The Frontal Cortex

Psychology and Neuroscience

Dave and Greta Munger have posted an excellent reply to the following question:

What’s the difference between psychology and neuroscience? Is psychology still relevant as we learn more about the brain and how it works?

You have to be a pretty staunch reductionist to believe that neuroscience makes psychology obsolete. After all, according to scientific materialism, neuroscience is ultimately just a subset of quantum mechanics. So should we all become physicists? Of course not. While our different levels of inquiry are obviously interconnected, they are also autonomous. As Dave points out, neuroscience and psychology really study separate phenomenon:

Human behavior itself is so complex that trying to understand it from an anatomical perspective alone simply doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t try to learn how use a complicated computer program like Adobe Photoshop by taking the computer apart, or even by analyzing the lines of its computer code. If all you want to do is remove the red-eye from junior’s Christmas portrait, all that stuff is irrelevant. And even if you want to understand the underlying computer system and programming, you still need to know what the software does.

That said, I do hope that the mental sciences of the future begin to dissolve the artificial distinction between “brain” and “behavior,” “software” and “hardware”. We now know that this distinction is simply a category error. The mind is the brain. Furthermore, we don’t experience this distinction. We don’t parcel our mental contents into “software” or “hardware,” or perceive any separation between our behavior and our brain. Our psychological experience is unitary, and so should any science trying to describe our psychological experience. The fact that we still find it necessary to divide our mental sciences into different categories should remind us how much we have left to learn.

I await the day when there is only one branch of mental science, and not an archipelago of fields and specialties. Only then will we have achieved what William James dreamt of: “a science of experience”.


  1. #1 Kurt
    April 5, 2007

    Since you mention a couple of older philosophers, I was wondering… So many books have been written on this subject in the past decade or so, like those by Chalmers, Dennett, Koch, etc., etc. Are there any of these more recent books that you particularly like or would recommend?

  2. #2 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    April 6, 2007

    Jerome Kagan’s An ARGUMENT for MIND
    “Embedded in Kagan’s discussions is a rejection of the current notion that a mature neuroscience will eventually replace psychology. He argues that a complete understanding of brain is not synonymous with a full explanation of mind….” from Yale University Press

    Jerome Kagan is professor of psychology emeritus, Harvard University. He was director of the Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard and is the author of numerous books, including Birth to Maturity, published by Yale University Press.

    In this elegantly written book, Jerome Kagan melds the history of the field of psychology during the past 50 years with the story of his own research efforts of the same period and an analysis of what he terms “the currently rocky romance between psychology and biology.” As Kagan unwinds his own history, he reveals the seminal events that have shaped his career and discusses how his assumptions have changed. With full appreciation for the contributions to psychology of history, philosophy, literature, and neuroscience, he approaches a wide range of fascinating topics, including:

    · the abandonment of orthodox forms of behaviorism and psychoanalysis

    · the forces that inspired later-twentieth-century curiosity about young children

    · why B. F. Skinner chose to study psychology

    · why the study of science less often ignites imaginations today

    · our society’s obsession with erotic love

    · the resurgence of religious fanaticism and the religious Right

    Embedded in Kagan’s discussions is a rejection of the current notion that a mature neuroscience will eventually replace psychology. He argues that a complete understanding of brain is not synonymous with a full explanation of mind, and he concludes with a brief prediction of the next five decades in the field of psychology.

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