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Brain Imaging as Modern Phrenology

By: , Posted on: August 7, 2014

Cognitive Neuroscience and PsychotherapyIn my previous four blog posts I provided examples of the first of two anomalies that will require a paradigm to fix by showing that defense mechanisms, the BioPsychoSocial model, conditioning, box and arrow models, structural equation models, regression models, and mediators completely lack causal mechanism information. The fact that psychologists are more and more frequently turning to brain imaging is an implicit recognition of this fact. But do brain scan-based studies provide the causal mechanism information required to explain how people think, feel, and behave? My short answer is that they don’t. Let me explain.

It is informative to start with phrenology because it is a badly misunderstood conceptual forerunner of modern brain imaging. Most people think that phrenology was all about skull bumps but it was actually about brain lobes. Phrenologists were interested brain-behavior relationships. They knew about brain lobes from postmortem studies. They correctly theorized that these brain lobes controlled our various abilities to think, feel, and behave. They made brain maps that detailed the psychological and behavioral functions associated with each brain lobe. Their problem was that they needed a way to study the living brain. A way forward in this regard came in the form of a convenient assumption that the skull fit the brain like a fine leather glove fits the hand. This assumption enabled phrenologists to believe that a careful examination of the skull revealed the size of the underlying brain lobes in the same way that rubbing your hand over the gloved hand of another person enables you to feel their knuckles and the joints of their phalanges. Hence, phrenologists believed that they could examine the living brain by examining the skull.

Phrenologists attempted to explain psychology and behavior in terms of brain lobes. However, their “explanations” were essentially associations between the results of skull examinations and behavioral observations. No mechanism information was provided in that no explanation of how the identified brain lobes produced the psychological and behavioral functions associated with them was provided. Phrenology was discredited when their key assumption of the skull fitting the brain like a fine leather glove fits the hand was falsified. The important point here is that phrenology was rejected on methodological grounds rather than because it did not provide mechanism information.

Contemporary psychologists have much better methods for studying the living brain while people perform various tasks. However, brain scan results are now presented as though they provide causal mechanism information. But let’s see if this is actually the case by examining a representative article by Liane Young that appeared in the February issue of the American Psychological Society Observer (pp 22-24) entitled “The Mechanics of Moral Judgment”. Notice the use of the term “mechanics in her title. She reported that her fMRI research on neurotypical participants found that the Right Temporo-Parietal junction (RTPJ) is more active when evaluating unintended harm such as accidentally poisoning a friend with a substance that was thought to be sugar and less active when evaluating intended harm. She correctly concluded that “This indicates that our ability to forgive depends on the neural mechanisms that allow us to consider, in the face of harmful consequences, another person’s innocent mistakes and benign intentions” (p. 23, bold font added).

My question to you is has she provided mechanism information? Has she informed us regarding the mechanics of moral judgments as the title of her article promised? My answer is no because establishing that a psychological function depends upon a neural network, brain structure, does not qualify that neural network as a mechanism. Dependencies are not mechanisms. Her reference to “the mechanics of moral judgments” requires her to explain how the neural networks that she identifies generate, implement, the associated psychological functions and she has not done so. My book Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory provides offers additional analysis of this article.

In conclusion, modern brain imaging studies do not offer any greater explanation than phrenology did. They associate brain structures with psychological and behavioral functions but associations are not explanations. The major difference between phrenology and modern brain imaging is that brain scans more accurately identify the brain structures that psychological and behavioral functions depend on but they do not provide any mechanism information because they do not explain how those neural networks generate the psychological functions that have been attributed to them. It is primarily for this reason that Uttal (2001) and Dobbs (2005) correctly refer to brain imaging as modern phrenology. My book provides further details.

So what are we to do now that I have shown that all of the major methods that psychologists use to explain psychology and behavior really don’t explain anything? I have a positive answer but it must wait until I make things even worse in my next blog where I present a second anomaly that requires a paradigm shift to fix.

About the Author

Warren ArrowWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy. In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is


Dobbs, D. (2005). Fact or phrenology? Scientific American Mind, 16, 24–31.

Tryon, W. W. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience and psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Uttal, W. R. (2001). The new phrenology: The limits of localizing cognitive processes in the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage located at  


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