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Why Psychology is Unresponsive to Neuroscience

By: , Posted on: October 20, 2015

Warren Tryon HikingIn my previous blog I discussed the relevance of parallel distributed processing connectionist neural network (PDP-CNN) computational neuropsychology (CNP) models to our understanding of how the brain computes the qualia of conscious awareness in the same way that our visual system computes the qualia concerning the presence of visual objects and the qualia of “white light”. Here I focus on the general problem of integrating neuroscience facts into psychological theories. I find that psychological theories resist incorporating neuroscience facts because they are expressed in mental terms that are qualitatively incompatible with physical neuroscience facts. This problem begins with our black box behavioral and cognitive theories.

Black Box Behavioral and Cognitive Theories

Behavioral explanations lack mechanism information because stimuli go into a behavioral black box theory and responses come out without any explanation as to what happens inside the black box. Behavioral research can establish functional stimulus-response relationships, even causal ones, but cannot explain why they exist or how they work as they do. In short, no natural science explanations are or can be provided.

The cognitive revolution promised to open up the black box and actually explain how things work. But that did not happen. Instead of providing the required causal mechanism information, cognitive psychologists delivered more functional explanations characterized by all of the same limitations associated with behavioral explanations. In short, cognitive psychologists substituted a cognitive black box for the behavioral black box. For example, cognitive psychologists offered the following seven types of “explanations” as though they were genuine natural science explanations based on mechanism information.

1) They specified biological, psychological components, named them within separate boxes, and drew arrows among the boxes imputing causal relationships but without any causal mechanism information for how and why those causal relationships existed. These so called BioPsychoSocial explanations are just lists of components. Listing is not explaining.

2) They use statistics to account for relationships. Accounting is not explaining.

3) They associate variables using correlations. Associating is not explaining.

4) They identify mediators but cannot explain how they work. Mediating is not explaining.

5) They identify brain areas that are active when people behave in certain ways but cannot explain how or why any of this happens. Identifying is not explaining.

6) They can even establish causal dependencies of behaviors on neural structures but depending is not explaining.

7) They present operant and respondent conditioning as mechanisms when in fact they are methods of modifying behavior. Methods are not explanations.

In sum, cognitive psychologists proposed to deliver explanations where behaviorists provided none but failed to do so. Instead, they offered more functional relationships that lacked the mechanism information that is required of natural science explanations. Many cognitive psychologists have therefore turned to neuroscience to provide the missing mechanism information but as we will see in the next section none has resulted.

Neuroscience Fails to Provide Mechanism Information

There is no shortage of professional articles and popular neuroscience books that aim to provide some of the missing mechanism information that a natural science of cognitive psychology requires. I refer to books such as LeDoux’s (2002) Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, Seung’s (2012) Connectome: How The Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, Eagleman’s (2011) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, LeDoux’s. (1996) The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Gazzaniga’s (2011) Who’s In Charge? Free Will and The Science of the Brain, and Graziano’s (2013) Consciousness and the Social Brain. Unfortunately, these and related publications only associate brain structures with psychology and behavior. None of them provide mechanism information that can actually explain how any of the reported associations actually works. The resulting explanations are little better than those that phrenology offered.

The main reason why we have so little mechanism information is that very few psychologists are seeking it. There are essentially two ways to identify this missing mechanism information. The first way to discover mechanism information is to experiment with real neural networks. But this is what neuroscientists do. While some psychologists may collaborate with this purely biological research most do not. Success with this approach provides a purely biological explanation; not a psychological one. Hence, this approach is of little interest to psychologists which explains why so few psychologists are engaged in this type of research.

The second way to identify mechanism information is to simulate psychology and behavior using the parallel distributed connectionist neural network models that I refer to as computational neuropsychology. These models simulate neural architecture and experience-dependent plasticity mechanisms that modify the synaptic connections among simulated neurons. These simulations can be conducted in hardware as well as software as I have described and illustrated in my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, and previous blogs. Models that accurately simulate the results of behavioral experiments can inform us regarding how and why real neural networks can and do generate those behaviors. Here we have mechanism information that begins to provide a genuine natural science explanation of psychology and behavior.

The main reason why psychological theories, other than neural network theories, resist incorporating neuroscience is because psychological theories are formulated in mental terms whereas neuroscience facts are formulated in physical terms. There is no effective way of integrating physical mechanisms into mental stories. Mental theories resist incorporating physical facts because these facts are incommensurate with mental theories. The brain is a network of neural networks. Hence, only psychological theories formulated in network terms are fully compatible with neuroscience. This is why my book uses core and corollary network principles to explain psychology and behavior including how and why psychotherapy works.

Let me illustrate this point with an example of a recently published neuroscience article concerning consciousness. Koch (2014) described a little known but very interesting bilateral brain structure collectively called the claustrum (pronounced klaus-strum). We have two of them; one in each hemisphere. They are thin irregular sheets of cells that are located just below the neocortex which is the part of the brain that enables us to see, hear, reason, and recall memories. The following link provides diagrams showing its location – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claustrum. The claustra are surrounded by white matter on all sides. Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) can map these white matter tracks. DTI scans reveals extensive reciprocal connections between the claustra and other brain regions that make it what Koch (2014) called:

… a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustrum. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustrum to the originating cortical region. Neuroanatomical studies in mice and rats reveal a unique asymmetry – each claustrum receives input from both cortical hemispheres but only projects back to the overlying cortex on the same side (p. 24).

Koch (2014) noted that “In biology, a reliable guide to understanding function is to study structure” (p. 25). In his view, and mine, the neural architecture of the claustrum makes it an excellent candidate for generating the integrated experience that we call consciousness. The bilateral inputs to the claustrum are likely what provide split brain patients, who have had their corpus callosum severed, with their unified conscious experience. Koubeisi, Bartolomei, Beltagy, and Picard (2014) provided experimental confirmation that the claustrum mediates consciousness. As part of deep electrode implantation in a 54-year-old woman with intractable epilepsy, they discovered that electrical stimulation between the left claustrum and the anterior-dorsal insula reproducibly disrupted consciousness for as long as the stimulation continued. Koch (2014) recommended the following further readings: Crick and Koch (2005) and Smythies, Edelstein, and Ramachandran (2014).

The main point here is that these new neuroscience findings regarding the claustrum cannot be fully integrated into typical cognitive theories because these psychological theories are formulated in mental rather than terms. But, these new neuroscience findings can be fully integrated into the proposed Bio«Psychology Network explanatory system presented in Section 1 of my book because it is formulated in physical terms; i.e., it takes a neural network perspective. I close with a final example regarding neurogenesis that reinforces this point.

Shors (2014) recently reported that effortful learning facilitates the survival and development of thousands of new cells generated daily in the dentate gyrus, a structure within the hippocampus. Effortful learning helps these new cells form synaptic connections, action potentials, and become integrated into existing neural networks that are responsible for learning and memory. This new neuroscience finding cannot be fully integrated into most cognitive theories because they are formulated in mental terms but can be fully integrated into the proposed Bio«Psychology Network explanatory system presented in my book because it is formulated in physical terms.

Read more from Warren Tryon on SciTech Connect


Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy cover

Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.

About the Author

Warren ComputerWarren 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 www.fordham.edu/psychology/tryon. 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 wtryon@fordham.edu.

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