Last week, I wrote with some chagrin about our collective soft spot for quirky, counterintuitive psychological findings. Of the most important of these findings—that we engage in elaborate self-deception, that we’re swayed by subtle suggestions (and sugar pills), that we just don’t make sense a lot of the time—the appeal is in upending the narratives we tell ourselves about how we think and behave. But such findings have another appeal: they replace the old narratives with new, differently intuitive ones.
With enough effort—and enough cleverness—we ought to be able to reason about even our most unreasonable thoughts. From the beginning, this was the bargain we psychologists struck. When psychology first announced itself as a full-fledged science, its earliest practitioners rigorously considered the “distribution of taste sensitivity over the tongue” and the “sensation of muscular contraction,” logging dozens, even hundreds of self-observations in the hopes of distilling mental experiences into their most basic elements.
These days, research happens in reverse: instead of designing experiments to elicit thoughts, we first hypothesize about the nature of the thoughts and then design experiments to see if we’re right. Thanks to the small matter of falsifiability, the current method has proven more fruitful; we can now know when the mind plays tricks.
But this won’t be the way—or at least the only way—we make sense of our minds forever. As neuroscience becomes increasingly sophisticated, psychologists, too, will have to begin speaking the language of chemicals and synapses and circuitry. Here’s something I don’t think people outside the field realize: at the moment most cognitive psychologists go about their work as though neuroscience doesn’t exist. Sure, we occasionally speak of theories being “consistent with” our current understanding of neuroscience. Yes, we all have colleagues who scan brains or map sea slug neuroanatomy. But do we really engage? Does it affect our research agenda? Do we invite these colleagues out for drinks? We do not. But eventually we—like those who take comfort in Just-So stories about human nature—will have to reckon with important, provocative theories about mental states that will never feel in the least intuitive, or even understandable.
We’re not there yet. Frankly, we’re not even close. As Allen Frances, a professor emeritus at Duke University recently put it, “[the brain’s] 100 billion neurons each connect to 1000 other neurons and they signal each other constantly through the mediation of dozens of augmenting or inhibiting neurotransmitters. The miracle is not that things sometimes go wrong, but rather that they so often go right.” Tellingly, neuroscience still turns to psychology as its interpreter: there are “neural signatures” of understandable behaviors, and “patterns of activity” associated with understandable behaviors, but the “neural signatures” and the “patterns of activity” themselves are still mysterious.
Perhaps psychology will always have the role of interpreter; perhaps—though I doubt it very much—there will be a day when this is psychology’s only role. I think we will know in my lifetime: already the masts can be seen on the horizon. Already memories can be discussed not as dreams or diaries or even encoded representations but as neural events that mirror previous neural events. A young man has learned to operate a mechanical arm with his thoughts. A decision made by one rodent has entered the mind of another. These things—more than outrageous, they’re unthinkable.
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