Welcome to Psychophilosophy: What can we learn from neuroimaging?
Psychophilosophy is a new blog dedicated to the common challenges of neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. What can brain research tell us about the mind? Does this presume conceptual and psychological analysis? What are current trends in the field? You are welcome to read this introductory post.
When I was a student at the University of Mainz, Thomas Metzinger, renowned philosopher of consciousness, used to tell us how important it is for philosophers to be aware of empirical research, particularly within the philosophy of mind and consciousness. With the help of contacts I had made via the MIND network, I had then chances to get my own hands on psychological and neuroimaging research at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and the Shimojo Psychophysics Lab at the California Institute of Technology. Directly afterward I started my own PhD research to investigate what I then still would have called the neural correlates of moral decision-making. I firmly believed that the time was ripe to solve philosophical riddles not just sitting in the armchair, but applying modern neuroscience technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in the experimental lab.
I made this decision to not just analyze and think, but to investigate empirically in 2005, about seven years ago now that I am writing this text. I still wonder about my own naïveté, but from only reading scientific papers (and really just understanding the introduction and discussion sections) one gets of course the idea that science must be a success story. In my own research, it took me a while to understand a couple of basic things about fMRI research in particular and science in general: For example, that the signal we pick up with these brain scanners is not necessarily neural and that we better should not call it correlates either, since the results are merely statistical values projected on an anatomical brain image than representations of brain activation (for a more sophisticated account on this, see our paper Schleim & Roiser, 2009. fMRI in translation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience). Another thing I learned was that the results – and I guess that this is true of many scientific disciplines – often do not give you a straightforward answer, but they are in need of interpretation. Thus my enthusiasm vanished when I had scanned those forty to fifty lawyers and other academics, analyzed the data – and had to explain what it actually means (see Schleim et al. 2011, From moral to legal judgment. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience).
Of course, this difficulty was at least partially due to our own naïve understanding of what we might expect: In line with the major literature on moral decision-making at that time we thought in the frame of the all too prevalent story of whether emotion or reasoning is more responsible for some kind of decision. If I did this kind of research again, I would definitely try to spend more thought and time on cognitive modeling in order to carry out an experiment that ideally can distinguish between different accounts of decision-making, lending evidence to some kind of theory but not others. Fortunately, I now have a position at the University of Groningen as a theoretical psychologist that allows me to spend more thought on such theoretical questions, for example, why it is actually so difficult to understand those fMRI images.
A Siemens whole-body MRI scanner. In the case of brain research, obviously, the subject's head would have to be placed inside of the machine where the magnetic field is strongest and most homogeneous. Using special protocols, this can be used to investigate brain function. (Credit: Siemens Medical)
At the present time, this is a rather small field, yet in my opinion underestimated in its importance. Given the thousands of fMRI (and other neuroimaging research) papers published and continuing to be published, I find it very surprising how little thought is spent on difficulties of interpreting the results; or that the papers written by some basic researchers are hardly read or understood by many people applying the method. The very recent years finally witnessed some major publications on these issues, many of which were picked up by more general papers or even public science magazines. It may be that now, twenty years after the inception of fMRI neuroimaging, we eventually get some less hype regarding the idea of brain mapping – which basically means to put some subjects in a brain scanner and see which areas “light up” under certain experimental conditions – and to focus more on foundational issues that address some basic challenges. One of my contributions to the scholarly debate consisted in organizing the Imaging the Mind? Taking Stock a Decade After the ‘Decade of the Brain’ conference together with Machiel Keestra, a philosopher from Amsterdam, about a year ago. Please note that most of the talks are available online in really good quality including the speakers’ slides. You may watch some of them in the meantime to learn a bit more about the topics that are likely to be featured in Psychophilosophy in the future.
What can you expect from this blog?
When the editors of the German magazine Gehirn&Geist (the precursor of Scientific American Mind) – they actually all belong ultimately to the von Holtzbrinck group –, particularly their chief, Carsten Könneker, set up the (German) SciLogs platform in 2007, they invited me to start a blog on philosophy and neuroscience, probably since they already knew me as a science writer. I chose to call that blog Menschen-Bilder which is a bit hard to translate. Literally, a Menschenbild is an image of man, though many of my colleagues prefer to use the expression “What it means to be human”. This is of course a bit long for a blog title. The Bild (image) part of the name carries this nice ambivalence because neuroimages, in a sense, are also some kind of images of humans.
However, in the course of the 130 posts or so that I or some of my guest authors have written since then, I also addressed other recent topics such as the human (cognitive) enhancement debate, more generally neuroethics, the sociology of science, a few examples of really bad science communication, or sometimes even topics as current politic debates, how our society appears to me, and the meaning of life. So far, nobody complained. I plan, though, to focus a bit more on my actual scientific research in this English blog, inviting colleagues of my academic network as well as my students at the University of Groningen to read and participate in discussing these topics.
You may still wonder why I chose this strange title, Psychophilosophy, instead of the more common expression of neurophilosophy. This decision reflects my impression that there are still many bridges to build between philosophy and neuroscience and that psychology actually might be one of the key disciplines between them. So until we have some decent kind of neuropsychophilosophy, I think, much more conceptual, methodological, and empirical work has to be done. So, stay tuned if you want to read more about my thoughts on what we can learn form neuroimaging about human psychology, for example, or to read about some other developments within neuroscience and society and, I hope sometime in the future, the philosophy of psychiatry. I have deliberately chosen to address some aspects of my academic career in this introductory post and please see this blog’s about or my homepage if you want to learn a bit more. As soon as I find some time, I will write a post on a workshop called From fMRI to the Philosophy of Mind that I just attended a week ago at Oxford University.
Thanks for reading this welcome post and I hope to see you here soon again. My German-speaking readers already know me as quite an active debater, so please do not hesitate to share your own ideas, comments, or questions.