however,
will of course provide psychology with the kind of irrecusable
(and so replicable) data characteristic of natural science. But
the result will be precisely the converse of Insel's expressed
concern that the center's research not be "a mile wide and
an inch deep." If such wizened constructs gain currency
because they are backed by the prestige of science, there is
real danger that our understanding will be impoverished rather
than enriched as has arguably happened to the concept of intelligence.