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When we find a brain area that lights up, what do we really know?

Psychology's Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back

In “Psychology and Its Discontents” (Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2012), Carol Tavris reviews Jerome Kagan’s Psychology’s Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back, asking, “We see an area in the brain ‘light up’ when we think about a topic, and assume we know something about thought. But what, exactly?”

If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”—and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur—with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.

No, and the teen’s sense of shame can only be experienced by a whole person living in a given time and place, not by any of the components studied in isolation. It is, to borrow a phrase, irreducibly complex.

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3 Responses to When we find a brain area that lights up, what do we really know?

  1. Many people seem to think that the brain is a computer, though I’m skeptical of that.

    Based on that computer idea, lets turn the question around and ask “When we find that an area of the computer circuit board lights up, what do we know?” And, in fact, we would know very little. The inferences that we might make from the amount of activity of particular circuits would probably be very misleading.

  2. NR: Excellent point. KF

  3. 3
    Alastair F. Paisley

    That’s interesting use of the phrase “irreducibly complex.”

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