Cognitive Psychology is not my field, neither is neuroscience. That said, I have a decent level of knowledge of CogPsy and I think I know enough about current neuroimaging techniques to post about it on my own blog, though I neglected to comment on the original post.
The main question being asked is this:
"There's no doubt the mind's cognitive processes are a function of the brain's physiological activity but these two things are nevertheless (currently) separate questions. Cognitive neuroscience's strength is in physiological processes, and as imaging technology improves, so will the importance of its findings in this area. But, again, why should a psychologist care that much which part of the brain lights up in a scanner, if the mind's functioning is still so far removed from our understanding of its physiology?"
Debate ensues in the comments section about this "split view" of mind versus brain followed by an entirely pointless discussion of whether the "hardware versus software" analogy is appropriate.
An anonymous commenter provides the following brilliant analogy for using fMRI as a means of understanding cognitive processes:
"Here's the problem as I see it.... using current cognitive neuroscience techniques to understand brain-behavior relationships is currently like trying to understand the functioning of a car's motor by measuring the heat patterns on the hood of the car. We can tell when it's working harder (and which areas show the biggest changes), but that's a far cry from truly understanding motor function."
Yes! Abso-fuckin-lutely! Now don't get me wrong - I love sexy fMRI images just as much as the next gal, but answering the question "WHERE" is indeed a far cry from answering the question of "HOW" - which is what Cognitive Psychology traditionally pursues.
The problem that is leading to this debate in psychology is the fact that those sexy fMRI images are dazzling the sources that provide funding and diverting much-needed dollars to these programs when they could be supporting more "valuable" lines of research. Cog-Neuro has become the new "sexy" field of psychology, drawing more and more students and money each year.
I agree that a LOT of money is being wasted on these programs right now. We cannot learn a whole lot looking at a computer screen saying "What part of the brain lights up when we ask someone to memorize a list of words" compared to "What processes underly HOW a person memorizes that list of words?" The latter question cannot YET be answered from an fMRI image.
However, I wholeheartedly support this branch of neuroscience, especially the funding that goes to support new advances in the technology. The problem is when money is being sent off to researchers so they can play their new toy - scanning for the sake of scanning.
The fMRI is totally fucking cool, and if I had one I would play with it ALL THE TIME. My walls would be covered in poster-sized reprints of fMRI images with titles like "This Is Your Brain While Masturbating" and "This Is Your Brain While Listening To Nine Inch Nails." It would be awesome.
But it would also be a tremendous waste of time.
The fMRI is a valuable tool in all branches of psychology, but it needs to be remembered that for all intents and purposes, it can only tell us WHERE something is happening. Combining that with lesion studies, single-cell recordings, EEGs, and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and the brain mapping that neurosurgeons do can provide us with a wealth of information about the brain. But in truth, it tells us very little about cognition.
We just don't have the technology yet that we need to study the human brain while preserving ethics. And sometimes, even the technology we DO have, that IS ethical, is still difficult to find participants for, as in the case of TMS. Imagine a researcher tells you, "We're going to apply this magnet to your head, and it's going to turn off a part of your brain for a little while. Is that cool?" Most people don't, in fact, think that's cool, even if it is temporary.
The argument for Cog-neuro has been that once we have a whole bunch of data, we'll have some answers. Sure, that's great. But answers to what? And do those answers justify the billions of dollars spent on these studies? I'm guessing probably not, but I could be wrong.
The bottom line is this: Cog-neuro IS valuable as long as everyone remembers that the amount of speculation going into the analysis remains unchanged whether you use a computer model or an fMRI. There is a lot of very cool data coming out of this discipline, but it's not particularly useful in a manner that justifies its level of funding and visibility. Some people are hailing the fMRI as a divine gift to brain science, and it's just simply not the case. Let's not ignore the fantastic techniques and methods that traditional neuroscience has given us, because without using those in combination, the fMRI is practically useless.
Now I know I have a lot of neuroscience blog buddies out there who might disagree with my assessment depending on their specialty. I invite you to do so, as I am more than open to learning something new. And if any of you have answers to the following questions, I would really love to hear them because I have not been able to figure them out:
- How can an fMRI image explain how the brain processes information from short-term and working memory into long-term memory, and why some things are lost while others are kept forever? (I know we have theories, I just want to know how this particular tool can help)
- How can fMRI images explain how mental imagery works? We know from fMRI scans that the visual cortex is activated when imagining a scene just like when you're actually viewing the scene, but what can it tell us about how and why?
- How can the fMRI aid in our understanding of the serial position effect or the learning curve?
I have many more, but I think I'll stop with these. I really need to start posting blogs when I think of them rather than hours later, because this was much better organized and complete in my head around 3pm today than how it's turned out. :(