Not seeing the wood for the dendritic trees

The LA Times has an article by Jonah Lehrer arguing that we can’t solely understand the mind and brain by reductionism – the process of working out smaller and smaller components of what we’re trying to study.

He argues that an approach that uses only measurement will never capture the complexity of subjective experience and that cognitive science needs to rediscover the value of first-person experience if it is to truly capture human thought and behaviour.

Lehrer suggests that the arts might be a way of re-addressing the balance:

The question, of course, is how neuroscience can get beyond reductionism. Science rightfully adheres to a strict methodology, relying on experimental data and testability, but this method could benefit from an additional set of inputs. Artists, for instance, have studied the world of experience for centuries. They describe the mind from the inside, expressing our first-person perspective in prose, poetry and paint. Although a work of art obviously isn’t a substitute for a scientific experiment — Proust isn’t going to invent Prozac — the artist can help scientists better understand what, exactly, they are trying to reduce in the first place. Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together.

Virginia Woolf, for example, famously declared that the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day … [tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

In other words, she wanted to describe the mind from the inside, to distill the details of our psychological experience into prose.

Woolf and her fellow ‘stream of consciousness’ writers, however, were latecomers to this particular challenge.

The phenomenologist philosophers, most notably Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl, were attempting to chart the subjective structure of the mind in the early 1900s.

While scientific psychology has been the dominant research paradigm for the past century, there has been a small but dedicated band of psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers who have attempted to continue the project.

In particular, psychiatry and clinical psychology involve the application of science to help patients who report disturbances in their subjective mental states, so this area has always been particularly influential in these areas.

In fact, it’s seeing something of a resurgence, with special issues of scientific journals being published on the topic.

Of course, Lehrer’s main point, that we ignore subjective experience at our peril, is exactly the thinking that led to the eventual death of behaviourism in the first half of the 20th century.

That’s not to say that behaviourism was worthless. Far from it. Many of the theories are still as valid today, but as with reductionism, beware when any tool becomes an ideology.

Art is another way of approaching an understanding of first-person experience of course, which is why Lehrer is arguing its benefit to cognitive science.

As it goes, I’m working on something similar at the moment, as I’m going to be co-teaching a course on cinema and the phenomenology of psychosis with psychiatrist Andrea Raballo and psychologist Frank Laroi at the next European Congress of Psychiatry, so look out for some musings on the topic in the coming weeks and months.

Link to LA Times article ‘Misreading the mind’.
Link to previous Lehrer article on art and science.

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