The phrenologists are all dead, but their torch is yet carried. When they drew lines on the human skull separating this mental faculty from that one – cautiousness, acquisitiveness, sight, wit – they were continuing a long line of flawed enquiry into the brain and mind which still dominates the field today.
REDUCTION OF THE MIND
When confronted with the problem of the mind, human beings often attempt explanation by rendering mundane its various components, and in doing so hope to solve the mystery of its structure. From the earliest philosophers, to the phrenologists, through to the behaviourists and the modern cognitive neuroscientists, this battery of reduction has tried to make a breech in the mind’s defences to no avail. It remains horrifyingly unified, despite all attempts at reductive analysis.
Psychologists often attempt to study the mind by reducing it to smaller functional components. Pre-psychology these components of the mind were often called faculties; today they are often called mental processes. The terms are interchangeable. Mental processes themselves are the various observed abilities of the mind – attention, memory, perception, learning, problem solving, and so on.
Typically, psychologists attempt to infer the nature of mental processes from experimental data that examines behaviour. Mental processes are in the process of experimentation asserted to be quantifiable things produce behaviour. The logical leap here is quite profound, but utterly pervades the field. Based on observations of behaviour (reaction times, percent of responses correct, responses to a questionnaire, brain activity, or more esoteric social measures) underlying mental processes are described and defined.
The Myth of Mental Processes
In The New Phrenology, William Uttal argues that psychologists are creating divisions where there may be none, based on mostly arbitrary criteria. In dividing the processes of the brain up in such a way, we are assuming that such division is not only possible, but that the function and structure of these mental entities is therefore knowable.
Uttal makes the argument that the reason nobody has ever comprehensively described the processes of the mind is that these processes don’t exist, or at least have not ever been proven to. What we are observing are the properties of mind, rather than separate mental entities that can be described by what behaviours they cause. Trying to distinguish a mental process from the mind is, he says, like trying to separate the whiteness of a golf ball from the golf ball itself. Its property of whiteness cannot be subtracted from the thing itself.
The Struggle for Definition
Worse still than the reification of mental processes, no unified or stable taxonomy of mental processes has ever been established, nor does one seem forthcoming. Mental processes are constantly renamed, reshaped, deleted, invented and combined.
Uttal provides a brief list of mental processes currently under discussion in psychological research, including: “semantic information processing”, “short-term memory storage”, “executive processes”, “sensory learning”, “temporal and spatial context memory”, “mathematical thinking”, “visual memories”, “face perception”, “conceptual knowledge”, “working memory”, “verbal working memory”, “pleasant and unpleasant emotions”, and “anticipation of pain”. These impressive sounding names disguise the transient and improvised nature of these terms.
Some, like executive processes, have remained in vogue for just under a generation. Most are invented ad-hoc – sensory learning, conceptual knowledge, working memory – to describe and faux-explain behaviour, and fall out of favour after a short time if they ever catch on. Already some of the more recent and best known terms like short and long term memory are vanishing from the lexicon of psychologists.
Uttal further reinforces the point by providing several taxonomies of mental
processes from various theoretical eras. A simple comparison shows how each list is almost utterly alien to the ones produced before and after it. Each generation erases the one that came before it, and nothing is gained or passed on. Our singular inability over centuries of philosophy and science to provide a credible description of the contents of the mind raises doubts about the possibility of ever doing so, and certainly casts doubt on the ever-shifting taxonomy developed by modern researchers.
The reason why no progress has been made towards proper taxonomy of mental processes is that nobody has ever been able to establish or agree for any sustained period on which ones exist. This is primarily because nobody has any valid means of establishing what processes exist in the brain, or if they even can be teased out from one another.
The experimental psychologist E.G. Boring once famously said that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure”. This sentiment could be extended to the field more generally– “mental processes are whatever research measures”.
But psychology doesn’t stop at merely attempting to name and describe the components of the mind. The cutting edge of psychological science is a field called cognitive neuroscience, which attempts to localise mental constructs within discrete physical modules within the brain. Before jumping into this discussion, some background is required.
Fig. 1. Typical Rhizzoner brain anatomy. Note the enlarged Hitler Lobe.
Based on the assumption that the mind could be broken down into constituent parts, the phrenologists of the early 1800s sought to find physical evidence of these parts, localise them, and relate them to behaviour. They followed in the footsteps of philosophers of antiquity and the middle ages who had also sought to develop a comprehensive taxonomy of mental faculties and then locate these faculties in the “organ of the mind”.
Today phrenology is mostly criticised for its lack of scientific rigor when it came to its assumption that a physically larger brain region (observed in the shape of the skull) indicated greater functioning in that region. Mostly ignored or even praised are the other assumptions its investigations abided by. Specifically, phrenologists assumed that
1. The mind can be reduced to a series of mental faculties
2. Localised brain regions are the substrates of mental faculties
Due to these assumptions, phrenology is often credited as stating the case for modern cognitive neuroscience, which wholeheartedly embraces these ideas. I would not disagree.
Why are these assumptions troubling? Intuitively they appeal to virtually everyone who considers the problem, but further examination raises many questions. As previously discussed, the first assumption is scientifically spurious to say the least, and leads to an unjustified reductionist explanation of the mind.
The second assumption is no better. Undoubtedly the brain is the physical substrate of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, but the phrenologists took things a crucial step further. They believed that these faculties or processes must be produced somewhere – if we could find where, we would understand how the mind maps onto the physical activity of the brain, and understand the organisation and structure of the mind.
It is easy to see how one assumption leads to another almost inexorably. Take away the first, and the second seems ludicrous – how can we divide the brain if we cannot divide the mind? The psychology of later years would regardless continue to attempt a reduction into parts of the mind, and then associate these parts with brain regions with mixed success.
In the middle of the 20th century, the dominant paradigm in psychology was behaviourism. Behaviourism sought to completely negate the intrusion of the brain into the study of psychology, and eschewed study of mental activity, considering not just the mind but also the brain unanalysable. It instead wished to study behaviour, which was considered the only truly scientific measure in psychology, since it was not hypothetical or inferred but directly observed.
Notably, behaviourism postulated that the basis of all behaviour originates from learned responses to stimuli, and that outside making these associations the brain does very little. That is, beyond a few reflexive and very basic a priori behaviours imprinted biologically, everything we do, say, think, is the result of associations we make between behaviours and stimuli. Its disciples reduced the brain and mind to a series of reflexive associations, completely abandoning an attempt at substantial explanation of the mind, and developing a profoundly reductionist account of all human behaviour.
We can see in behaviourism an understandable reaction against the endless formulation of lists of mental processes, an activity that had endured and even prospered after the disbanding of phrenology. Behavioural psychology, in a rare move, retreated from this activity, considering it profoundly unscientific, but erred in its own interpretation of the brain and mind. While it eschewed the likely fictional mental entities described by most preceding psychology, it introduced its own radically reductionist approach to science into psychology.
THE COGNITIVE ‘REVOLUTION’
The fatal assumption of behaviourism was that mental processes were considered irrelevant to experimental psychology. This assumption was the one eventually seized on by the new wave of anti-behaviourists, who soon coalesced into the cognitive psychologists.
Cognitive psychology emerged out of a self-styled “cognitive revolution”, and focussed itself on the study of cognition. Cognition simply refers to the activity of mental processes. This new paradigm was unsatisfied with the reduction of human psychology to mere external behaviour, arguing that a description of what behaviour went on in the mind between stimulus and response was required to properly understand the mind. Doing this would, as you can no doubt guess, require developing a comprehensive list of these mental processes through scientific investigation.
Cognitive psychology did not shed, but rather embraced behaviourisms focus on behaviour as the only reliable method of investigating the mind. The only difference was that cognitivists would not correlate behaviour with stimulus-response conditions, but rather with mental processes.
Out of cognitivism was born cognitive neuroscience, the marriage of cognitivism’s preoccupation with correlating mental processes and behaviour, and the anatomical concerns of neuroscience. We are most of us quite familiar with the results and ideology of cognitive neuroscience, since it pervades the popular understanding of the mind and brain. Modern research technologies are supposedly bringing us closer and closer to an understanding of ourselves. Developments in imaging technologies allow us to see into the brain as it acts, and studies finding correlations between thousands upon thousands of newly minted mental processes and neural activity are on the cutting edge of research. Every day the public hears astounding reports from these scientists, and buy their astounding books. New brain regions are constantly being discovered; their functions at last apparently understood. The hidden storerooms of memory, thought, personality, love, even religious ecstasy are definitively located in small and innocuous little corners within the wrinkled folds of the brain.
What exactly does cognitive neuroscience do when it examines the brain? Let us briefly examine the brain and the techniques used to measure its activity.
Brains are made of a kind of cell called neurons, cells similar in function to the nerve cells found all throughout the body. Neurons are capable of transmitting electrical signals to one another. The brain consists of billions of intricately interconnected neurons, each of which has many connections to the neurons surrounding it. Arms called axons and dendrites branch out from the surface of the neuron to connect it to its neighbours at a small receptive gap called a synapse. The activity of the brain is based on billions upon billions of these simple, but collectively extremely complex interactions.
Technology and techniques for studying the brain
Naturally, scientists have sought to measure the activity of the brain in the hopes of understanding it, though until recently these methods have been constrained by technology. One of the earliest technologies, still widely used today, is the electroencephalogram (EEG). These devices can measure electrical activity in the brain via electrodes placed on the outside of the skull, summarising millions of neurons’ activity into a waveform of amplitude.
More recently, and more relevant to a criticism of contemporary psychology, psychologists have gained access to advanced scanning technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. The physics behind the MRI is complex, and it suffices to say that MRIs can generate a real-time, high resolution, three dimensional image of the human body at virtually no risk to the person being scanned. The medical and research potential of such a scan is of huge significance, and the MRI is probably one of the greatest breakthroughs in medical history. Unsurprisingly, psychologists have been keen to apply this technique to their own field, leading to the development of the functional MRI, or fMRI. FMRI techniques measure blood flow to regions of the brain as an indicator of neural activity, since neurons need oxygen and energy to operate, and blood supplies oxygen and energy.
THE NEW PHRENOLOGY
It is a match made in heaven. A field fixated on reduction of the mind into subcomponents, and a device able to correlate activity in the brain with whatever mental processes one desires. At last, psychologists had found a technique for fulfilling the promise of phrenology. The result has been an explosion of correlational research that claims to find the physical substrates, or “modules” that originate every mental process.
The first problem with this approach relates back to earlier in this discussion. If we contest the existence of separable mental processes, then the whole enterprise is rendered useless. If there are no mental processes, then correlating them with physical activity is clearly pointless, and what we are observing is noise that cannot be so easily labelled or subdivided into localised functioning.
Yet researchers point to the neural activity in regions of the brain during different cognitive tasks or behaviours, and claim that this activity is correlated with, and therefore the physical substrate of, whatever mental process is under investigation. For example, during tasks requiring self-control, inhibition, or decision making, greater activity is typically measured in the frontal lobe of the brain. Hence, the frontal lobe is almost universally believed to be substrate of the high level “executive functions” that produce behaviours of decision making and inhibition. The reasoning could not be more crude, and rely on more flimsy assumptions. How can we be so sure that activation in a brain region indicates that the observed behaviour is being generated there? This assumes that the brain is so simple a device that greater activity over a large area indicates the process is occurring in that activated area. It could just as easily be argued that brain activity during behaviour could be acting as a remote control, or an inhibitor, or an unrelated flourish, or virtually any other possible explanation. Likely none of these are correct – the best and most honest answer any scientist can give is that we simply do not know enough about the brain to so confidently assume that localised neural activity can be correlated with any specific mental process or behaviour.
Just as serious are the criticisms of the scientific rigour and reliability of cognitive neuroscience. In another work, Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: a Meta-Meta Analysis, Uttal demonstrates the issues that plague the investigations of cognitive neuroscience. This deserves a whole discussion on its own, and it suffices to say that researchers rarely find consistency in brain activation between individuals or even within the same individual on different occasions, further weakening their claims. The same issue complicates lesioning research, which investigates correlations between localised brain damage and loss of mental functioning. Simply put, cognitive neuroscientists are unable to explain the vast variation in results obtained from fMRI scans both within and between subjects, instead opting to simply average their results and produce maps of activation which do not represent any actual brain activity they recorded.
Uttal states his own case in this way: the mind is not divisible but unified. It cannot be reduced to subcomponents, or at least not subcomponents whose definitions are based on behavioural observations as is presently done. He says that the mind may not be analysable, and cannot be understood in this sense. In regards to cognitive neuroscience, correlations of mental processes with brain activity do not provide proof of localisation of mental processes, and do not identify the substrates of these processes. However he also seems to favour a return to a kind of soft behaviourism, for which I have no taste.
Personally I do not believe that the mind is unanalysable. While the mind - the most arcane and mysterious entity we know of - is difficult for science to address it arises out of analysable physical events. Even if cannot be assayed directly by our current methods, we may find in the functioning of the brain at the microscopic level, through comprehensive analysis, some shadow of the mind. We may find the gap between the structure of the brain and its activity and glimpse the nature of experience.
The brain, for me, is a system of conscious motion, a feeling most neuroscientists do not share. The inner life of the mind is characterised by continuity and death is cessation of what in the living is ceaseless. Yet cognitive neuroscience focusses on states and discrete “events” which may not even be events at all. When neuroscientists observe the brain they seek to capture its behaviour in snapshots, to compare levels and patterns of activation. What may be more fruitful is examining its motion, like a series of tubes carrying fluid endlessly in a self-propagating system that achieves continuity of experience through continuity of motion. Marx believed that capitalism only made sense in motion, that its complexities and relationships were invisible when they stood still. He did not dwell overly on the surface appearance of his subject matter and spend his time inferring inner systems from behaviour like his contemporaries. He built ideas after lengthy analysis, far reaching ideas, and applied them from the inside out, tested them, and ultimately discovered not just what our society does, but what it is. When examining a system as complex as the brain-mind, we may do well to follow his lead.