I’m a bit late to the neuroword party with this one, but here goes:

Neuroessentialism – the belief in, or tactic of, invoking evidence, or merely terms, from neuroscience to justify claims at the psychological level. See also neuromysticism, neurobollocks.

There’s a mild example of this in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of An Elephant which is an otherwise excellent book:

“One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors – conceptual structures like those we have been describing. The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry. When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”
(p73, which you can also view here)

He’s talking about frames (psychology). He’s advancing a claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected (psychology). What do the statements ‘The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry’ add to the argument? Nothing. They do not provide any evidence nor do they even provide any information – everything psychological is represented somehow in the brain, and knowing that conceptual frames exist in neural circuits doesn’t help us figure out anything about their properties. The statements are contentless.

There’s no need to pick on Lakoff particularly, it is just what I’m reading today. Far more offensive examples of neuroessentialism abound (Brain Gym springs to mind). This is in part because neuroscience is a technical and sexily complicated discipline, and in part because of the mistaken belief that evidence at a lower level of description somehow has explanatory precedence over that at a higher level of description (cf physics envy). Many claims about human psychology are adequately and entirely addressed at the level of behaviour with no need to invoke neuroscientific evidence. Indeed, for many psychological claims neuroscience can add little or nothing to our assessment of their truth. Taking for example this claim that frame-incompatible facts get rejected, knowing that frames are embedded in brain tells us nothing, but even knowing how frames are embedded in the brain may not be as useful as it first appears. Whatever neuroscientific facts we discovered about frames, the final judgement of the truth of this claim would rely on answers to questions such as is it true that frame-incompatible facts tend to get rejected? In what range of circumstances is this true and how can it be affected? The last word would be behavioural evidence, regardless of what information was provided by neuroscience.

5 thoughts on “Neuroessentialism”

  1. You said ” – everything psychological is represented somehow in the brain,” – YES, but then you immediately say “knowing that conceptual frames exist in neural circuits doesn’t help us figure out anything about their properties.” Um, I think you forgot the word “yet.” The first clause seems to contradict the second. Once we’ve mapped all psychological states to brain states, does the first clause not mean that psychological statements are just higher-level approximations of what’s represented in the brain at the neurological level? And if so, can we not glean a higher level of detail than a psychological statement can ever achieve by looking directly at what’s going on in the brain?

    As of right now, before scientists have decoded the exact relationship between neural activity and mental representation, everything you say is true. But if such a relationship is ever fully mapped out, then wouldn’t such a description be intrinsically more accurate than a psychological one can ever be?

  2. Yes, Jonathan, what you say is correct. To the extent that it becomes possible to map from psychological concepts to neural factors – and back – information about neural factors will be informative about psychological concepts. Why, though, do you think knowledge of neural factors will be intrinsically more accurate than knowledge of psychological factors? Possibly you imagine that this knowledge of neural factors will have a certainty or objectivity that isn’t possible about psychological factors?

  3. Yes, part of the reason is that I do think that there will be more objectivity, certainty and detail in investigations that aren’t mediated by the subject’s own subjectivity, but involve looking at the brain directly. But another reason is this: psychological explanations falsely endow mental states with causality. An example: to explain my motivation for doing something, you have to say, “Jonathan shouted at Fred because he was angry.” But a closer examination of the brain will disentangle this cause-effect relationship. It will show not that my anger caused me to shout, but that Brain State A (in which I experience anger) led directly to – caused – Brain State B (in which I shout.) I think the falsity of the cause-effect relationship here – which can be resolved when looking at the brain directly – is a big reason why psychological statements can never be completely accurate, or as accurate as their neuroscientific counterparts might eventually be.

  4. You are obviously an eliminative materialist. One alternative perspective is that the complexity of neuroscientic data — the overwhelming number of facts that we can and will be able to discern about any particular brain state — will mean that we will resort of higher-level concepts in our causal descriptions. Then it will make as much sense to say “Jon shouted because he was angry” as “Jon shouted because of brain fact X”. Both will be true.

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