Brain Scans Go Deep, but You Need Intuition for Light-Bulb Moments: Opinion

By Smith, Annette Karmiloff | Times Higher Education, May 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Brain Scans Go Deep, but You Need Intuition for Light-Bulb Moments: Opinion


Smith, Annette Karmiloff, Times Higher Education


Technology has transformed psychology, but real insights come from considering humanity, too, argues Annette Karmiloff-Smith.

Psychological thinking, particularly of the cognitive ilk, used to take place only in philosophy or physiology departments. For centuries, psychology did not exist as a separate discipline.

Then a more experimental cognitive approach was pioneered in the late 1870s by Wilhelm Wundt, the German "father of modern psychology", and later in the Anglo-Saxon world by American behaviourist John B. Watson. The effect was to shift the discipline into the social and educational sciences.

Some sub-domains of psychology remain in the humanities to this day, but towards the end of the 20th century and increasingly since the start of the 21st, exciting new empirical methodologies have resulted in the departments increasingly migrating into faculties of science alongside biology, mathematics, genetics, chemistry and engineering.

Techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) have given psychologists previously unimagined access to some of the inner workings of the brain.

This in turn has prompted a seemingly endless list of new neuroscience disciplines, including educational, behavioural, cognitive, social, cultural, systems, computational, developmental and evolutionary neuroscience - not to mention neurolinguistics, neurogenetics and neuroeconomics. Any psychologist who does not have an image of the brain in their presentations runs the risk of being dismissed as behind the times.

Huge advances have been made in mapping complex behaviours to complex neural circuits. Fascinating studies now reveal that different neural processes can underlie similar overt behavioural performances. Intervention studies can measure not only whether behaviour has changed, but also whether connectivity in the brain has been modified as a function of new learning. The nature-versus-nurture debate has become far more sophisticated and now tends to focus on epigenetics and the complexities of gene-environment interaction. Elegant computational modelling techniques have made it possible to generate precise hypotheses about the mechanisms involved in human learning. There is no doubt in my mind that the field of cognitive psych-ology - henceforth, of course, cognitive neuroscience - in particular has taken huge strides forward. …

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