Neuropsychology: sexy but dangerous


03 april 2019
Auteur(s): Mary-Ann Ciosk
Why we should be suspicious of the neuroscience surge

by Mary Ann Ciosk


Psychological phenomena are popular topics for public discussion, likely in part because they cover such an incredibly wide breadth – child rearing, marriage counselling, breaking habits, increasing confidence, how language shapes world view, the origins and function of dreams, the basis of consciousness, and finding purpose in life are all on the table.

Left: The thought experiment, Schrodinger’s cat, has been used in attempts to understand the origin of consciousness.

Below: Psychologists investigate the interaction between evolution and complex processes like love.

Psychology arose from a philosophical basis but over time and through its use of empirical methods and technological advances, it’s now at the intersection of humanities, social science, and biomedical science. And the new player in the field, which threatens to overwhelm and potentially eclipse the others entirely, is neuroscience. 

Neuropsychology looks at the neural underpinnings of psychological processes and behaviors. I’d argue that psychology has gained mainstream popularity because it examines fundamental questions about human nature and behavior, but unlike philosophy, it employs empirical methods which reassure the public that these phenomena aren’t “just ideas” but are verified facts. Psychology has the weight of Scientific Evidence behind it (leaving the replication crisis aside). Neuropsychology is a further extension of this – who could argue about the true origin of a process when you can clearly see its corresponding brain areas activated?

Davi Johnson Thornton, assistant professor at Southwestern University and author of Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media, argues that the public has become enchanted with the idea of neuroscience in part because of the colorful PET scan images of the cortex circulating in popular media.

“All of the images teach us that we can relatively easily get a map or visual that shows us precisely what is going on, where it is going on, and to what extent it is going on. This fosters the sense that we can intervene in very precise ways to change our brains and realize very specific outcomes,”

says Thornton

According to Jonah Lehrer, author and neuroscience graduate from Columbia University, the brain is a new pop culture icon. “If Warhol were around today, he'd have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.” 

It seems adding “neuro” to any existing field is a sure-fire way to make it sound sexy. 

“New ‘sciences’ like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world's shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, a tragic manifestation of the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions,” says Lehrer.

Due to some combination of public interest and academic excitement over the new and technical, the number of PhDs in neuroscience has spiked dramatically in recent years (see figure below).

I’ve felt this trend, personally. Last year I was searching for a Master of Psychology program, in English, anywhere in Europe, and I was surprised to find that every program meeting these criteria was a Master of Neuropsychology – with the exception of the Theory and Research program at KU Leuven.

However, KU Leuven professors are not oblivious to this surge of interest in neuropsychology either. In a recent class lecture on the future of the discipline, we discussed whether psychology must become either “neural or dead”. That is, whether all psychological research will be conducted through the lens of neuroscience or not at all.

Of course, noting which brain regions are involved in different processes and making inferences on this basis can be extremely interesting and certainly adds to our knowledge of how humans work. However, emphasizing neurological processes over behavioral and regarding them as the “true”, more legitimate way to study psychology, over other measures, comes at the cost of psychology losing its strength as a discipline integrated in many disciplines – a unique position that allows for a more holistic and comprehensive perspective. 

Psychology involves the study of immensely complex and ambiguous phenomena and attempting to reduce them to their neurological origins waters down the explanation, making it too simplistic and inevitably less true. There’s a reason that mind-body duality, the distinction between consciousness and the physical brain, is called the “hard problem” – and it hasn’t been solved with advances in neuroscience.

Or take love, for example. While different brain regions are activated when one experiences feelings of romance, lust, and affection, it’s clearly absurd to try to use one-to-one brain to feeling mapping to explain these processes.

In even a simple action, like making coffee, multiple brain regions are activated because the brain operates as an interconnected whole, not through compartmentalized operations. An additional problem is that different brain regions may be activated in different people performing the same action. Imagine, then, attempting to “read” precisely what a person must be thinking and feeling by merely observing the many brain regions involved.

Even if it were possible to pinpoint precisely what someone was experiencing through neural imaging, this would not translate into understanding what it feels like to the person experiencing it. The philosophical thought experiment “Mary’s Room” speaks to the same point. If a scientist knew exactly how the brain processes color but had lived her entire life in a black and white room, she would still gain understanding of what color is by leaving the room and seeing colors for herself. Likewise, subjective experience is a form of understanding that neuropsychology will never be able to capture.

Imagine a future dystopia where neuropsychology is all that’s left of this vibrant, multifaceted discipline. Imagine an older man going to a therapist to seek help; since early adolescence he has remained in love with the same woman, to whom he was once engaged but for several decades she hasn’t shown interest in him and is now married to another man. Yet, he pines for her daily, he can’t invest in other relationships, and he continues to hope, against all odds that she’ll choose to be with him again one day. Nothing that a simple fMRI brain scan can’t fix, right! Understanding the fundamental nature of the human psyche is one of the most complex and challenging problems scientists face. While neuroscience is a valuable addition to the host of disciplines psychology encompasses, in valuing accuracy in our conclusions we need not only neural imaging, but clear and clever hypotheses, a nuanced interpretation of results, introspection, insightfulness, compassion, creativity, a comfort with ambiguity, and a holistic, interdisciplinary perspective.