These days, we are awash with experts writing and talking about neuro-this and neuro-that. In fact, neuroscience has become so dominant that in psychology departments around the world, the focus of research and discussion has almost wholly turned away from traditional study, toward the pursuit of this new, redefined discipline of neuropsychology. It seems like I can't open a magazine or a newspaper these days without finding another article about how neuroscience is helping us explain still another phenomenon happening in our brain.
I, too, believe that neuroscience — and its manifestation as neuropsychology — holds real promise for expanding the frontiers of science. But I worry that as we turn our interests so single-mindedly toward it, we are also at risk of losing the bigger picture: The pursuit of the more holistic, situational, and socially determined phenomena that populate the catalog of human behavior.
In neuropsychology, we are told that the conscious experience of the world doesn’t really matter much to the inner workings of our brain, bathed in neurotransmitters and stimulated by electrical impulses. But if we’re not careful, that may mean that our mind is at risk of being written off completely, dismissed as a chimera not worthy of study by psychologists who want to engage in the "real” science of neuropsychology. But what will become of the tremendous wealth of discoveries that have been uncovered by students of this very conscious process? Things like gestalt psychology of perception, locus of control, cognitive dissonance, the social construction of reality, and the reflected self…should we write them off because they aren’t something we can look at with brain scans and slides of neurons?
In fact, many would argue that it’s this capacity to reflect on and conceive of ourselves as objects of thought is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. This consciousness, and self-consciousness — what we have traditionally referred to as the "mind" as opposed to the "brain" seems to be at the root of our ability to construct and live in a shared world of social concepts, mores, and values. Indeed, it seems that the "mind" is the main actor in the current debate about the best ways to understand human nature.
So I’m a little wary of this neuro-reductionism. Let’s take physics as an example. Yes, the gold standard for scientific understanding is a kind of Newtonian atomism, where all the particles are identified, and all the forces are quantified. But if we examine the frontiers of physics today, we find that even in this hardest of sciences the cutting edge of thinking is moving away from a Newtonian, mechanistic perspective. The study of "quantum gravity" appears to require a vision of our space-time continuum as "relational and contextual" rather than a simple "objective reality." I am not a physicist, and I can't really tell you much about quantum gravity, but my point is it that even physics is moving toward a vision in which many phenomena are emergent, contextual, or relational.
If our physical reality can't be reduced to mechanistic processes, then surely our psychological reality can’t either. The mind must surely remain a major focus of study alongside the brain, as we attempt to understand who we are, and why we are who we are. A psychology that studies the emergent, contextual, and relational properties of human experience must stand alongside the neuropsychology of the human brain as two distinct kinds of scientific enterprises, studying the world at two distinct levels of organization. There is no fight here. There is no zero-sum science.
We should take care not to lose our minds as we increase the intensity of the study of our brains.