What is the “Cognitive” in Cognitive Neuroscience?

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  • ORIGINAL PAPER

    What is the Cognitive in Cognitive Neuroscience?

    Carrie Figdor

    Received: 18 January 2012 /Accepted: 16 March 2012# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

    Abstract This paper argues that the cognitive neuro-scientific use of ordinary mental terms to report re-search results and draw implications can contribute topublic confusion and misunderstanding regarding neu-roscience results. This concern is raised at a time whencognitive neuroscientists are increasingly required byfunding agencies to link their research to specificresults of public benefit, and when neuroethicists havecalled for greater attention to public communication ofneuroscience. The paper identifies an ethical dimen-sion to the problem and presses for greater sensitivityand responsibility among neuroscientists regardingtheir use of such terms.

    Keywords Cognitive neuroscience . Folk psychology.

    Research results . Translational implications . Publiccommunication .Media ethics . Science reporting

    Cognitive neuroscientists are increasingly required byfunding agencies to link their research to specific poten-tial outcomes of public benefit or interest [1, 2]. Theyare also increasingly aware of the need to communicatetheir research results more effectively to the public [3].

    This paper argues that miscommunication and publicmisunderstanding of neuroscience results and implica-tions stem to a significant degree from neuroscientistsfailure to be sufficiently sensitive to the nature of themental or cognitive concepts in terms of which theyinterpret their results and draw implications. In conse-quence, more effective communication of results andthe drawing of justifiable translational implicationsdepends in part on neuroscientists willingness to as-sume greater responsibility for these choices. This prob-lem can also affect collaborations with the socialsciences and psychology and generates new neuroethicalconcerns.

    Implications of Using Mental Terms in CognitiveNeuroscience

    The pressure to sell the broader impacts of onesresearch in order to get funded is not unique to cogni-tive neuroscience. Nor is cognitive neuroscience alonein contending with the difficulties of presenting com-plex research to the public. Principal dangers in bothcases include the oversimplification of research resultsand public misunderstanding of the near- and long-term benefits of the research.

    But cognitive neuroscience results have a uniquecharacter in terms of their potential impact on thepublic. Cognitive neuroscience is in a rare positionwithin the sciences in that it is a bridging disciplinebetween biology and the social and psychologicalsciences through its efforts to link the brain with the

    NeuroethicsDOI 10.1007/s12152-012-9157-5

    C. Figdor (*)Department of Philosophy and Interdisciplinary GraduateProgram in Neuroscience, University of Iowa,260 English-Philosophy Building,Iowa City, IA 52242, USAe-mail: carrie-figdor@uiowa.edu

  • mind. Because these findings have the potential toalter directly how human beings understand them-selves, including their personal, moral and other socialchoices and relations, strong public interest in its find-ings is guaranteed. But these very implications alsoput cognitive neuroscientists in a unique position ofresponsibility regarding public misunderstanding,since they are directly aware of and have expertknowledge about the studies from which these resultsand implications are drawn. Science reporters are re-sponsible for how they transmit cognitive neuroscienceresults and implications to the public, but cognitiveneuroscientists are responsible for their choices of cog-nitive and mental terms to describe their results andimplications to begin with [4]. Assuming their share ofresponsibility for avoiding miscommunication, I argue,involves greater sensitivity among cognitive neuro-scientists to the potential for the cognitive or mentalterms in which they routinely report their results toengender public misunderstanding and abet confusion.

    In a recent article calling for improved public com-munication by neuroscientists, Illes et al. (op. cit.: 61)begin with the following remarks:

    Neuroscientists are faced with an important chal-lenge. With the development of powerful newresearch tools, they are gaining a better under-standing of the biology of the brain every day.At the same time, this progress is prompting manyquestions about the personal, social, moral andspiritual choices that humans make. These factorsconspire to place increasing pressure on neuro-scientists to discuss both their scientific researchand the ethical implications of their findings.

    What is not explicitly stated in this argument forimproved neuroscience communication is the idea thatthe brains operations are intimately connected tothose of the mind as ordinarily conceived. Withoutthis assumption there is no swift passage from moreknowledge of the biology of the brain to insight intopersonal, social, moral and spiritual questions, typicallyposed in the familiar mental terms of folk psychology(e.g., self, love, guilt, and faith).

    But in subsequent remarks the terms of this intimaterelation shift to a link between neurology and behavior,such that it makes sense to describe the public as inter-ested in the neurological basis of individual and socialbehavior (Illes et al: 61), rather than the neurologicalbasis of ordinary mental phenomena. Of course, what is

    clear to Illes et al. and their scientific readership, but notnecessarily to the public, is that the brain-mind link iscashed out in the laboratory by seeking associationsbetween brain activity or deficits and observed behavioror deficits. (For brevity, reference to deficits will beassumed in what follows.) Much neuroscience researchdirectly involves finding brain activity that can be reli-ably correlated with behaviors evoked in the perfor-mance of carefully designed tasks in controlledconditions. However, reports of these results and theirimplications in professional academic journals are rou-tinely couched in cognitive or mental terms that refer tocognitive processes inferred directly or indirectly fromthe behaviors. Such cognitive inferences presumablyjustify reporting brain-behavior associations as brain-mind associations, as well as switching back and forthbetween the two.

    Illes et al. can take all this for granted, since theirintended scientific audience is similarly aware of theinferences that justify this use of cognitive or mentalterms. But these uses of our everydaymental vocabularyor of closely aligned cognitive concepts must be handledwith care, since they can unintentionally mislead thepublic. In what follows I identify three factors that cancontribute to such miscommunication.

    First, after over two decades of exploring the brain-mind link in normal humans using new non- orminimally-invasive imaging technologies (along withother methods), cognitive neuroscientists agree thatthis link is not going to be simple. To the contrary,research results reported in terms that link the braindirectly with the mind as ordinarily conceived (e.g.,[5, 6]) are frequently criticized within the scientificranks, often for being new forms of phrenology ([7],Table 1 lists some of those criticized). But this criti-cism implicitly acknowledges that the use of mentalterms to report results or characterize implicationsstrongly suggests a close brain-mind connection thatneuroscientists today (unlike the phrenologists) do notendorse. Saying that a structure or network is involvedin a given mental capacity, or using the neologismbrain/mind, does little to eliminate this source ofmisunderstanding, and may in fact exacerbate it.

    Second, personal, social, moral and spiritual con-cerns voiced in the vocabulary of folk psychology areformulated within a largely assumed context of someform of mental realism [8, 9], if not outright dualism.At the very least, the public is unlikely to think mentalterms are convenient labels for patterns of behavior

    C. Figdor

  • [10] or that they dont really refer to anything [11].However, the use of such terms to report cognitiveneuroscience results and implications strongly suggeststhat realism about folk psychology has been justified byneuroscientific research. Of course, the vast majority ofcognitive neuroscientists presumably do embrace real-ism about the cognitive or mental states to which theyinfer (despite the fact that the ubiquity of classical andoperant conditioning methods in cognitive neuroscienceexperimental designs from behavioral and imagingstudies to connectionist modeling (e.g., [12]) has madesome raise the question of whether some form of behav-iorism remains, or should remain, alive and well inneuroscience [13, 14].) But this global presumption ofrealism does not come with a specification of which, ifany, mental states of folk psychology cognitiveneuroscience will end up endorsing. For example,Lenartowicz et al. [15] propose a new methodology formapping cognitive functions to brain structures usingdata-mining techniques over the task labels (e.g., re-sponse selection) used in imaging studies. They con-clude that the reliability (or not) of inferring to tasklabels from imaging results can show whether the cog-nitive functions thought to be involved in performing atask are truly distinct componential entities or whetherthey emerge from the interactions of various systems inthe brain and are therefore manifest only in the minds ofcognitive scientists. A similar sense of emergentismis expressed by McClelland et al. [16], for whom thestructured mental representations of classical computa-tionalism the cognitive architecture that reflects mostclosely the constructs of folk psychology are abstrac-tions that are occasionally useful but often misleading:they have no real basis in the actual processes that giverise to linguistic and cognitive abilities or to the devel-opment of these abilities. Cognitive neuroscientistsmay intend to be realists about the mind as ordinarilyconceived, but the routine use of ordinary mental termsto report results suggests that realism about folkpsychology is already scientifically established.

    However, the third, and most important, way inwhich the use of mental terms in cognitive neurosci-ence can contribute to miscommunication is the factthat cognitive neuroscientists often use these terms inconflicting ways that bear variable relationships totheir ordinary meanings. The reasonable presumptionthat mental terms are being used in cognitive neuro-scientific contexts with the same meanings they havein ordinary contexts unless explicitly stated otherwise

    is often violated. Cognitive inferences are made from anincreasingly wide range of behaviors (verbal self-reports, repetitive bar-pressing, passive perception ofphotographs, questionnaire responses, directed sac-cades, startles, skin conductance responses, etc.) per-formed by human and non-human species (often ratsand monkeys). These behaviors provide varied kinds ofevidence, with variable degrees of justification, for var-ious specific kinds of cognitive or mental states andcapacities. In the absence of discipline-wide criteria forguiding cognitive inferences made from an ever-expanding basis of kinds of brain-behavior associations,it is left to individual researchers to determine the natureof the cognitive constructs inferred in a given study that is, to choose which cognitive or mental conceptsand terms are appropriate for interpreting and reportingtheir results and drawing implications. These choicesoften differ from study to related study in unannouncedways, even though the standard scientific practice ofciting previous relevant work essentially depends on apresumption of shared meaning, not just shared forms ofwords, across studies.

    It is true that the public can often be relied on tounderstand when ordinary terms are being used innon-standard, particularly metaphorical, ways in sci-ence: for example, everyone is aware that the subtitleof the book Suprachiasmatic Nucleus: the mindsclock [17] includes a metaphor. But when a cognitiveneuroscientist uses ordinary mental terms to report herresearch, the public including science reporters whoread peer-reviewed articles and attend the disciplinesconferences cannot be expected to know or evensuspect that what one cognitive neuroscientist meansmay not be what another means, and that what bothmean may depart from ordinary meanings in subtle butimportant ways. For example, a study on the neuralcorrelates of love by Fisher et al. [18] part of the firstcitation tree provided below appears in a specialissue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology entitledThe anatomy of the soul. At the very least, the termsoul, unlike clock, is not clearly metaphorical ornon-literal when used in a science that is trying to linkthe brain to the mind as ordinarily conceived.

    Perhaps the best evidence of this varability in usagecomes from critically examining uses of the same orrelated cognitive terms across peer-reviewed studiesvia citation trees, diachronically and synchronically.The papers discussed below are linked either directly(paper A cites paper B) or else indirectly with one

    What is the Cognitive in Cognitive Neuroscience?

  • degree of separation (B in turn cites C); papers not in thetrees are noted as such. (Quotation marks flag targetterms and are neither scare-quotes nor (by themselves)use-mention quotes; use-mention quotes are precededby the phrase the term; no quotation marks indicates ause of a target term to refer to an operation of the mind asordinarily conceived.) The first tree, ending with [19],involves the terms reward and motivation; the sec-ond, ending with [20], involves fear, memory andfear memory. Within each tree, ordinary mental termsare used to refer to operations whose relations to themind as ordinarily conceived vary the relation may beidentity, but need not be and, more importantly, are notclearly defined or their departure from ordinary mean-ings not stressed. An indicator of fluctuation is theintroduction of new mental terms in a study that aresemantically related to the target concepts only if theirmeanings are folk-psychological, even when behavior-istic or otherwise more restricted definitions are given oradopted from prior cited papers that do not include oremphasize the richer vocabulary.

    First case Olds and Milner [21] reported the discoveryof reward centers in the septal area of the centralforebrain and other structures as revealed in operantconditioning protocols involving rats pressing bars toself-administer mild electrical charges via implantedelectrodes. They report their results to peers in orthodoxbehaviorist fashion, where a reward (or positive rein-forcer) is defined as a stimulus associated with increasedfrequency of response, stimulation is an electricalcharge, and stimulation in these brain areas is reward-ing in the sense that the experimental animal will stim-ulate itself in these places frequently and regularly forlong periods of time if pe...

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