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The New Neuroscience: Friend or Foe?

The New Neuroscience: Friend or Foe?
From a student's perspective

By Zuzana Kunckova 

Neuroscience is an exciting and fast growing field of research into the anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the nervous system and its effects on behaviour and mental processes (Colman, 2009). Through various methods, scientists are slowly gaining insight into the so far concealed workings of the human brain. Before I embarked on my undergraduate psychology degree, I had a very vague idea about neuroscience and its object of study. I didn't even realise that the biological aspect of the brain and research methods associated with it would be part of my psychology degree!

Yet, I still remember the first time I laid my eyes on an fMRI image of the brain: colourful, exciting, and promising, allowing us to see what goes on inside the human brain in real time. Upon reading articles about how neuroscience can explain the basis of economic decision making and related behaviour, a discipline called neuroeconomics (Camerer, Loewenstein & Prelec, 2005), or how neuroscience could have a similar impact on the legal system as DNA testing (Fanton cited in Satel & Scott, 2013), I was converted. In my view, brain imaging was the be-all and end-all. I began to believe, like many others, that neuroscience was the answer to everything. Neuroscience methods could give voice to the voiceless, research methods such as fMRI could help us understand human emotions or intentions, and maybe even help us understand something that has intrigued philosophers and scientists for centuries: the nature human consciousness.

As I read through one textbook after another, I got to know more about the aims of neuroscience and about its various methods. To name a few, computerised tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to correlate brain anatomy and human behaviour, while electroencephalograph (EEG), magnetoencephalograph (MEG), positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) could be used to record brain activity during particular tasks. When put together, I believed that these methods offered all that was needed to really understand the inner workings of the human mind.

I was equally fascinated by the various case studies I got to read about in the textbooks. The most famous one must be that of Phineas Gage, the unfortunate man largely remembered for a metal pole sticking through his skull. His story was fascinating and raised many questions: How could he had just got up and walk away? How did he even survive? What caused the changes in his personality? And where does the human personality even lie? For many decades psychologists relied on case studies like that of Phineas Gage and post-mortem studies of the brain. Only the 20th century's advances in technology and the invention of brain imaging techniques have allowed us to peek inside the living brain. I found the prospect of really understanding the relationship between human brain and behaviour captivating. I didn't realise at that time that there is more to human behaviour than cognitive brain processes.

As I began the second year of my undergraduate degree, I still believed that neuroscience techniques were mostly fool-proof, and that together with findings from case studies they provided us with all the answers. Having taken a crash course in SPSS, I was excited by the statistical and experimental approaches that reduced human cognitive function to a set of numbers, response times and a few graphs. However, as part of my assignments, I was suddenly asked to be critical. To question, probe and enquire. So I began to ask myself: is neuroscience all there is to really understand the workings of human brain and mind? How accurate are the measurements? And what are their limitations?

Research has shown that even techniques as advanced as PET and fMRI scans have margins of error, especially when it comes down to consciousness. Some fMRI studies even led to very strange results. A study that gained considerable popularity was conducted by researchers in a Dartmouth lab. Their research subject was a dead Atlantic salmon which was put in the fMRI machine and scanned for brain activity during a visual task. Interestingly enough, the researchers managed to get some data! Based on a random uncontrolled noise, it appeared as if the salmon engaged in the given task (Bennett, Baird, Miller, & Wolford, 2009). This study highlighted the limitations of fMRI research, the need for multiple comparison corrections that would reduce false positives and the usefulness of combining different tests to validate results.

Undeniably, my belief in the omnipotence of neuroscience methodology has slightly shifted. I still believed that brain imaging was incredibly useful and that, given time and more research, the limitations could and would be reduced. However, as I took further Psychology modules, especially those on child development and critical social psychology, I began to realise that when it comes to studying the human mind and behaviour, we may need more than quantitative data and statistics. Traditionally, researchers have adopted only one methodology when studying a psychological phenomenon. It was either quantitative or qualitative research, as if using mixed methods was to be frowned upon. But as Gardener pointed out in the December 2013 edition of this newsletter, more and more researchers appreciate the ways in which mixed methods can enhance their research and open up new opportunities. After all, human beings are more than just brain and cognitive processes. External influences matter and if we are to understand the causes behind human behaviour, we need to embrace qualitative research methods too. New technologies don't replace other techniques but serve as an additional source of information. So whilst the methods of modern neuroscience can provide us with a level of information previously unheard of, we still need to be careful when interpreting the data, and we need to remember to look at the bigger picture.

As I reach the end of my degree, I no longer see neuroscience as the be-all and end-all. Having studied the science of the human mind for the past four years, I am just at the beginning of what I expect to be a spectacular journey. I cannot make any claims to a true understanding of the relationship between brain and behaviour. I know very little about the various neuroscience methods. However, whilst I still enjoy looking at fMRI and DTI (diffuse tensor imaging) images, I do know that the reality is more complicated. It takes more than brain imaging to understand what really goes on inside, what makes us who we are.

Bennett, C.M., Baird, A.A., Miller, M.B. & Wolford, G.L. (2009). Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for Multiple Comparisons Correction. Retrieved from: http://prefrontal.org/files/posters/Bennett-Salmon-2009.pdf
Camerer, c., Loewenstein, G. & Prelec, D. (2005). Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience Can Inform Economics. Journal of Economic Literature, Vol 43, No 1, 9-64.
Colman, A.M. (2009). Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Satel, S. & Lilienfeld, S.O. (2013). Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless neuroscience. New York: Basic Books.

Zuzana Kunckova is due to complete her Psychology degree with the OU in October 2014 and is a volunteer for the brain injury charity Headway https://www.headway.org.uk/home.aspx.

This article originally appeared in News & Views May 2014.


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