PsyBlog has a post, “Can Cognitive Neuroscience Tell Us Anything About the Mind?” which starts out with a skeptical stance. There is an opening feint, that scientists throw out theories about the brain and mind (and by this, we’re really talking about hypotheses). It’s an important point, in my mind, that the focus on testing relatively small and specific hypotheses, while adding bricks and mortar to the edifice of knowledge, does little to capture the holistic nature of the mind and often runs afoul the mind-body (or brain) dichotomy.
Basically the post then provides a quick look at some general work by Max Coltheart, Director of the Macquarie Center for Cognitive Science (Macquarie is Greg’s home institution, so just had to do that shout-out). Coltheart has his own statement on cognitive neuropsychology on Scholarpedia (first time I’ve run across that), the peer-reviewed version of Wikipedia.
The gist of the rest of the blog, and the two citations of Coltheart, is that neuroimaging so far has not been very useful to distinguish between competing theories of neuropsychological processes. As PsyBlog relates:
A recent neuroimaging study claimed to be able to distinguish between these two theories [simulation theory vs. theory of mind theory for grasping other people’s intentions]. Ramnani and Miall (2004) put people in the brain scanner, got them to carry out certain tasks and predicted that if a particular part of the brain was activated it supported the first theory, and if another, then it supported the second. What actually happened was nowhere near this simple. Despite the claims of the study’s authors, Coltheart argues that actually neither theory was substantially supported or refuted by the findings… Coltheart does run through four other examples where evidence from cognitive neuroscience fails to distinguish between theories. Again, remember that we’re talking about relatively high level psychological theories here, not low-level physiological processes.
As I often tell people when asked about neuroimaging, and the maps they provide us: Maps are useful, but they don’t tell us why states wage war. And a lot of what interests people about mind and culture is why people do things…
Here are the references from the PsyBlog post:
Coltheart, M. (2004) Brain imaging, connectionism and cognitive neuropsychology. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 2, 21-25.
Coltheart, M. (2006). What has functional neuroimaging told us about the mind (so far)? Cortex, 42(3), 323-31.