A recent comment in the journal Nature makes a bold proposal – to form a true multi-lab cooperative to perform collective research into the deep questions of neuroscience. There are two aspects of this proposal that are extremely interesting: the potential to make significant progress in answering the biggest questions in neuroscience, and the collaborative approach to research being proposed.
How does the brain work?
It is often difficult to answer questions about the current state of scientific knowledge to the general public because there is a lot of background knowledge about science itself that is necessary. As a result I find two common tropes – that scientific knowledge is binary (we either understand something or we don’t) and that we “have no idea” how something works, even when we have lots of ideas. Communicating about the brain almost always falls for these tropes.
Scientific knowledge is better understood using a metaphor of depth. The real question is not whether or not we understand how the brain works, but how deep is our knowledge about brain function. Because the brain is so complex we can simultaneously say that we know a great deal about brain function and there is a great deal we don’t understand.
Ed. Note: Today we present a guest post from Josh Cuevas, a cognitive psychologist and assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of North Georgia. Enjoy!
Breaking the cycle
Since early on in graduate school when I began studying cognition, I’ve followed the learning styles movement because it was such a powerful phenomenon. It took hold rapidly, seemingly overnight, at all levels of education. And, like so many fads in education and science, it created a big-money industry involving conferences, training seminars, paid speakers, how-to manuals, and a variety of other mediums, inevitably linked to a profit in some way. Yet in the peer reviewed studies I was sifting through, evidence for learning styles was nowhere to be found. And more than a decade later I’m still looking for it.
Today when I suggest to students that learning styles are no more than a myth, I can hear their collective jaws drop, regardless of whether they’re undergraduates or graduate students, because learning styles have been preached to them the entire time they’ve been in school. The graduate students concern me the most because they’re supposed to know the research. And I used the term “preached” because these students have been convinced via no more than word of mouth, are asked to accept the information based on faith, and many come to hold a strange religious-like fervor for the concept. That’s not how science works and it shouldn’t be how education works.
It has been no easy task combating this common misconception in college classrooms, particularly when it is reinforced in textbooks, by other professors (who are also supposed to know the research), and in public schools where students do their internships. The research we’re doing at the University of North Georgia on learning styles has two purposes – it allows us to collect data on the effects of learning styles and contrast it to a stronger model, dual coding, but it also lets us demonstrate, in real time, to students who will one day be teachers how what they’ve long believed to be true simply does not work when put to the test. (more…)
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have written a new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Its purpose is not to critique neuroscience, but to expose and protest its mindless oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains.
The brain is a wondrous thing: “…the three pound universe between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Trying to understand how it works and how it generates conscious awareness and subjective feelings is a daunting task. Neuroimaging is one of the tools we are using to study it. Unfortunately, people get so enthusiastic about its possibilities that they are constantly tempted to read more into the images than is really there. This has given rise to a new phrenology that interprets our mental characteristics with pretty colored pictures. We are easily impressed by pictures; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Brain imaging can’t show us what is going on in the mind of the person. It shows areas that have increased oxygen consumption. A spot lights up when a person thinks or acts, but that doesn’t tell us much. Single blobs that light up in the brain have been interpreted as centers for things like love, rewards, hate, and belief in God. This is sometimes referred to as “blobology.” They found an area in one person that lit up when he thought about an actress he loved. That area was thought to be a “reward” center. But it also lit up when he thought of Ahmadinejad! So they did some fancy footwork and rationalized that he believed that the Jewish people would endure and therefore he derived pleasure from the idea that Ahmadinejad would fail. That’s pretty far-fetched. Occam’s razor would suggest that maybe the area that lit up was reacting not to pleasure, but to something else. People tend to read what they want to see into ambiguous patterns like a Rorschach test. Mental functions are rarely limited to a single spot in the brain; multiple areas are involved and interconnected. Researchers are increasingly moving away from blobology and towards pattern analysis where they look at the patterns of activation across the entire brain. (more…)
In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:
…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.
He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations. (more…)