Rhetoric and Neuroscience

This post is in response to a LinkedIn discussion in the Metacognition Learning to Learn Discussion Group.  I made this statement to a participant:

I do dislike the way some people localize their skills (i.e. like saying I’m a right brained person) All activities use the whole brain; left and right. People who say they are “right brained” can also excel at many “left brained” activities and vice versa.

That participant responded saying:

Howard, what evidence do you have about the whole brain functioning? Can you please provide the scientific evidence or the anecdotal if there is such evidence?

And I am glad to respond which also forces me to elucidate and extend the grounding of my thoughts and you are right to ask for substantiation.  I will begin such an attempt here and welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation beyond this response.

Brain Systems, not Modules, as the  Basis for Complex Socially Relevant Behavior

#1 Studying of the localization of brain function is an important basis for neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, and many fmri studies.  Studying psychology in everyday function, however,  implies a different perspective; studying the brain as a system.  First, this is a different metaphoric take on the brain as stated by Churchland in this Scientific America article.

University of California, San Diego, philosopher of the mind Patricia S. Churchland . . . (states) “There are areas of specialization, yes, and networks maybe, but these are not always dedicated to a particular task.” Instead of mental module metaphors, let us use neural networks”.

Kevin N Ochsner and Matthew D Lieberman similarly state that the study of the human functioning requires the interdisciplinary study of brain systems (The Emergence of Social Cognitive Neuroscience, (2001). American Psychologist, 56 (#9), 717-734.)  They advocate for combining bottom-up studies (neuroscience) with top-down approaches (social cognitive).

As the field develops, one can expect a shift in the kinds of studies being conducted.  When little is known about the neural systems involved in a given form of behavior or cognition, initial studies may serve more to identify brain correlates for those phenomena than to test theories about how and why the phenomena occur.  . . . Ultimately, it will be important to move beyond brain-behavior correlations, but this can only happen when researchers in the field have built a baseline of knowledge about the brain systems underlying specific types of social or emotional processing (p.725).

(C)ognitive neuroscientists have historically used minimalist methodologies to study a few basic abilities with  little concern for the personal and situational conditions that elicit and influence them (bottom-up). . . . social psychology has historically been interested in a broad range of complex and socially relevant phenomena (top-down). . . In recent years, there has been increasing appreciation that top-down and bottom-up approaches cannot be researched independently because they are intimately linked to one another (p. 727-728).

The Effects of Pop-Psychology

# 2 Neuropsychological concepts and brain localization theories have entered mainstream pop-psychology, but these are complex topics and pop-psychology often miss-understands and miss-appropriates these concepts when they are used.  In example, someone recently told me that they aren’t right-brained types. What they mean is that they are effectively ceding what I view as a pan-human ability to be creative.  (This, in someways, is similar to Carol Dwick’s growth verses fixed intelligence argument.)  Neuropsychological tests may provide insight in clinical situations, but I believe the application of these insights to everyday activity should be my made with great care and under clinical supervision.  Similarly, fMRI studies provide great insight about the brain, but it is beyond scientific validity to apply many of these insights to complex social behavior.

Using Neuroscience for Rhetorical Purposes

# 3 I have read a couple of books that claim they are based on brain research, my latest read is Charles Jacob’s Management Rewired.  I generally like many of the ideas in this books (though most of the hard scholarly work remains to be done), but my regard is based on educational theory, not neuroscience.  When these type of books refer to neuroscience, I see them stretching beyond valid interpretations of the underlying science and their reference of neuroscience seems to be used mostly for rhetorical purposes.  To illustrate through another example, the general population’s belief in science is less skeptical than most scientists.  Hence, many newspaper articles will use the rhetorical device “studies show” to lend the authority of science to their views rather than allowing their views to stand on their own merit or by presenting actual scholarly work to support their position.  Similarly, I find that neuroscience is often similarly used rhetorically, to lend authority inappropriately.

Instead of Neuroscience, Look to Cognitive Mediation and Vygotsky’s Higher Mental Functions

Traditional psychology speaks to many of these issues.  For myself, I find that mind maps, graphic organizers and visual design processes help me to get ideas out into visual space and overcome cognitive limitations in my short-term memory.  This quote by D.A. Norman (1994) states it well. (Things that Make Us Smart)

Without external aids, memory, thought, and reasoning are all constrained.  But human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limitations.  The real power come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities (p.24).

Vygotsky called these aids mediators and their use, examples of higher mental functioning.  Vygotsky was interested in human functions which exist on a different level from natural or biological ones.  It is my belief that the complete neurological correlates of human functioning and thinking will not be found because human functioning is located in cultural settings.  “Individual consciousness is built from the outside through relations with others”. (From Alex Kozulin’s introduction to Vygotsky’s (1934) Thought and Language).

Existing educational and psychological theory is adequate for improving human functioning and should serve as the basis of support until Social Cognitive Neuroscience development can be extended to functional activity.

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