The Frontal Cortex

The Value of Neuroscience

A reader asks:

What’s the hardest question you’ve gotten about the new book? Is there one you were totally unprepared to answer?

This is a slightly embarrassing confession, but one of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked is also one of the most obvious. It goes something like this:

“What practical knowledge have we gained by looking at decision-making in the brain that we didn’t already have, either through introspection or behavioral studies?”

When I was first asked this question, I think I muttered something about the virtue of curiosity, breaking open the black box and fulfilling that ancient dictum “know thyself”. In other words, I completely avoided the query, like a slippery politician. While I think those are all valid motivations for neuroscience – there is something epic about trying to understand the three pounds of gelatinous flesh inside the skull – they also aren’t particularly practical.

And I think it’s also worth pointing out (as I have before) that a tremendous amount of modern neuroscientific ideas have been presciently anticipated by everyone from David Hume to William James to Aristotle to Virginia Woolf. This shouldn’t be too surprising – introspection is a powerful investigative tool. David Hume, for instance, summarizes an awful lot of recent work on the importance of emotional signals during decision-making with this famous line: “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

So what’s the added benefit of neuroscientific explanations? If Hume was right, and James was such a genius, and we can learn so much from “mere” behavioral studies, then why bother with the amygdala or dopamine?

The best answer, I think, is that learning about the brain can help constrain our theories. We haven’t decoded the cortex or solved human nature – we’re not even close – but we can begin to narrow the space of possible theories. We know, for instance, that the rational agent model of Homo Economicus isn’t particularly accurate, at least from the perspective of the brain, and that the deliberative prefrontal cortex is often out-shouted by emotional brain areas like the nucleus accumbens, insula, etc. This supports, of course, lots of observational studies that demonstrate that people rarely rely on explicit calculations of utility (or explicit calculations of anything, really) when making decisions. The anatomical details, in other words, can help settle the argument.

Now this might seem rather underwhelming – all those pretty fMRI pictures just constrain our pre-existing theories? – but I actually think it’s rather essential. Consider Freud. The man had an uncanny talent for inventing elegant theories. He was a hypothesis machine, churning out one fantastic sounding idea after another. But which of these ideas are true?

Here’s where neuroscience comes to the rescue. I think time and experiments have redeemed some of Freud’s fundamental theories – the unconscious drives much of our behavior, dreams aren’t random narratives, but actually regurgitate scenes and snippets from daily life, etc. – while other Freudian theories have largely fallen flat (your Mom probably isn’t responsible for most of your neuroses). We can take something as vague as the id and began shackling it to particular brain regions, like the aforementioned amygdala. (The prefrontal cortex is some fusion of the ego and super-ego.) By recording from hippocampal cells in the rat, scientists can begin to decode the function of dreams, and see how they’re a crucial component of memory consolidation. And so on. The point is that, while all of Freud’s theories might sound convincing, only a few of them are actually correct. In this sense, neuroscience is what helps us separate the beautiful theory from the definite truth.

How would you answer the question?


  1. #1 Anibal
    March 12, 2009

    Just like you?
    Nice anecdote about the meeting with your audience during your booktour.

  2. #2 Sam C
    March 12, 2009

    Can’t your final paragraph answering the question be pretty much summarised in one word: objectivity.

    If one reliably identifies a neural correlate for some important characteristic (anxiety, depression, attention, recognition), then it becomes possible to measure it objectively rather than relying on external estimates (e.g. of reaction time) or introspections (questionnaires etc.).

    Of course, there is the problem that the neural correlate is not in itself necessarily interesting so it’s important to be aware of the danger of focussing on a surrogate measurement. I’m reminded of the medication for high blood pressure that has been withdrawn from general use in the UK because it treated high blood pressure effectively but failed to have any impact on the conditions associated with high blood pressure that are the main issue.

    But of course, the main reasons for studying the brain are that it’s interesting in its own right, and that it’s a complex organ of which we know (in an academic sense) too little.

    Of course, in reality we know a lot. My brain built itself from almost nothing. Shame it doesn’t have that information in the cerebral cortex!

  3. #3 sam k
    March 12, 2009

    Introspection and behavioral studies have been quite good and answering “what” but fail to answer “why”. Neuroscience is beginning to deal with the latter.
    Just as early astronomers were remarkably effective at predicting the motions of the heavens well before Newton and Kepler, early psychology was effective at observation and prediction, but only on a limited basis. Anyone who predicts that theory-driven neuroscience will not reveal anything important about the human mind holds company with those who predicted that Newton’s theories would have no real effect on our understanding of the cosmos.

  4. #4 Mr_G
    March 12, 2009

    Freud’s “theories” are one of the greatest embarrassments to science. That theyy were given credibility is disgraceful and undermines amy claim thqt science is “evidence based”

    Neuroscience bears stiking resemblances to phrenology. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to cite benefits.

  5. #5 Laura Lewis-Barr
    March 12, 2009

    Great post. Still, as one who loves brain science but also values “intuitive knowledge,” I wouldn’t feel the need to justify neuroscience because it “proves” theories. Brain studies seem beautiful to me, just like the study of galaxies. If we find a place in the brain for Jung’s archetypes (he’s my favorite theorist), that’s fascinating, but it won’t “prove” the theory to me since I’m already pretty attached to it. Guess that confirms I’m not very scientific in my approach but, as you write, humans are emotional first, rational later.

  6. #6 SteveG
    March 12, 2009

    I think this question is like asking “what’s the use of a microscope or telescope?” The value is in the extended range of observation. NS is a set of tools and techniques for looking into brain activity while we think, so it gives us access to another level of analysis, and all the value flows from there.

    I don’t buy the “we knew it all before” argument. That’s usually just post facto rationalization … sure somebody said something in the past that agreed with a NS finding today, but somebody else probably also said the opposite, and how could we choose? Not to be too Popperian, but we need tools to enable falsification if understanding is to progress, as opposed to just fluctuate back and forth based on fashion and current popularity.

    NS gives us access to both independent and dependent variables that were/are invisible to us using traditional self-reporting techniques (aka asking people stuff). Things like unconscious priming, incidental exposure, and processing fluency affect things like pre-attentional alerting, implicit emotional tagging and memory facilitation / inhibition. And those things affect decisions in ways that would be opaque to us if we didn’t have these tools.

    It’s all about filling in the causal chain from raw sensory input to action. And there will be surprises, guaranteed.

  7. #7 Luci
    March 12, 2009

    How do we decide between neuroscience and other arts and sciences that guide our understanding of those 3 pound blobs? We don’t have to. As theories and discoveries overlap, expand on, contradict and puzzle us, we get to mix the Cheerios and enjoy the latest from PubMed along with Woolf and James, as we enjoy reading along with music or watching online video of Jonah.
    Keen observation is a first step in both science and effective fiction. The further steps involving the expression of the ideas generated and ways to test them vary depending on the discipline.
    We’ll need all the tools and techniques those three pounds can devise to even begin to figure out how a stray glimpse or note or whiff can evolve into a great work of art.

  8. #8 BobbyG
    March 12, 2009

    Well, this stuff seems to provide neurobiological support for the “behaviorist” models such as “operant conditioning.” I know that the Skinnerians have been kicked down the basement stairs at Harvard by the ascendent “cognitivists,” but your work gives pause.

  9. #9 Burt
    March 12, 2009

    Neuroscience’s reductionistic approach to brain study using fMRI and other mechanistic methodologies, is equivalent to trying to deduce a television program’s contents from analyzing the resistors, capacitors, transistors and PCBs which make up the receiver/picture generating circuitry while having no concept of the transmitter/receiver symbiosis, much less the transmission’s content.

    Through careful analysis of the TV’s components, one can deduce that light can be emitted in a raster of infinite patterns from a CRT and that the potential capacity for information transfer exists, but the patterns have no meaning sans intentional arrangement (program transmission) which was generated externally to and displayed by the translation mechanism (circuits/components) in a manner that can be understood via consciousness to create meaning through one’s perception.

    Brains are the transmitter/receiver (translator) for the mind (intention/consciousness) which is the TV program and while the arrangements of its components (neural networks, blood supply, hormones, tumors, and BELIEFS etc.) may alter the mental content and its creations (information/emotions/experiences), it is not responsible for our consciousness or intentions.

    Our consciousness/minds translated by our brains, into thoughts/actions, are responsible for our intentions, creations, and experience which is fed back into the brain where it is translated for the mind to ponder.

    Of course if one believes that consciousness is an emergent property (currently en vogue) due to a brain’s complexity or that mind is an epiphenomenon, then reductionism is still problematic in that it will fragment the holistic gestalt that is mind/body – similar to vivisection or killing living organisms to discover the nature of LIFE.

    @sam k – Introspection is more apt to deduce “Why” than “What”. Neuroscience may be useful to stimulate introspection, but as I opined above, reductionism is a blind alley, no matter how sophisticated the technique, or new devices/inventions, the interior cosmos will be revealed through induction and like Edison, what we discover does not illuminate this undertaking.

  10. #10 Katrina
    March 12, 2009

    Clearly, some studies of brain function, in particular selected functional imaging studies, have greater entertainment value than practical value. That’s one reason why it’s important for the public to have at least some basic knowledge of science and the scientific process. It facilitates a healthy skepticism and promotes questions like: “Why is this study being done?” and “Do these results make any sense?”

  11. #11 OftenWrongTed
    March 13, 2009

    Neuroscience has lead us to practical knowledge which is improving our ability to look forward as well as to be able to look backward, and in so doing, reducing the very human tendency towards self-delusion. The failure of this is illustrated by the character Funes, in Funes the Memorious, by Jorge Luis Borges.

  12. #12 Anonymous
    March 13, 2009

    Robert A. Heinlein said. “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” Recent discoveries as noted in Jonah’s book reinforces that quote.

    I have never seen a conflict between science and faith. If you believe in God as well as science, you will find that scientific discoveries only reinforce your belief. If you believe otherwise, you can use reasoning to support your belief.

    By putting doctine aside, I believe that a number of people are actually Christians without realizing it and a number of people who think that they are Christian are otherwise. If you really examine Christ’s own words, you will find that he said nothing regarding any group, creed, faith, race or any other category. He understood quite well the flaws that are inherent in generalization. Aristotle struggled mightily with this concept. But, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said “No generalization is worth a damn, including this one.” Christ’s only lesson was about how we treat each other and they can be summed up in two passages.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    Matthew 5:43-48

    When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
    Matthew 22:34-40

  13. #13 jb
    March 13, 2009

    How would I answer the question? Well, given that the human race has persisted for as long as it has by making the right decisions this would seem a very important skill, individually and collectively. And given that some people are born with brain defects, or get diseases or have accidents that damage the brain/mind, so that skillful decision making is not possible, one would want to be able to fix that. This is why I would do neuroscience, to do the mechanical repairs.
    Of course there are a lot of repairs that aren’t mechanical
    which is why I am a life long student of the changes to the brain/mind that can be done without ‘lifting the hood’. One
    can change the brain/mind of oneself and others very profoundly without getting under the hood. That this is so is one of the great mysteries of life. For other mysteries that science hasn’t gotten to, check out Rachel Naomi Remen, MD’s “The Will To Live”, a 2CD set of talks about her ‘repair work’ with burned out docs and other patients.

  14. #14 Kateryna
    March 13, 2009

    I am particularly excited about the current investigation of mirror neurons and the role they seem to play in empathy.

  15. #15 JS
    March 13, 2009

    I’m working in an applied human factors laboratory using so-called “neuroergonomics” to inform system design. If we ever actually pull using brain data to assess the cognitive and/or emotional stressors different systems put on people, and/or leverage that data to rearrange displays or increase information throughput, I’ll finally have an answer. Which has been plaguing me ever since mid-graduate school … “it’s cool” is still about the best I can up with, otherwise …

  16. #16 John Patrick
    March 13, 2009

    How about better aiming/designing therapeutic pharmacologic agents? Any neuropharmacologists around?

  17. #17 casey jane
    March 13, 2009

    As i see it, introspection and observation are facets of the scientific process that help produce hypotheses. Closer observation and testing (fMRI, ect) helps reject/verify these hypotheses.

    We can come up with a theory of why something works, but if we cannot verify it with all our available scientific tools (including both behavioral and fMRI experiments), then it should be rejected. That’s the beauty of having new tools is that, as you said, our world can be more closely or just differently observed and theories can be more finely tuned. This happens for any science with any advancement in technology, and begets scientific progress.

  18. #18 fert
    March 13, 2009

    It’s funny that no one ever asks why scientists study the heart and its functions. Possibly because of heart attacks and other such diseases… So I think another answer to why we study neuroscience is that there are a lot of people who suffer from a variety of diseases that affect the brain. I mean, just in relation to the title of your new book, drug addiction, ADHD, obesity, why some Parkinson’s patients become pathological gamblers, etc have been looked at as (at least partially) aberrations in one’s decision-making processes.

  19. #19 JB
    March 13, 2009

    First, thanks for two wonderful books. Second, as an educator fasinated by the application of neuroscience to education a question I am always asked when I give supporting neuroscience evidence for a learning principle is “Didn’t we always know that?” Yes, but we didn’t know why? In essence brain science is the revealing of the magic trick. It’s the “Ahhhhh…so that’s why!” It also offers itself to new and unique applications. Finally, W. James was brillant in insight. So was Freud, he provided an intuitive theorectical structure whose greatest promise lay in all the work of those who would see it empiracally destroyed.

  20. #20 albedo
    March 14, 2009

    It’s not been too long ago when introspection and thus the subjective or personal perspective was frowned upon as scientifically useless and unscientific because it’s lacking “objectivity”.
    But what use is talking about emotion or any personal experience without taking the personal perspective of each individual into account? Talking about the mechanisms of emotion and their function is only half of what is to know. Experiencing emotions and knowing how they feel is the other half that is as important to get insight into the workings of emotions.

    I’m not a neuroscientist but reading Damasio’s books confirmed what I and a lot of far wiser people before me have thought about this subjective=unscientific argument.

  21. #21 Sam K.
    March 14, 2009

    I think the other Sam K. (#3) is probably closest to how I would answer this (I don’t *think* that was me). I think it really strikes at the core of what scientific enterprise is all about. Science seeks to provide more than just descriptions of what happens, but also explanations. Behavioral studies can come up with scientific laws*, i.e. descriptions of what happens, but you need to look deeper to come up with a scientific theory that can make good predictions; and ultimately that’s what science is about– and I appreciate this view is largly Popperian in nature– creating specific universal statements (laws) based on proposed mechanisms (theories) that can be [relatively easily] translated into falsifying experiments. Without NS (i.e. just behavioral studies), this becomes much more difficult to do, since you don’t have access to the parts of the brain that might inspire the mechanisms from which your predictions are made.

    However, I disagree with #3 about the analogy to Newton. I think the early astronomers are like psychologists that don’t do rigorous studies and Newton is a behavioral scientist. Newton studied the relationships and interactions of matter and came up with absolutely brilliant descriptions of what happens, in a very rigorous fashion. However, while some first principles are expressed in the motivation of Newton’s laws, they are few and far between. On the other hand, I think that many 20th century theories do a much better job of explaining why things happen. I think this is evinced by the fact that Newton’s laws don’t predict much outside their immediate sphere of influence– i.e. they don’t really predict anything that hasn’t already been observed. Granted, Newton’s laws deal much more with the scale of things that are regularly observed, but that’s exactly the point– they describe what we see but don’t provide underlying explanations for why they happen that allows to predict behavior outside of the observable. Most 20th century theories, on the other hand, generally are able (due to their higher degree of explanatory power) to make predictions of the yet unobserved.

    That’s the difference between neuroscience and behavioral studies: NS has the potential to predict things we haven’t yet observed.

    *Note: laws don’t have to be absolute; they can certainly be probabilistic in nature– that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no strict (deductive) relationships involved.

  22. #22 Martha Farag
    March 14, 2009

    I was going to say the same thing as comment #18. Why do doctors exist? To heal the sick. Neuroscientists study the brain for the same reason.

  23. #23 anonymous coward
    March 16, 2009

    somehow i think that the dreams of lab rats are mostly going to be nightmares.

  24. #24 Michelle Greene
    March 21, 2009

    The argument is a level-of-explanations argument. The question was hard to answer because it is true that most of the information this man could use for better decision making that is in the book can come from a psychology-based explanation, and the neuroscience is a little irrelevant. Put simply, if he read your book to know how to make better decisions, he can do something about the behavior easily, but not so much the dopamine system. This type of reader is very practical, so I would answer about the pragmatics of neuroscience: that elucidating neural circuits involved in decision making gives insights into helping certain patient populations (lots in the book about this), that it can help AI systems to act more human (good for possible computer-based poker playing in the future), etc.

  25. #25 Kendall Hoff
    February 9, 2010

    This is all great for understanding the healthy brain, but I believe neuroscience has also given us wonderful explanations of and treatments for diseases that cannot be ignored. To site briefly, Parkinson’s and dopamine and the substantia nigra and subthalamic nucleus. What about better treatment for stroke victims or patients with spinal cord injuries? Such cannot be explained by introspection or behavioralism alone. Demyelinating syndromes such as MS or Guillain-Barre can only be explained and diagnosed and treated with understandings of the molecular nature of the disease, such as the models of molecular mimicry we now abide by. If the mind is an emergent function of the brain, as most of the scientific community now accepts, affective disorders too must be understood at a molecular level.

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    I am particularly excited about the current investigation of mirror neurons and the role they seem to play in empathy.

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  29. I agree that the best way of describing this is “objectivity”. To accurately measure certain states of mind where we previously have had to rely only on external signals or manifestations, would be a gigantic step forward!

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