Neuroscience isn’t better than psychology

Photo by Reigh LeBlanc - http://flic.kr/p/6SCgsW
Photo by Reigh LeBlanc – http://flic.kr/p/6SCgsW

I was inspired to write this post after reading Dr Christian Jarrett’s article over on Wired. It’s a really good piece. It doesn’t go far enough.

I’ve been growing more confused over the last few years about the increasing tendency in all areas of society, including some academic circles, to treat neuroscience as a kind of scientific alternative to psychology. This tendency now comes in many flavours.

Want to know why some people are altruistic and generous whilst others are not? It’s because of brains.

Want to explain why some people are outgoing and sociable whilst others prefer to read a good book in a quiet room? It’s all about brains.

What about comparing dogs and people? How are they similar and different? Compare their brains, of course!

I’m a monist. I believe that the universe is made of matter, and that means we are too. Our behaviour is regulated by the interaction of our physical bodies with our environment, and much of what’s interesting goes on in our brains. I’m not suggesting that our brains receive messages from our ineffable souls à la Descartes. I’m quite certain that one day neuroscientists have discovered so much about the human brain that they’ll be able to build an entirely synthetic one.

None of this detracts from the fact that neuroscience operates at a very different level of analysis from psychology. Let’s take an analogy.

In school I studied electronics and I learned all about AND gates and bistables, and the other various pieces from which modern computers are made. I also learned all about subatomic particles including the mass of the electron, particle spin, and how electricity and magnetism are in fact two sides of the same coin.

A little while later, I had a brief career as a website designer. I learned how to write a page using HTML, develop SQL databases, and to code in Java and JavaScript. Not once during this time did I refer back to my notes on particle physics. I simply did not need to know how electrons move through a solid conductor in order to construct a nice looking web page.

As a culture, we know everything there is to know about computers. We built them. We could not make the modern silicon microprocessor were it not for our considerable understanding of quantum physics. We know that that is how it works. You know as you sit in front of your computer now that when you scroll down the page it causes patterns of electrons to dance about in circuits inside the box. But if you were teaching someone how to browse a website, the last thing you would do is start your description with, “clicking this button sends a brief pulse of current through the blue wire inside this cable to the USB plug, which then causes a series of…” No. It’s completely the wrong level of analysis. A 1000-page manual could be written explaining precisely the signal representing a mouse-click passes through a computer’s BIOS, how it’s interpreted by the operating system and how this information is passed to the GUI and the application that receives focus. Would you read a 1000-page manual entitled “The left mouse click: A guide”?

Such is the case in the relationship between neuroscience and psychology. Neuroscience is never going to replace psychology, not because it is inadequate in comparison, but because each operates at a different level of analysis and therefore has distinct useful applications.

If one is doing science for the sake of figuring out stuff about the world (a fine and noble ideal) then most bets are off. You can investigate what you like, so long as you stick to a few basic principles like empiricism and owning your philosophical assumptions. If, on the other hand, you are an applied scientist, wanting to intervene, then you need to choose your variables carefully. Just as an engineer pays closer attention to the aspects of bridge design she can alter. An analysis of a bridge that results in the recommendation, “we just need to increase the tensile strength of steel,” would be a waste of time. We have to impose limits on our analysis, if we’re interested not just in explaining, but in influencing too.

The popular conception seems to be that if we can find evidence of something in the brain then it really does happen. Let’s do an experiment.

Blurg means the same as ‘red’.

Got it?

Blurg means ‘red’.

Red means blurg.

I just rewired your brain. If we had sufficiently advanced neuroscientific techniques I could watch the patterns of synapses firing differently now that you’ve got that new piece of learning under your belt. So what?

Knowing that the brain is the place where learning takes place doesn’t make anything more real. Just as two brains being ‘wired’ differently doesn’t tell us anything about how they got that way. Perhaps they just have lived different lives. Or perhaps they were hard-wired differently because of their genetics. (Clue, it’s pseudo-always an interplay of the two.)

It isn’t just psychology that is diminished by this constant wheeling out of neuroscience. Neuroscience itself is sullied. A good deal of incredible research is being done in fields as diverse as motor neuron disease, alzheimer’s, and blindness. Excellent studies are being performed examining which neurons do what in the brain. Superb fundamental science. But I doubt it will ever be the case that encouraging someone in the office to be nicer to his colleagues will involve reference to his ventral tegmental area. This isn’t because neuroscience will be an inadequate description of behaviour. The field is progessing in the most impressive way. Such explanations will just not be usable in daily life. There will be too much detail. “Yes, I can show you how to memorise a phone number. First, you should understand that there are seven different functions to your auditory cortex…”

It’s time for us to stop fetishising neuroscience. If you’re interested in getting better results in life, it’s the behaviour you need to concentrate on, not the brains.

[Edited for clarity in August 2018.]

9 thoughts on “Neuroscience isn’t better than psychology

  1. Bill Skaggs Reply

    Hi Lee,

    I agree with a lot of this, but it’s important to realize that there is an important zone where neuroscience and psychology come together. An example is the study of drug addiction. Addictive drugs such as cocaine work by “hot wiring” the brain’s reward system, and a pure psychological approach is never going to yield anything that will feel like full understanding.

    Best regards, Bill

    • drleehw Reply

      I completely agree that there are often interesting interfaces between psychology and neuroscience, not least in brain injury and addiction. And as a true science geek there are few things I enjoy reading more than a cool paper using fMRI or such like. There aren’t many academics who make the sort of mistake I describe here, but there are lots and lots of bloggers and newspaper editors who do, and the result is that psychology looks to the general public like a soft unscientific cousin of neuroscience.

      • drleehw

        Oh… and of course bits of psychology truly are unscientific!

  2. S. Kube Reply

    Interesting article. Totally on board that neuroscience is not better than psychology. But not on board with encouraging a divide between these two disciplines, simply because they “operate at different levels of analysis.” It is for this exact reason that we should be encouraging cross-talk between neuroscientists and psychologists. Psychology informs neuroscience research all the time, just as neuroscience research is producing important implications for applied scientists/clinicians/psychologists. Because psychology is JUST as important as neuroscience (not to mention, way more advanced in its field), and because psychologists have developed lots of ways to improve mental health function, shouldn’t neuroscientists be capitalizing on what psychologists know in order to discern the underlying mechanisms by which their approaches work? A strong interface between psychology and neuroscience will produce novel treatment and preventative options for mental health disorders- not to replace the job of psychologists, but to optimize their jobs. To insinuate that neuroscience is important in optimizing the job of a doctor treating Alzheimer’s and motor neuron disease, but fail to recognize that it has the same potential to inform those treating mental health disorders, is ignorant.

    • drleehw Reply

      Hi

      I’m certainly not encouraging a divide. I hope it doesn’t come across that way. That’s why I chose the computer analogy. Computer scientists speak to hardware engineers all the time, and hardware engineers speak to physicists, but that doesn’t mean the physicist should write the the app on your mobile phone.

      I hope too I’m not ignorant of the potential for neuroscience to improve the lives of all people not just those with a specific problem, but I’m afraid I’m not quite as optimistic as you seem to be about the importance of neuroscience in mental health. This probably isn’t the place for such a huge debate, but to take one example, since the introduction of iproniazid and isoniazid in the 50’s the only rational bit of ‘rational drug design’ has been to replicate their actions. Neuroscience hasn’t yet delivered on the promise made on their behalf by psychiatry that psychoactive drugs would eradicate mental health problems.

      The sort of work that Eric Turner and Irving Kirsch have done has recently shown that the effects of anti-depressants aren’t as good as we’d hope. I haven’t had a look at the data recently but some strongly evidence-based therapies like CBT are fast catching up in terms of efficacy and they’re better tolerated.

      So sure, let’s all agree that neuroscience is awesome, but let’s not pretend (as the popular media now so often do) that it’s the only show in town when it comes to dealing with life’s complex problems.

  3. S. Kube Reply

    Interesting article. Totally on board that neuroscience is not better than psychology. But not on board with encouraging a divide between these two disciplines, simply because they “operate at different levels of analysis.” It is for this exact reason that we should be encouraging cross-talk between neuroscientists and psychologists. Psychology informs neuroscience research all the time, just as neuroscience research is producing important implications for applied scientists/clinicians/psychologists. Because psychology is JUST as important as neuroscience (not to mention, way more advanced in its field), and because psychologists have developed lots of ways to improve mental health function, shouldn’t neuroscientists be capitalizing on what psychologists know in order to discern the underlying mechanisms by which their approaches work? A strong interface between psychology and neuroscience will produce novel treatment and preventative options for mental health disorders- not to replace the job of psychologists, but to optimize their jobs. To insinuate that neuroscience is important in optimizing the job of a doctor treating Alzheimer’s and motor neuron disease, but fail to recognize that it has the same potential to inform those treating mental health disorders, is ignorant.

    • drleehw Reply

      Hi

      I’m certainly not encouraging a divide. I hope it doesn’t come across that way. That’s why I chose the computer analogy. Computer scientists speak to hardware engineers all the time, and hardware engineers speak to physicists, but that doesn’t mean the physicist should write the the app on your mobile phone.

      I hope too I’m not ignorant of the potential for neuroscience to improve the lives of all people not just those with a specific problem, but I’m afraid I’m not quite as optimistic as you seem to be about the importance of neuroscience in mental health. This probably isn’t the place for such a huge debate, but to take one example, since the introduction of iproniazid and isoniazid in the 50’s the only rational bit of ‘rational drug design’ has been to replicate their actions. Neuroscience hasn’t yet delivered on the promise made on their behalf by psychiatry that psychoactive drugs would eradicate mental health problems.

      The sort of work that Eric Turner and Irving Kirsch have done has recently shown that the effects of anti-depressants aren’t as good as we’d hope. I haven’t had a look at the data recently but some strongly evidence-based therapies like CBT are fast catching up in terms of efficacy and they’re better tolerated.

      So sure, let’s all agree that neuroscience is awesome, but let’s not pretend (as the popular media now so often do) that it’s the only show in town when it comes to dealing with life’s complex problems.

  4. drleehw Reply

    I completely agree that there are often interesting interfaces between psychology and neuroscience, not least in brain injury and addiction. And as a true science geek there are few things I enjoy reading more than a cool paper using fMRI or such like. There aren’t many academics who make the sort of mistake I describe here, but there are lots and lots of bloggers and newspaper editors who do, and the result is that psychology looks to the general public like a soft unscientific cousin of neuroscience.

    • drleehw Reply

      Oh… and of course bits of psychology truly are unscientific!

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