Neuroscience that matters

Science, like any other human activity, is subject to trends and fashions. Some are brief fads; others are slow waves that wash through society. For the last decade or two, cognitive neuroscience has been hot — particularly neuroimaging.

A pretty typical example of cognitive neuroscience appears in this recent piece by the New York Times about research into the brain basis of sarcasm, which I read because I’ve been considering starting some work on sarcasm.

I generally don’t like the media coverage of cognitive neuroscience, since it often acts surprised that human behavior is the result of activity in our brain. This particular article did not have that problem, but it still suffered from failing to answer the most important question any article has to answer.

The Right Parahippocampal Gyrus detects Sarcasm. So What?

The punch line of the article was that a neuroimaging study found the right parahippocampal gyrus to be active in sarcasm detection. Why this is important is left to the reader to decide.

So why is it?

In a lecture last spring, Randy Buckner distinguished between two types of cognitive neuroscience.

In one, neuroscience techniques (patient studies, fMRI, single-cell recording, etc.) are used as behavioral measures. The goal of that type of research is to better understand human behavior. For instance, you might use fMRI to see if different brain regions are used in interpreting sarcasm and irony, which would suggest that the two phenomena are truly distinct.

The other kind of cognitive neuroscience uses the techniques of neuroscience to better understand how the brain produces the behavior in question. For instance, what computations to the neurons perform such that a person can perceive sarcasm?

I am sympathetic to both types of cognitive neuroscience, though I tend to feel that there are very few human behaviors we understand well enough to seriously explore their neural instantiations (the basic phenomena of sensory perception are the only clear candidates I can think of, though basic memory processes might also make that list). You can’t reverse-engineer a product if you don’t know what it does.

Interpreting Cognitive Neuroscience

In terms of the sarcasm article, it wasn’t clear what this study adds to our understanding of what sarcasm is. So I don’t think it counts as the first type of cognitive neuroscience.

That doesn’t mean it’s without information. Based on what you know about Overland Park, KS — its tax regulations, local worker pool, lines of transportation and communication, etc. — you might derive a great deal of information about how Spring works. But, unfortunately, the Times article didn’t tell us much useful. I certainly don’t know enough about the right parahippocampal gyrus to really tell much of a story.

This is not a criticism of the journal article, which I haven’t yet read. I’m actually pretty happy somebody is working on this issue. I just wish the Times had told me something useful about their work.

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