Neurobabble

Tyler Burge has a piece in the New York Times Opinionator column entitled “A Real Science of Mind”, in which he takes neuroscience to task for claims that understanding the brain is the right level of explanation for understanding mind (increasingly, a word that is losing its utility, IMHO).  He rightly trounces neurobabble, and points out that correlations “between localized neural activity and specific psychological phenomena are important facts.  But they merely set the stage for explanation.”  Where he gets into trouble is when he continues by saying  “Being purely descriptive, they explain nothing.  Some correlations do aidpsychological explanation.  For example, identifying neural events underlying vision constrains explanations of timing in psychological processes and has helped predict psychological effects.  We will understand both the correlations and the psychology, however, only through psychological explanation.”

Claims of hegemony over insight for one discipline or another are always suspect.  I am all for reducing the amount of neurobabble out there in the world, but trying to predict which level of explanation will have most meaningful answers is a bit like reading tea leaves – it is probably most prudent to watch carefully as the fields mature, and then take the most powerful observations and incorporate them into a new canon, one that has yet to solidify.  Moreover, there is no shortage of neurobabble emerging from psychology, so one should make sure one’s house is in order before casting stones.

Link to Tyler Burge’s NY Times article.