The Rising Tide of Neuroscience

In the October 13th New York Times, the Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks writes about the latest trend in what used to be known as psychology, now more properly called social cognitive neuroscience. This field emerged a few years ago from the previous cognitive psychology revolution that overthrew the field’s previously dominant behavioral approach.

As a former psychology teacher, I wonder what has happened to the study of behavior and the role of environmental and situational factors in shaping behavior. It appears that students care less now about these factors than they do about what goes on in the brain when individuals act, think, see or feel.

Brooks describes some of the papers he heard at a recent conference of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society. He comments that most of those who attended the meeting were “so damned young, hip and attractive.” I recall Thomas Kuhn’s claim that revolutions do not occur in science and by implication almost any discipline or institution until the members of the old school pass on and are replaced by the next generation of students.

At the meeting Brooks listened to a presentation in which subjects were shown images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdla (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families.

In another paper evidence was presented of the brain scans of Yankee and Red Sox fans as they watched highlights of one of their games. In a control condition neither group “reacted much to an Orioles-Blue Jays Game, but when they saw their own team doing well, brain regions called the central striatum and nucleus accumbens were activated. “ And so it went.

One wonders how investigators go about choosing what part of the brain to study in response the stimuli they present. Do they also measure other area of the brain to determine whether or not they are activated? In a letter to the Times, a person inquired if brain processes are the basis of the response that is measured or whether the response itself triggers the neurological event.

In his Op-Ed piece Brooks describes a study in which the anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese subjects were differentially activated when they saw members of their own group endure pain suggesting these effects may form the basis of prejudice. The writer of the Times letter asks,

Is the biochemical process the basis of prejudice or is prejudice the basis for a biochemical process taking place? To simply assume that a biochemical correlate of a social activity is its explanation is bad science…

Fortunately, there are still active groups of student/investigators who are equally committed to the situational analysis of behavior. One is from law and social psychology whose views are reflected on their blog known as The Situationist that is associated with the Project on Law and Mind Science at the Harvard Law School. In a description of this approach the authors of the Situationist write:

The situation” refers to causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are relevant in explaining human behavior. “Situationism” is an approach that is deliberately attentive to the situation. It is informed by social science—particularly social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience and related fields—and the discoveries of market actors devoted to influencing consumer behavior—marketers, public relations experts, and the like.

If you read the blog and observe the breath of the topics that it treats on an almost daily basis, it will be clear that the study of the environment and the situation is far from moribund, nor is it confined to the young, hip, or necessarily attractive.