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Who are you calling a neuroscientist: Has neuroscience killed psychology?

The Chronicle of Higher Education just produced a list of the five young scholars to watch who combine neuroscience and psychology. The first one listed is George Alvarez, who was just hired by Harvard.

Alvarez should be on anybody’s top five list. The department buzzed for a week after his job talk, despite the fact that many of us already knew his work. What is impressive is not only the quantity of his research output — 19 papers at last count, with 6 under review or revision — but the number of truly ground-breaking pieces of work. Several of his papers have been very influential in my own work on visual working memory.

He is also one of the best exemplars of classical cognitive psychology I know. His use of neuroscience techniques is minimal, and currently appears to be limited to a single paper (Batelli, Alvarez, Carlson & Pascual-Leone, in press). Again, this is not a criticism.

Neurons vs. Behavior

This is particularly odd in the context of the attached article, which tries to explore the relationship between neuroscience techniques and psychology. Although there is some balance, with a look at the effect of neuroscience in draining money away from traditional cognitive science, I read the article as promoting the notion that the intersection of neuroscience and psychology is not just the place to be at, it’s the only place to be at.

Alvarez is one of the best examples of the opposite claim: that there is still a lot of interesting cognitive science to be done that doesn’t require neuroimaging. I should point out that I say this all as a fan of neuroscience, and as somebody currently designing both ERP and fMRI experiments.

EEG vs. fMRI

One more thing before I stop beating up on the Chronicle (which is actually one of my favorite publications). The article claims that EEG (the backbone of ERP) offers less detailed information about the brain in comparison with fMRI. The truth is that EEG offers less detailed information about spatial location, but its temporal resolution is far greater. If the processes you are studying are lightning-fast and the theories you are testing make strong claims about the timing of specific computations, fMRI is not ideal. I think this is why fMRI has had less impact on the study of language than it has in some other areas.

For instance, the ERP study I am working on looks at complex interactions between semantic and pragmatic processes that occur over a few hundred milliseconds. I have seen some very inventive fMRI work on the primary visual cortex that managed that kind of precision, but it is rare (and probably only succeeded because the layout of the visual areas of the brain, in contrast with the linguistic areas, is fairly well-established).




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