Where Are The Big Ideas in Neuroscience? (Part 1)

By Neuroskeptic | April 19, 2015 11:03 am

Why are there no big ideas in neuroscience?


By “big” ideas, I mean schools of thought, philosophies, or movements. Psychology has had, and continues to have, plenty of them: behaviorism, cognitivism, Freudianism, social constructionism, to name a few. But whenever I’ve tried to think of the neuroscience equivalents of these big ideas, I’ve drawn a blank.

Neuroscientists don’t seem to disagree on the big issues.

This doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. The field has plenty of controversies and debates, but they are focused around particular experiments and hypotheses. Factions can form, e.g. there are enthusiasts and skeptics in (say) mirror neurons. But these aren’t schools of thought in a real sense. Most neuroscientists don’t need to take sides, because mirror neurons are just one neural system.

By contrast, strict behaviorism (say) questions the foundations of the whole of psychology. Has there ever been an idea big enough to question the whole of neuroscience?

Psychology has an intellectual history, whereas neuroscience doesn’t really. We can trace the history of psychology from early philosophical approaches, to introspectionism, to empiricism, Freud, then Skinner’s behaviorism, Chomsky, the cognitive revolution, and so on. We can trace how psychologists thought, and how they changed their minds, over time. We can track the rise and fall of -isms.

In neuroscience, on the other hand, this kind of history just doesn’t work. Our knowledge of the brain has grown over time, and neuroscientists have changed their minds on specific issues, but it’s hard to point to a time when we questioned and rethought neuroscience as a whole. The history of neuroscience is little more than a timeline of who discovered what, when.

Possibly the closest thing neuroscience has to a big idea in the psychology sense is the Bayesian Brain, the idea that the brain is built around Bayesian inference. As far as I can see, Karl Friston’s Bayesian Free Energy Principle (FEP) is perhaps neuroscience’s only candidate for a theory on the scale of Freud’s.

Where are all other big ideas? And is it a good thing or a bad thing that neuroscience lacks them?

  • http://www.psycritic.com/ psycritic

    “Psychology has an intellectual history, whereas neuroscience doesn’t really.” Isn’t the history of neuroscience embedded in the broader history of biology? In which case, I would argue that the “big idea” in neuroscience is reductionism, which has been in place for hundreds of years, so it’s hard for us to see that as an intellectual movement.

  • Bernard Carroll

    In my lifetime, one example of a paradigm-changing big idea would be the acceptance of the chemical theory of neurotransmission. Jack Eccles originally championed electrical transmission between neurons, and he fought against the chemical theory for the longest time until he saw evidence in his own work to make him change his mind. Then he led the charge by establishing the reality of chemical neurotransmission in the central nervous system (acetylcholine at the Renshaw cell). All of neuropharmacology and psychopharmacology rest on that insight.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That was a major discovery, but was it a change of perspective in the same way that (say) Freud brought to psychology? I don’t think ‘neurotransmitter-ism’ was a fundamentally different way of seeing the brain from ‘electrical synapse-ism’, for all its importance.

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    It could be several things.

    “Consciousness” is a unifying feature of the intellectual landscape. What the brain does is not very controversial. How it does it has more potential and there are differing ideas on this, but the evidence is still too sparse for a polarisation of opinion.

    The “science” is largely descriptive. For example describing the connectome. What role would a big idea play in such an enterprise? And the level of detail is not sufficient to support any solid conjecturing about how the brain produces consciousness yet. It’s hard to disagree that the brain produced consciousness – though there are speculative disagreement over how, we still don’t have the kind of experiment that would be decisive one way or the other.

    I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing, it’s just inevitable given the state of play. The observations being made do not lend themselves to large scale theorisation. Yet.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I agree – that’s what I’ll be arguing in my next post!

      • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

        Look forward to it. We really could do with some big ideas I suppose.

    • cetaele

      One would first have to come up with a definition of consciousness that researchers could agree on…..not an easy task.

      Recently, it has been proposed that consciousness emerges out of reverberant thalamo-cortical loops, and this would be an interesting avenue for continued research.

      One problem, of course, is that humans tend to be too anthropocentric in their perspective.

      • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

        Indeed I think the very word consciousness has become a hindrance to progress because we don’t know what the hell it is (hence the scare quotes). Consciousness is to modern science, what the soul was the Victorians. Everyone believes in it, but it doesn’t really exist and insisting on defining the work in terms of it only confuses the issue.

        A lot more basic phenomenological work needs to be done.

  • Gabriel Castellanos

    What about neuronism vs. reticularism in nineteenth century? and the reductionist-holist debate later on?

    • cetaele

      Exactly…the pendulum there was as great as in any of psychology’s theory’s: “nature”-“nurture”, “behaviorism”‘-cognitive psychology”, “non-human animals”-“humanism” etc.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        Neuronism vs reticularism is indeed a possible exception to my rule, though this still leaves the question of why 20th/21st century neuroscience had so few grand theories compared to psychology.

        • http://www.jcolearyiii.com John O’Leary

          I would also say that cognitive science often guides neuroscientific research. Often, we observe our physical limitations through cognition before we have the tools to investigate them at a biological level.

  • Douglas Summers-Stay

    How about useful quantum effects in the brain? There’s two schools of thought about that, I think. In favor are Wigner, Bohm, and Penrose. Opposed are most everyone else, on the thought that decoherence times would be too fast in a hot, messy environment. But then comes support from long lasting quantum effects in bird eyes.

    • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

      The problem is that, at this stage, quantum is almost certainly a feature of the brain at a nano-scale, because quantum is everywhere at the nano scale. Work on quantum in biology seems to take us this far. But it’s like saying that gravity plays a role in galaxy formation. No one positing some kind of quantum effects in the brain at a nano-scale is going to be wrong. I don’t see how this produces a paradigm shift.

  • reasonsformoving

    Is not the perspective of neuroscience en masse eliminative materialism?

    • Neurocritic

      Most neuroscientists might be characterized as reductionists, but I agree that eliminative materialism is a formidably BIG IDEA.

  • JT

    “As far as I can see, Karl Friston’s Bayesian Free Energy Principle(FEP) is perhaps neuroscience’s only candidate for a theory on the scale of Freud’s”. Why? What makes this stand out? How is it field-defining? What’s the major discovery? How did it radically change the way people think about the brain?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      It’s just a personal impression really. I’m quite open to the idea that there are “bigger” ideas, if someone knows of any!

      • gagz

        i don’t find dr tononi’s idea of integrated information theory (IIT) bad either.

        however i think IIT ‘sits on top’ of dr friston’s free energy principle because the latter does not explicitly focus on consciousness, but an all-encompassing theory that can accommodate the dynamic aspect of individuality that manifests itself in our neural computations

    • gagz

      if only every ‘big theory’ could easily be decomposed into your questions.

      dr friston’s free energy principle was the result of his tireless dedication over multiple decades. you need to have a working understanding of graduate-calibre mathematics, neuroimaging and some physics (thermodynamics/conservation laws) to truly understand the free energy principle.

  • Naum

    The history of psychology is very similar to that of philosophy: it had many -ism’s and ”theories”, but little or no facts to back them up. “Where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned” (E.Mach)

    • https://twitter.com/ConsLOVElosing Victor Brimmerte

      You mean Freud’s mapping of all human interaction to how one feels about their mouth and rectum isn’t real science? LMAO at how long these hoaxers, from Freud to Marx, live on in the thin minds of our intelligentsia.

  • howard phillip lovecraft

    The last “fundamental” change of paradigm was Ramón y Cajal’s Neuronal Theory and his Law of Dynamic Polarization. What has changed since then? What about Gerald Edelman’s evolutionary perspective of the brain?

  • donsalmon

    The day that neuroscientists take seriously William James’ distinction between the brain as producer of thought and the brain as transmitter of thought will be the day that neuroscientists become legitimate participants in an intellectual discussion. This means – counter to what almost all of them seem to think (or not think!) – that they have to take philosophy seriously.

    And if they did, they’d understand that ‘thinking’ (or not thinking) of the brain as producing thought is not just irrational but incoherent. There’s simply no way to make logical sense of it.

    Then there might be some really worthwhile advances in neuroscience.

    • Nate Wilson

      Can you clarify what you mean? Why is it irrational to think of the brain as producing thought? There are data that show that neural activity spikes before it’s correlated thoughts. Considering that observation, any conclusion other than one of brain as thought producer is irrational.

      If you’re going to diminish an entire field and its advances as not “worthwhile,” then you better back it up with a coherent argument. Especially when it is one of the most funded, fastest moving fields ever, that really has made countless “worthwhile” advances that have been so by way of either contributing to our understanding of ourselves and the universe, or by way of reducing en masse pain, suffering, depression, and death.

      And also just for the record I have taken plenty of philosophy classes. You on the other hand I would guess have never opened up a science textbook.

      • donsalmon

        Hi Nate,

        You ask a very good, interesting question – I’d just request you refrain from the snark if you want to go into this in more depth (I studied neuropsychology as part of my doctoral training in psychology, and have been part of several research projects, which, of course, included training in both statistics and research methodology).

        There’s probably not enough room here to go into depth but I’ll try to do my best. I don’t think it’s the least bit denigrating to a field to acknowledge it’s made wonderful discoveries while, as Neuroskeptic so adeptly articulated, not having made “worthwhile” advances in intellectual thought (since you’ve taken philosophy classes, you’ll perhaps get that I’m referring to what traditionally has been considered the role of the “intellect” – the “nous”, if you wish). And I wouldn’t have worked with my wife for over 3 years on a website focusing on neuroscience (a very simplistic presentation, I’ll admit – deliberately so, though several folks, including two who are the heads of neurobiology labs, have looked through the site and said they thought we did a pretty good job – http://www.remember-to-breathe.org)

        The dean of the Yale dept of neuroscience made a comment some years ago that sums up my view, something I’ve come to after more than 4 decades of reflecting on this, and working with scientists interested in this and related topics in India and throughout the United States and Europe. He said that neuroscience doesn’t really tell us anything about psychology (to put it bluntly, without accompanying first person reports, nobody would ever know how any function of the brain relates to the mind – even observation of behavior, such as the famous case of Phineas Gage, requires implicit correlation of that behavior with our experience).

        What neuroscience is indispensable for, is to act as a constraint on non empirical, groundless speculating, which unfortunately still remains rampant in my field (psychology).

        As for why it is irrational (actually, quite literally incoherent) for someone to think of the brain producing thought – ahh, I’ve just about given up trying to do this in brief comments on the net. I’ll tell you what – if you’re really serious about wanting to understand this, you’ll do some homework, I would think

        Go to Bernardo Kastrup’s site – http://www.bernardokastrup.com – or just look up the “Scientists and Sages” conference where he gives an outline of his idealist theory. Then come back here or write me at donsalmon7@gmail.com.

        Thanks for the very good question!

        • Tbony Coates

          Re first person accounts and neuroscience.
          Nicely put.


  • Johann


    One “big idea”, still highly controversial, is whether the brain employs quantum mechanics to function, and/or (even more controversially) whether consciousness depends on quantum mechanical processes at all. Still very fringe, but with the evidence mounting for the lower lifeforms like algae using quantum mechanics for photosynthesis, birds using it to orient themselves with respect to the magnetic field, the quantum sense of smell, genetic mutations driven by uncertainty, and a number of uncanny resemblances between human cognition and quantum computation, it seems only a matter of time before people discover in what way the most complex object in the known universe has employed QM. Several theories exist, the Penrose-Hameroff model being the most well-known.

    That would be a major leap in neuroscience.


  • harphanmaula

    Sometime big ideas are so threatening to the established framework that the combined conscience of that field works actively against it, knowingly or unknowingly. The fundamentals of the most basic mathematical construct of neurophysiology, the hodgkin and huxley model has been criticized strongly since its conception by Ichiji Tasaki, also a student of Hille like Hodgkin and his contemporary who basically contradicted every crucial assumption of the model. The fact that Tasaki needs an introduction these days and have not been mentioned once in the comments, when talking about big ideas in neuroscience, highlights the sorry state of affairs. More recently the thermodynamic nature of the nerve impulse have been gaining a lot of momentum and just in last year has been published in 4 high impact journals (see below). The acoustic nature of nerve impulse is not just limited to a single nerve but it changes everything when extended to various collective phenomena in brain and there lies a paradigm changing idea people are too afraid to talk about.


  • Sanjay Srivastava

    What about functional specialization – the idea that distinct mental processes have distinct locations in the brain?


  • NG

    The view that glial cells are simply neural glue (as their name implies) seems to be quickly fading as research in this area demonstrates the importance of these cells in areas far beyond the menial supportive roles they had previously been relegated to. The more they are examined, the more essential roles these cells seem to have a vital hand in, from Calcium signaling in response to nerve impulses to remodeling synapses and to recovering from CNS injury, they seem to have an understudied role in everything. I think a more glia-inclusive view of the brain will prove to be a major paradigm shift in neuroscience that will hopefully lead to major breakthroughs as we study neurodegenerative diseases in the future.

    • nick kubie

      Thank you for bringing this up. As a cellular neuroscience researcher, I can say there has been at least three paradigm shifts since Ramon y cajal. First, the advent of molecular neuroscience alongside the birth of molecular biology in the 1950’s, and discoveries derived from this field. Two, the advent of plasticity and learning mechanisms pioneered (?) By kandel and colleagues. Finally, my research interest of neuron-glia interactions. This last paradigm shift has and will continue to provide novel insight into how different brain cell types interact to elicit functions in physiology and pathology. There is also some controversial theories that piggyback off multiple paradigm advancements, such as the modern day controversy in cell neuroscience regarding how glia interact with synapses to elicit changes termed tentatively “glioplasticity”. These points aside, I think its misguided to expect neuroscience to generate isms that both look and act like psychology isms when they are very different fields.

  • adc50

    The next/first(?) big idea in neuroscience. Well you could o worse than afference copy (not to be mistaken for efference copy) for one . . .


    It describes a mechanism for consciousness which leads to a variety of provocative ideas concerning evolution and development (phylogenetic and ontogenetic development), psychology to ethics . . .

    Enjoy, or rather think . . .

  • Joseph

    There do appear to be limits on what neuroscience can tell us at this time about the human condition. It has the potential to explain a great deal about consciousness and behavior but at present offers an incomplete model. As am empiricist, I personally am dubious about phenomenological models. We may be dealing with a multiple map model of consciousness much as Model dependent realism in physics. Just sayin :)

    • Tbony Coates

      Hello Joseph.
      Just by way of comment and not a criticism in any way.
      “Neuroscience” and for that matter “Science’ can tell us nothing at all.
      “Science” and “Neuroscience” are abstractions of the coherances of the experiences of scientists, and neuroscientists, humans beings who have opinions and can talk and explain whatever it is that they are on about in the academic disciplines whose members they comprise.
      Just a comment.


  • Jerome

    What about this recent news about memories not being stored in the synapse? I was reading the study but i really struggle to understand what is being shown in this petri dish experiment. Do these physical changes observed in the petri dish really correspond to memory? I would find it easier to be confident if they were directly zapping and destroying/regrowing synapses in the snail rather than in the dish.


    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      As luck would have it I blogged about that paper recently!

      • Jerome

        thanks, i missed this. This provided me the context i needed to understand what the in vitro studies were implying. Still seems to be an exciting advance.

  • Bill Klemm

    There are big ideas, just not accepted yet. For example, some neuroscientists think humans have no free will, but they can’t prove it. Also, I have a theory on where consciousness comes from and another for why we dream. See Mental Biology (Prometheus).

    • Theodore Hoppe

      It is interesting to see the way problems get stated.
      Why is it that neuroscientists need to prove a negative; that there is no free will? Shouldn’t this be the other way around; that free will needs to be proven?
      Adopted a BELIEF in free will does mean it exists.

      • cetaele

        Science doesn’t “prove” anything. The preponderance of the evidence, over time, will determine whether a particular theory or perspective is accepted.

        • Theodore Hoppe

          Free will fr the most part is an unchallenged belief.
          Name the theory that established the concept of free will.

          • Tbony Coates

            My theory does.
            You might say that I have no option but to generate such a theory because I lack the ‘free will’ to do it.
            By the same token I would reply that you have no option but to criticise my freedom to generate such a theory.

            The argument is specious right from the git go.

            Some thoughts.


          • Theodore Hoppe

            What is it that your comment is addressing?


          • Tbony Coates

            Thanks Theo for the video.

            Gregg Caruso makes a lot of generalised moral and ethical assumptions that have nothing specifically to do with free will. Free will seems to me to be the ability to choose freely among alternatives and therefore is is invariably context dependent.

            What on earth this has to do with punishment and responsibility is stretching the notion for the purposes of some other moral argument he wants to peddle it seems to me.

            My explanation ‘theory’ re free will.

            It is something one ‘does freely’ , a capacity one has, at a specific time and not some sort of conceptual abstraction or religious belief stored away somewhere that can be trotted out as a conceptual generalisation applicable to humanity as a whole it seems to me.

            Having or not having the free will to act is something one asserts about some decision or dilemma at a particular time not something one necessarily ’believes’ in.

            Folk that argue that there is ‘no’ free will’ must also realise that they therefore are also saying they no ability to say otherwise and are therefore helpless in the matter of their own argument which therefore, at one stroke becomes inarguable.


            (I may be repeating and argument that has been already covered elsewhere. I apologise if this is the case)

          • Theodore Hoppe

            Re: “having or not having”
            You mean believing one has, or not believing, correct?
            If there was free will, who exercises it, the consciousness or the subconsciousness (unconsciousness to some)?

        • Theodore Hoppe

          You know nothing about science.

          • cetaele

            Really? On what do you base that statement?

          • Theodore Hoppe

            Your comments!

          • Bob Jacobs

            Theodore, I think you find that scientists, outside of mathematics will seldom, if ever, use the words “prove” or “proof”; instead, they will say the evidence supports or doesn’t support the theory/hpothesis in question. As such, what cetaele says is essentially correct.

          • cetaele

            Wow, insightful, Theodore. Wissenshaftstheorie has nothing on you!

          • Theodore Hoppe

            Didn’t know this post was about me……AND NOW BACK TO THE DISCUSSION REGARDING FREE WILL

          • cetaele

            Well, you made it about you when you made your baseless, rather absurd ad hominem comment.

          • cetaele

            Interesting, on what evidence do you base this conclusion? As a scientist who has published 30+ peer reviewed scientific articles, this comes as quite a shock to me.

            Don’t suppose you’ve ever read Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”?

  • Theodore Hoppe

    It appears that neuroscience will simply have the settle for solving the small problems; the formation of a self, the formation of mind, consciousness, and memory.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Ah, I never said we lack big questions. But do we have any ideas big enough to answer them?

      • Theodore Hoppe

        Now I’m confused since you’re mixing apples and oranges. None of the “isms” in psychology “answers” their “big questions,” they merely offer up increasingly more informed theories.
        Psychology, which is based in observation without much physical evidence, needed to continuously reexamine its assumptions, and theories.

        Neuroscience is the physical investigation of the brain and it has many new tools to aid it. It doesn’t lacks a history, it’s just briefer than the history of psychology. The sciences study of consciousness is a mere 20 years old. The brain is a one of the most complex objects in the universe. It will take much more time to pass before it reflect on itself.

  • Dan Slaby

    Neuroscience is an empirically driven science making advances with the improvement in technology; the idea of the connectome might qualify for a big idea.

  • dianegordon

    are you serious? Neuroplasticity is huge.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I think neuroplasticity is a pretty big idea but it’s still something of a niche one today. It is mainly of interest to people who study neuroplasticity – there are many but they’re a minority. The idea doesn’t challenge the whole of neuroscience

      Now we can imagine a school of thought on it (neuroplasticism?) based on the idea that neuroscience is only about plasticity, and that brain ‘structure’ doesn’t exist, and everything (from single cells up) is dynamic. And that the idea that the brain has particular ‘functions’ is likewise too static, because function is plastic too. Neuroplasticism would be a challenge to almost all of neuroscience.

      This idea would be a Big Idea, but I don’t know of any neuroscientists who have advocated it… not recently at any rate… although I am open to being corrected.

      • http://www.transductionist.com Ian

        Actually the idea of neuroplasticity of the brain has been examined extensively on the molecular and system level. See the book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself. http://www.amazon.com/The-Brain-That-Changes-Itself/dp/0143113100
        throughout is the idea that we can re-wire parts of the brain to do things they didn’t do before. It has vast implications on brain-machine learning and is heavily researched by the US military as well.

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      Neuroplasticity is a duh. The mind is just the brain, the brain is made of physical stuff. So when the mind changes, there is also some change in the brain — plasticity. I don’t know why this should be surprising to anyone except for religious dualists.

      • Tbony Coates

        Hang on Emil.
        I agree with Diane
        Plastic is huge! Big stuff.
        Think of Leggo for a sec.
        Gazillions of little plastic cubes with tiny prongs can just about make anything and if it cannot make just about anything it can at the very least make gazillions of dollars.
        What for? (might you ask).
        Well to make further gazillions of the little tykes for the marks to buy.

      • dianegordon

        Wow ! I will bet you don’t have a science degree

        • El Cid

          And not one in English composition, either.

  • cetaele
  • cetaele

    And, of course, the work of Damasio on emotion, expanding on what he believes Descarte’s error was….

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  • http://joseduarte.com Joe Duarte (José)

    1. Neuroscience methods are extremely complex and challenging, and require massively more training than research psychologists typically need. Neuroscience is one of those fields dominated by its methods and learning those methods. Methods consume much of their time and effort, leaving less for theory-building. Psychology is often based on surveys, simple inductions and stimuli (with some exceptions). Those methods are much easier to handle, the datasets much smaller, and the analyses simpler. Just learning imaging software like FSL or SPM can practically take up a postdoc.

    2. In general, theory-building and “big ideas” are not richly rewarded or valued in contemporary scientific culture. Most scientists are pretty heads-down and focused on the task of data collection and grant funding.

    2a. Epistemology is undervalued in most scientific fields, and is not a focus of any sort or training. Deep methodological analysis is unusual, and may not count as papers per se when CVs are evaluated. Philosophy is not generally a prized pursuit – they wouldn’t necessarily grant that philosophy is a legitimate enterprise, and they might be justified if we look at contemporary analytic philosophy (speaking of conformity, I’m amazed that all these philosophy graduate students just accept the analytic framework as valid and proceed to use it. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to throw it out and build a valid framework. The quality of contemporary philosophy likely constrains the quality of any philosophy scientists are going to do.)

    2b. Over the last few decades science has evolved/devolved around a government grant monoculture. This is historically unprecedented, and this monoculture, where tenure can pivot on a specific type of government grant (R01) from a specific government agency (NIH) is famously unfriendly to fundamentally new ideas. To their credit, the NSF is trying to address this with their transformative research grant program, but having science funded almost entirely by one or two agencies likely makes a monoculture inevitable.

    3. Neuroscientists need funding, lots of it. By comparison, social psychology is practically free. Thus, neuroscientists need to do a lot more work securing funding, adding more constraints on the time they can dedicate to big thinking. They’re as heads-down as any field. The best contrast object for the field is not psychology – they have much more in common with biomedical research, which is also largely atheoretical (you don’t need big theories to investigate the specificity of mammograms, not the kind of philosophical theories you’re thinking of.)

    4. Freudianism and social constructionism are not theories in research psychology – not in social psychology, not in clinical psychology, not in cognitive. Freud is irrelevant to us, and we never talk about him. I’ve never heard clinical researchers talk about him either. We can’t really do anything with non-empirical approaches, where people just make stuff up. When I did a lit search on anti-Semitism research in psychology, I encountered a Freudian paper that claimed that anti-Semitism is caused by “birthing trauma”. I can’t overstate how confused I was when I discovered that the paper contained no data, no research, no evidence. I don’t know what that is supposed to be. That’s just a story. I’ve argued that data is sometimes overvalued, that data is irrelevant if the methods are invalid, that our “data, data, data!” culture is a rationalistic empiricism, but ultimately we’re going to need data.

    Social constructionism is a theory more from the humanities, sociology, and often bundled with political ideology. Research psychologists might sometimes talk as though cognition is all about subjective construal, but as social psychologist Eli Finkel said a couple of years ago, “there’s a reality out there” and we must not forget it. In any case, a formal package called “social constructionism” is not floating around in research psychology. Philosophy in general isn’t something people think a lot about, or say a lot about. Researchers aren’t lingering on the behaviorist –> cognitive story. That’s just a sort of historical bookmark we know about, but people aren’t generally framing their research within those kinds of theories.

    We have lots of theories, but they tend be more focused on a specific behavior or experience, at a lower level of analysis, like Heine’s Meaning Maintenance Model, Kernis’ model of optimal or authentic self-esteem, Seligman’s learned helplessness, and Greenberg’s Terror Management Theory about mortality salience. An overarching theory of human nature or behavior is not necessarily feasible at any arbitrary time point in a field’s history, and 2015 is an arbitrary time point. We’re young, we don’t explain most variance in human behavior, and there are lots of methodological advances yet to come.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for the great comment. I agree with almost all of this!

      Re: #4, Freudians did do (and still do) research. They just had a different concept of what research should be – i.e. for Freud it wasn’t about statistically analyzing data, but about theorizing from clinical experience, informed by intuition and introspection.

      It’s true that Freudians didn’t do much in the way of ‘experimental’ psychology (although there is some interesting stuff from decades ago about subliminal presentation of the word ‘mother’). But this is because, in their framework, experimental psychology was not thought to be especially interesting.

      • http://joseduarte.com Joe Duarte (José)

        I worry about inferences from clinical practice – there are huge sources of potential bias there. I posted about this on the positive psychology listserv last year, after seeing the hundredth example of a therapist or coach dismissing some new research finding by saying “I know what works with my clients.”

        Clinicians will have all sorts of motivations to think that what they’re doing works. Clients and patients will have various motivations to also think that what the clinician is doing works, or to be reluctant to be frank with a professional that their services are not helping. For example, when people spend a lot of money on something, they can be very reluctant to accept that it isn’t working, for classic dissonance reasons – some people take the implication to be that they were dumb or gullible, and would prefer not to draw that implication. There are countless sources of deception in a clinician’s own judgements. (In the extreme case, I’m fascinated that Scientologist “auditors” continue to go to work every day.)

        This is why I’m skeptical of a lot of self-help therapists and psychologists. Their method of deciding what works seems absurdly weak. It’s unfortunate that in our era many research findings in psychology will indeed be false, invalid, or irrelevant, due to various methodological dysfunctions and a lack of training in what kinds of inferences we can validly make from particular kinds of data. So the clinicians who dismiss research will be vindicated at least 30% of the time or so. But their method seems even less reliable. We need to fast-forward to much more valid research so that research findings are highly likely to be true.

        Freud was a more powerful thinker than modern self-help authors, given what little I know about him. I’ve thought that we might double back to Freud at some point and discover that some of his ideas were more or less true, or true when moderated by some other variable or individual difference. This is just a hunch based on how knowledge and discovery seem to work, how in science we often forget sufficiently old truths and then rediscover them. I also think powerful thinkers are unlikely to be magnificently wrong about everything, but I might be wrong.

        • Sönke Zürner

          The placebo effect has taught us that perception creates reality: the intentional state of the mind influences the body. The case of hypnosis in lieu of anesthetic also demonstrates the power suggestion. These phenomena show that what ‘works’ shades into what patients perceive to be working. How could it be otherwise? The mind-body interface is very much a two-way street. As long as determining whether a treatment works relies upon self-reports the standard of objectivity will be low. Patients will go on feeling alleviated, free of pain, or even cured, whether causal necessity has been demonstrated or not.

          This situation creates problems for a resolutely naturalistic methodology and mechanismic explanation. Skepticism vis-a-vis findings is in principle always possible. But it is distinct from if not at odds with the need to convalesce and to believe good things are happening. The disjunction–between faith and doubt –is fundamental. The former is a response to a crisis—a sickness—and the latter is a theoretical desideratum: a desire to establish what is the case without regard to what is perceived to be the case. The former wants results, the latter proof. certitude, and authority.

          That medicine is an art not a science has some bearing on the different approaches to the demonstration/proof of effectiveness. If the patient feels better the doctor’s work is done, but the researchers may be just beginning.

      • Georges Otte

        There has been quite some research cf neuropsychanalysis Prof Shevrin Et l on using milliseconde stimuli ( using tachystoscopes) for eloring Freudian dimension of subconsciousness.

    • urstoff

      What do you mean by “analytic framework”? Most philosophy of mind/science/psychology is not analytic in the old sense of pure conceptual analysis. Indeed, it’s been a major point of contention in philosophy since at least Quine’s “Two Dogmas” and really since the very beginning with Plato (see how many dialogues end inconclusively). Conceptual investigation is, of course, a major part of philosophy (how could it not be?), but it’s no longer just analyzing the meaning of terms. Just look at work over the last 40 years in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science: Jerry Fodor, Dan Dennett, and the Churchlands are no mere conceptual analysts; for younger philosophers, look at Andy Clark, Steven Horst, or Edouard Machery.

    • eikofried

      Good points. It’s curious that in the (other?) natural sciences such as physics, you will have people working exclusively on theories, their whole live (theoretical physicists), while the other group does empirical research exclusively. You really don’t cross boundaries once you trained in either of them.

      Curiously, medicine / psychiatry / psychology / neurosciences lack theory building and epistemology. We are not trained in it, it is not incentivized, and not deemed important. We also lack a formal language. As Denny Borsboom pointed out during his talk at ICPS recently, our theories are communicated verbally and not mathematically, and often so imprecisely that we have to ask the theorist what his theory predicts under specific circumstances. We cannot use the theory itself to make such predictions.

  • http://www.conxz.net/blog/aboutme/ Lil Kong

    It appears that neuroscience is more a tool than a subject. Most of us use it for studies about psychology, psychiatry and other fields.

  • Neurocritic

    How about anything by Eve Marder on neuromodulation?


    Chaos theory was big in the late 80s, e.g., “How brains make chaos in order to make sense of the world.”


    But I was wondering, by “Big Ideas” do you mean philosophical or mathematical? (i.e., not necessarily based in biology)

  • JonFrum

    The last thing neuroscience – or any other science – needs is to model itself on the patterns of psychology. Just sayin.’

  • Vaughan

    Cognitive neuropsychology and I would argue. Shallice’s “From Neuropsychology to Mental Structure” probably one of the most influential books in neuroscience.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Now that’s a book I need to read!

  • kathryn hedges

    I think it’s a feature, not a bug, that neuroscience has such sound experimental foundations that researchers don’t need philosophical factions.

  • naught moses

    The big ideas hit the wall when social constructionism’s empowerment by behaviorism began to reveal the actual causes of neurosis in the diathesis-stress model. (In the view of the Big Dogs, the small ones are there for the former’s purposes. Upshots can be expected.) Neuroscience has simply provided us with mechanistic clarity at the epigenetic and neuroplastic levels. We continue to deal with psychiatry at the level of symptom because we recognize but cannot acknowledge, accept or own that dominance and submission or resistance are behavioral facts in all animal societies. Neurosis, however, is exceedingly profitable for those who keep their fingers to their lips.

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  • mous

    Naum, did you read the title of the article?

  • John Araujo

    because this, some neuroscientist has visited psychology “ism”, like Freudianism.

    • El Cid

      Nope !
      Freudian-ism is Fraud. Neuroscience is a break through. That the brain is plastic carries great hope and healing…in the concept.

  • Rickety Janes

    Why? because neurosci is populated with a bunch of amy farrah fowlers, who have been told from birth that they are god’s gift to science….yet creativity is zero….

    • nick kubie

      Wow. Just wow. So misinformed.

      • Rickety Janes


  • Tbony Coates

    I do not think there is an absence of big ideas in cognitive neuroscience.

    Just highly original and novel notions that have been sidelined because they do not fit with the current paradigm of the brain as a computer with inputs and outputs processing something called “Information”.

    See ‘The Biology of Cognition” and or “Autopoiesis Theory”

    Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.

    Or visit http://www.enolagaia.com/


  • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

    I think better parallels would be fields like physics or evolutionary biology. They all have some significant theories that largely don’t make much difference to practising scientists in those fields – but they provide some of the identifying features for those disciplines, while never aiming to ‘answer all’ in a generative way.

    Perhaps a better way to think of ‘big ideas’ is theories so entrenched that everything else has to make sense with respect to them.

    Along those lines, I’d propose ‘localism’ (or functional specialisation) as the current mainstream that is increasingly coming under challenge from ‘globalism’ within Neuroscience. However, these are not clearly defined schools – more of a slow paradigm drift that may not make much difference to an individual scholar. But I would not be surprised if within the 20 years the funding landscape looked very different. Just look at the massive shifts in AI or Natural Language Processing – yet people don’t talk about ‘schools of thought’ in the same way they do in psychology.

    • S Noble

      I would definitely also offer globalism versus localism (though I was going to go for “connectionism” and “modularity”). I do believe these to be clearly defined schools of thought; these were (initially) competing theories regarding the biological structure of neural networks derived from computational theories of language. This is a marvelous debate between Steven Pinker/Michael Ullman and James McClelland/Karalyn Patterson, under the unassuming name “The Past-Tense Debate:”


      These theories grew larger than the fields they were derived from; they underlie how we make meaning out of neurological data (e.g., regional activation and network models in fMRI). The structure of these biological networks in remain unclear and complex, and the extent to which either theory (or previously unconceived alternative) applies remains to be seen.

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  • Karl Baba

    Neuroscience lives in the shadow of consciousness itself. Science has few if any tools to study what consciousness actually “Is.” It may turn out that our neurological system is the TV tuner circuitry for something like the “prana” or “chi” that ancient philosophies described. We don’t have the tools to measure that and because it borders on the spiritual, it would be the kiss of career death for a scientist to postulate ideas around “Life Force Energy” or the actual nature of consciousness if those ideas smacked of spirituality and such existed in a subtler realm than we have tools to measure.

    But such may indeed be the case. Physics keeps running deeper down a rabbit hole where things like Dark Energy and Dark Matter, which were recently undreamed of, are now thought to comprise more of the universe than we can see. Who knows how far down the rabbit hole both our physical universe and conscious existence go?

    • El Cid

      “It may turn out that our neurological system is the TV tuner circuitry…physics keeps running deeper”

      Excellent point. I have always considered it to be so. The brain itself seems to be the tool and the lab for it. But has to be prepared through strict sustained discipline, character building, and focus as the prophets and saints of old did it.

      Physics is indeed the ultimate science. Beyond it lies ‘Consciousness, Spirituality and the Mind’ the right side of the brain that seems taboo to science and the ‘Kiss of Death’ to grant seeking scientists. But they will eventually be daring there…

  • urstoff

    Is there no debate about the value of large-scale computational models that make up the sub-field of computational neuroscience? I would think that some neuroscientists see them as premature or a waste of time (for practical or philosophical reasons), but that’s just a guess. On the more philosophical side, is there no debate about just what exactly constitutes a representation in the brain? Is it a dynamic pattern of neural firings? Is it specific neurons that are tuned to specific stimuli? And you can probably graft contemporary philosophical debates of consciousness onto those neuroscientists who think there are or are not such things as neural correlates of consciousness.

    • El Cid

      Excellent point. I have always considered it to be so. The brain itself seems to be the tool and the lab for it. But has to be prepared through strict sustained discipline, character building, and focus as the prophets and saints of old did it.

  • Rob Barton


  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    This paper by Thomas Metzinger seems to get at some of the problems I envisage in philosophy of mind – the limitations imposed by legacy concepts that are holding back our progress in the neurosciences. The redefining of problems based on observation and analysis of what we see rather than what we have traditionally assumed to be the case.

    “The myth of cognitive agency: subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy.”
    Front. Psychol., 19 December 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00931

    I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion, for example, that “consciousness” is a wholly unhelpful concept that only leads us into Cartesian divisions. Like the “self” (qua entity or homunculus), when we go looking for “consciousness” we find nothing. If instead we just look and describe what we see it is not what we thought we would see.

  • Anonymouse

    From localist to distributed processing was quite the paradigm shift, wasn’t it?

  • vcabq

    Psychologists often deride neuroscience for its lack of philosophy and speculation. In my view, the ideas in psychology are so big only because the data is so small. A few behaviors, some reaction times, introspections, etc. are used to inform sometimes fantastic theories and debates. Religion offers an extreme case of this. How many angels can dance on a pin? You can argue for as few or as many as you like, we’ve never observed it, so have no data. By contrast, neuroscience is rooted in hard evidence, and typically a lot of it. This greatly limits how grand the ideas can be in neuroscience, since it can be hard to account for all of the evidence with a simplistic set of rules. I for one appreciate its honesty and focus on reality. This makes the union of psychology and neuroscience harder than it should be though.

    • eikofried

      I honestly think Psychology is an extremely diverse field, and one shouldn’t generalize from small social psych experiments to the rest of the discipline. Lots of large-scale studies and very good methods being used in parts of the field.

    • Sönke Zürner

      I seems self-evident that theories about the ‘psyche’–in contradistinction to the brain–are going to be both more diverse and more constitutive of the account given, though not for the reason you suggest (viz. fewer data). If anything the ill-defined boundaries of psychology means that there is a greater variety of what counts as a datum (a ‘given’ of experience understood as including introspection). There is more descriptive-phenomenological, definitional, and theoretical work to be done by psychology.

      It is not fewer data that encourages a plethora of theoretical approaches, but the fact that the subject matter (is it the mind, psyche, behavior, cognition, personality, the central nervous system?) is ambi-valent. The number of theoretical approaches mirrors the diversity of fields/systems ‘drawn’ by theories of the psychical.

      If you replace ‘neuroscience’ by the ‘philosophy of mind’ you will discover no want of theoretical diversity.

      Perhaps it is the need to account for intentional states that complicates and diversifies the theoretical work of psychology and philosophy of mind (of the mind-brain relationship).

      I suspect the dearth of theoretical schools in neuroscience is sympomatic of the biological approach to organic systems per se because the business of empirical research limits the range of hypotheses to those that can be tested, and the range of explanations to mechanismic/causal ones. Or aspires to do so. Psychology, on the other hand, encompasses, among other things, rational psychology: an introspective-analytical discourse/dialectic about emotions–the order of pathe articulated by Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, psychoanalytic theory, etc.

  • Keith Croes

    “Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century” by Edward F. Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly, Adam Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso, and Bruce Greyson. Discuss.

  • J_R_K

    I probably shouldn’t comment given that I am so vastly under qualified on the subject of neuroscience…. but from my own philosophical view, I always thought that “garbage in, garbage out” pretty much explained the workings of the human brain. Also, it seems to me that humanity could jump ahead in leaps and bounds if there was just some way to install a garbage detector/rejector into human brains. Uh… that’s all I got to say about that.

  • Humfree1859@yahoo.com

    I read numerous science articles every day. Many of them are in the discipline of neuroscience, and reflect the big ideas that exist in this arena. How the anonymous author of this little piece of fluff can say that there are no big ideas in neuroscience escapes me. I do not applaud the editors of Discover for their approval of such a vacuous piece of verbiage.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Someone who reads all these articles ought to be able to give at least one example of what he’s talking about.

      • Humfree1859@yahoo.com

        Even a numbskull shouldn’t be satisfied with one journal name. I wouldn’t be satisfied with five or ten. The internet is replete with references. Almost all university libraries have access to list of journals in a large variety of academic areas, and you can get to them free-of-charge if you are a member of the faculty or a student. Why didn’t you include some examples or professional opinions in your little précis of negativity?

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          I’m not asking what you’ve read, I’m asking you for an example of why you think I’m wrong.

          Also, your description of my piece as “negativity” makes me doubt that you’ve understood it – not least because in my last line I express no opinion as to whether a lack of ‘big ideas’ is bad or good.

          So may I suggest you put this article onto your reading list?

  • Thomas Musselman

    How about the overlap of philsophy and neuroscience as a game-changer: how the mind makes moral decisions. Pre-conscious, post, emotive reaction, rational calculus, self-interest, altruism, pleasure center reaction, localized, whole-brain, genetically determined, free-will. And neuroscience of all the above.

  • Thomas Musselman

    And if you mean not higher-order, emerging phenom, but bio-chemical/cellular, how about:
    glial cells unimportant vs. as important as neurons
    neurotransmitter shortage as explanation of mental illness vs. not
    overactivation of cells as explanation of schizophrenia or autism vs.not

  • http://themeatballsundae.tumblr.com/ John O’Leary

    Neuroscience was born out of a big debate! Ramon y Cajal versus Golgi!! This debate dominated the end of the 19th century thinking about the nervous system. Cajal thought we had neurons and Golgi thought they were a giant reticulum.

  • http://www.jcolearyiii.com John O’Leary

    We also have Amyloid Cascade versus Tauopathy in Alzheimer’s, and there are also a bunch experiments that add to the determinism vs free will debate.

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  • Peter Apps

    Perhaps because, quoting Richard Feynman; “The philosophy of science is about as much use to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.

  • Uri Cohen

    I’d like to disagree. Neuroscience is a young field, and our understanding of the brain is so limited, that our schools of thought are divided not on how the brain works but on how we should go about finding out.

    I’d like to suggest the following division of the field into opposing approaches

    1) Buttom-up: the idea that the brain should be understood from the sum of its parts; that if we describe well how each cell type behaves and how it is connected, we’ll end up with some understanding of how the brain works. This includes subdivision into classic electrophysiology and contemporary optogenetics but also connectomists, which divide on the critical level of description (cell types and plasticity vs wiring diagrams, respectively).

    2) Modeling: modelists such as the advocates of the “Human Brain Project” are close relatives of (1) but would suggest that when the description of cell-types, plasticity and connectivity will be simulated in a large-enough simulation we will find “emergent properties” which cannot be seen in the different parts alone.

    3) Function-first: those suggest that the critical part of understanding the brain is understanding of function, and thus start by asking how the computational tasks which the brain seem to solve may be solved in general. Then they proceed to ask how solutions to those problems may be implemented (or approximated) using neurons, and seek to interpret biological data in light of the alleged function. Note lack of need for a general organized principle here; if the brain know to solve 100 (or 10,000) computational tasks, each can be understood by itself, using different set of implementation tricks.

    4) First-principles: those suggest that the brain as a whole should be understood from first principles. A well-known example here is the “Bayesian Brain” approach which try to understand brain structure and function in light of “Bayesian Optimal” first-principles and thus suggest “The brain is a machinery for general Bayesian inference”. But there are many more here: advocated of the “Perception-action cycle” which assume that the brain (and even life themselves) are defined by the need to find actions which provide information and reward from the environment.

    5) Know-alls: there are at least 4-5 other small groups with firm beliefs about the most important “organization principle” of the brain. “The brain is all about subregions and their interactions” say some. “Brain regions interact using communication by oscillating at different frequencies” is even more detailed. “The brain is all-about maintaining a near critical, edge-of-chaos, regime” say others. And there are more of this kind. This last group is the closest to those “isms” you ask about, but they are currently limited by the non-parsimonious (or falseness) of their ideas.

    Just my 5 cents, of course.

  • disqus_ReN72OGedz

    The mathematics behind Friston’s papers were very difficult to follow, and he is a terrible writer in general. His theories are overly grandiose. I spent half a year pouring over his papers, and I all I can say is that I never shared my advisors’ enthusiasm for his work — even though they could never answer any question I had about the details of his theory.

    My end opinion was that the Free Energy Principle is, at best, a weebly-wobbly theory of everything, in the sense that anything can be made to fit its framework.

  • Sam

    Does any hard science have schools of thought? Does any religion not?

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  • Epicurus

    Could No_big_ideas = pseudoscience ?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Mmm, pseudoscience has lots of big ideas. Like homeopathy. A radical alternative theory of medicine, a big idea, but rubbish.

  • Edvard Daniel Avilés Meza

    Put aside for one moment the issue of schools of thought, think about big ideas in contemporary psychology: the mind doesn’t come as blank slate (innatism), the mind is a product of natural selection (evolutionary psychology), a lot of our mental activity is unconscious (psychoanalysis/contemporary social psychology), the mind is a modular device, etc.

    Similarly, I think that there are deep theoretical issues in neuroscience. Probably these are not as philosophical as in psychology/cognitive science, but equally fundamental. Consider: consciousness is a brain process (Ullin Place’s famous article), the brain is really a tripartite organ from differente phylogenetic origins (Maclean’s triune brain hypothesis), variation of neuronal population is similar to natural selection (Edelman’s neural darwinism), the brain is a computer-like biological device (computational neuroscience),the brain make models of the world in order to reduce free energy (Bayesian brain hyphotesis).

    With these examples I dont pretend neither that neural sciences have schools of thought nor that the number of theoretical/philosophical issues are roughtly the same as in cognitive science. Its obvious that this is not the case. Nevertheless, it seems that there are more theoretical debates beyond Friston’s Bayesian Brain, even when triune brain hypothesis or neural darwinism are false.

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  • Dr. Raymond Vazquez

    Theoretical neuroscience stands at the precipice of revolutionizing our concept of computation in an Alan Turing sense. A fundamental principle currently emerging is the notion that complexity theory may hold the best way to both quantify and comprehend brain neural dynamics.

    • Tbony Coates

      In keeping with Paul Cisek (Montreal) I reckon the notion of the ‘computational brain’ that is to say a brain with inputs and outputs that computes something called ‘information’ from the environment may need to be done away with.

      According to the Biology of Cognition the brain is a closed system and does not operate with inputs or outputs.

      It is informationally closed on itself in a series of intimate sensory/effector correlations where each affects other moment by moment as it integrates the living system of which it is a part in the medium in which it exists.

      (See William Powers “Behaviour the Control of Perception”

      and “Autopoiesis and Cognition”)

      It is the observer, who by bringing notions of Inputs outputs and computation attempts to explain its operation in such terms.

      The dynamics of the operation of the brain and the behaviour including language of the person or living system it integrates, lie in separate domains. These domains are incommensurable. They do not intersect and cannot be reduced to each other.


  • Rusty Longwood

    It’s like asking what the big ideas of chemistry are. You’re starting with a bottom-up approach (what are these cells? what do they do? what makes them do that? Maybe it’s this? Let’s test that?) rather than a top-down approach (why do we do this? here’s my grand hypothesis. let me make a test.)

  • Margie Meacham

    I’m not sure that hard science needs a “philosophy.” Did Einstein have a “philosophy of relativity?” Psychology has run through so many “big ideas” because there was no actual proof of how the brain worked until recently. You may as well call behaviorism and the rest of it “big guesses.” Neuroscience DOES need a unified theory of the brain. But we’re not there – yet.

  • http://postmodernvillage.com/ Lael Ewy

    As someone with a background in lit-crit and theory and who is relatively new to this field, it seems to me that this whole discussion shows a fascinating reversion to the mean: your answer, Neuroskeptic, is in the way this debate has unfolded. The reason neuroscience has no big ideas is that it lacks the meta-theoretical apparatus to create them.

    The idea that any field of study is “atheoretical” is nonsensical from my point-of-view; it just means you haven’t come to terms with the basic assumptions that guide what you do. Research methods are necessarily limited, but even they work on a set of assumptions about what proper methodology is, and their results are weighted by what researchers consider valuable–the latter being just as subject to cultural assumptions and biases, pettiness and infighting, economic and partisan interests as anything else we flawed humans do. These all comprise the unexamined theories from which you operate.

    All these comments and no direct reference to Thomas Kuhn? If ya’ll are really interested in paradigm-shifting ideas, he’s sort of your go-to guy.

  • http://brain4biz.wordpress.com/ Brain Molecule Marketing

    The biggest discovery is the epiphenomenological nature of subjective experience. This cancels all current domain of knowledge and demands a total reset of pretty much everything. What could be bigger than that? Brain science, real brain science, not the cognitive nonsense, changes everything/ Cognitive neuroscience is the alchemy of our generation.

    Look at the work of Paul Cisek, one of the best, for a critique of the Bayesian models and pretty much everything else that American brain science is selling.

  • gettingwell

    In my view, there’s a big idea waiting for the neuroscientists who are willing to take on an area that’s abundantly relevant but currently taboo: detrimental alterations due to DNA methylation and histone modifications during human womb-life when the mother provides the environment.

    I’ve curated dozens of studies at http://SurfaceYourRealSelf.com/ where the researchers refused to investigate causes for what may be effects from the earliest periods of life. Was it a matter of funding, the military for PTSD, social services with a keep-my-job agenda?

    Whatever the reason, the researchers focused on proving the effects rather than proving the causes. There’s a big opportunity for those neuroscientists willing to take the next unpolitically correct step.

    Here’s an example from earlier this year where the researchers did a good job, but were unwilling to take the next step:

  • Bev Byrnes

    Wow — did the author really waste the space of the webpage to publish a meager one-page blurb documenting his (her?) utter ignorance on cutting edge theories in neuroscience? Sounds like he spent 10 minutes googling “big ideas in neuroscience” expecting to find something with “ism” at the end of it (as if “isms” form concurrently as breakthrough ideas form, and not afterward as a way to consolidate ideas). Finding nothing, he then produces this piece of adolescent writing. Do some actual digging, Neuroskeptic. Your head is buried deeply in the sand and there’s a whole world out to find if you just pull it out.

  • Nicholas Lee

    Dear Stanford Neuroscience department,
    If you want to see this idea it is in my facebook page in a issuu document.

    My name is Nicholas Lee, and I am studying neuroscience, and my interest is memory encoding.
    Below in the PDF download is a diagram for a new brain mapping camera, and a new gamma knife machine I have been working on.

    Could it be possible for me to visit the Stanford neuroscience faculty, and show them these ideas for my brain mapping camera, and re-engineered gamma knife machine.

    It would take around ten minutes to show how it completely works, I just need their confirmation that it could work 100% if built.

    Getting validation from the neuroscience faculty is the only way really, this idea is going to get a prototype built to get tested.

    is it possible for me to visit some neuroscience faculty members.
    Here is a brief description of what the brain mapping camera can do.

    Current ways to see neurons firing in a mouses’s brain in real time involve seeing the neurons firing in real time in TWO dimensions not three.
    This new microscope camera I have developed when built, can see the electro, and chemical activity happening in groups of neurons in real time, and in THREE dimensions.
    This brain mapping camera is based on the Stanford Universities microscope camera used to see mouse’s neurons in real time, with the gene therapy approach.
    This new gamma knife is more advanced than a normal gamma knife machine because it can ionize groups of neurons in a area of around 80 microns.
    A group of 20 neurons should be housed inside a cubic area of around 80 microns, which is the cubic target of neurons I want to be able ionize to treat brain disease’s and disorders better in the brain better.
    You could do the following three things with this new microscope camera:

    1. With the gene therapy approach you can see the electro chemical activity happening in neurons, at Micron scales in real time, and in THREE dimensions to get an idea of how memory is encoded.
    2. Because you can see neurons firing in three dimensions, and in real time, at microns scales with this camera, you can get an idea of how brain diseases, and disorders effect the brain, and then you can find ways to better treat these brain disorders like Parkinson’s and epilepsy for example.
    3. You could find out what groups of neurons hold EXACTLY what spatial memories when using the gene therapy approach in a animal.
    4. With this new re-engineered gamma knife machine you could ionize a groups of neurons in the brain in a cubic area around 20 to 100 microns small. Which could help treat brain diseases, and disorders better like Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.
    5. With this new re-engineered Gamma Knife you can ionize groups of cells specifically in the brain at molecular levels of around 20 to 100 microns, which CAN give you the ability to specifically erase memories in a mouse, or other animal, better than Zeta Inhibitory Peptide (ZIP) which is non-specific at erasing spatial memories.

    I have sent to Stanford to the Seeds Grant department that funds high risk neuroscience ideas, and to Duke University, in a hope to build a prototype to test, but they only give grants to students who study at those Universities.
    Could you please look at the idea when you have time, and tell me what you thought of it, as well as give me suggestions on how to improve it.
    I have sent this idea to other neuroscientists who liked this idea, but they cannot help me with grant funding.

    I am hoping you can send a letter of recommendation to Stanford, and Duke to give me a grant to build this brain mapping camera, or if you could fund a university to build the brain mapping camera.
    This idea ids going to help treat brain diseases, and disorders like Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, and help understand them better.

    Best regards,

    Nicholas Lee.

  • El Cid

    ” Has there ever been an idea big enough to question the whole of neuroscience?”

    One big idea this article presents for discussion is the concept of the Bayesian Brain. The idea that the brain is built around Bayesian inference principles.

    Suggests predictions as to how an optimum/ideal sensory system should combine tested, accepted peer reviewed knowledge and experimental data/observations, by providing mechanistic interpretation of dynamic functioning of brain circuits, the potential for optimal methods of analyzing and deciphering experimental data.

    Thus the Bayesian Brain accumulates contributions from experimental and theoretical neuro-scientists examining brain mechanisms of perception, decision making, motor control according to the concepts of Bayesian estimation, associated mathematical concepts, including Bayes’ theorem, that are basic to much of such understanding.

    Some of my research work has involved synaptic initiation with its cyber applications and implications, including AI. Does anyone here has an idea as to how the first synapse fires…where does the intention to initiate comes from?

    The wildest of ideas will be appreciated and welcomed.

  • Siva Vats

    The Nobel prize
    for 2014 went to three scientists, John O´Keefe, May-Britt and Edvard Moser for
    discovering a positioning system, “an “inner GPS” in the brain (a Global
    Positioning System triggering latent tendencies from moment to moment). The
    inner GPS makes it possible to orient bodies in space, demonstrating a neural cellular
    basis (correlated to latent tendencies and predispositions). In 1971, John
    O´Keefe discovered the first component of this positioning system. He found
    that a type of nerve cell in an area of the brain called the hippocampus was always
    activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. Other nerve (place) cells
    were activated when the rat was at other places. O´Keefe concluded that these
    “place cells” formed an unconscious point-map of the room (with point marked in
    an unconscious intuition). The memory of locale of points to which body of the
    animal goes, is said to be stored as a
    combination of place cell firings in the hippocampus. In 2005, May‐Britt and Edvard Moser discovered another key
    component of the brain’s positioning system. They identified another type of
    nerve cell, which they called “grid cells” (in entorhinal cortex), which generate
    a coordinate system comprising of – directions of the body,
    distances moved, speed or acceleration and duration, which can be unconsciously
    interpreted as a map of measured changes of position and direction. It allows
    for precise positioning and path finding, unconsciously. Their subsequent research
    showed how place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to
    navigate (unconsciously by latent tendencies). In the entorhinal cortex, certain
    cells were activated when the rat passed multiple locations arranged in a
    hexagonal grid. Each of these grid cells, activated in sequence, was in a
    unique spatial pattern and collectively these “grid cells” constituted a coordinate
    system that allows for unconscious spatial navigation of own body. Together
    with the place cells in the hippocampus, the grid cells of entorhinal cortex,
    that correlate to the direction of the head (of rat) and the border of the room
    as the movement circuits, constitute a comprehensive positioning system. Place
    and grid cells exist also in humans. [See Press Release 2014-10-06 by
    The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet. Accessed 10 Oct 2014.


    It may be said that the
    unconscious action and intuition guiding it, are more difficult to explain than
    an analog to GPS conceptualized in the neural movements. Attributing powers to
    neurons called place and grid cells for making intelligent computation
    unconsciously and guiding navigation of bodies of mammals and humans, as if by
    a GPS, overlooks predispositions and latent tendencies, and the sense forms and
    sense impressions which match into them or trigger them from present moment to
    present moment. In the actions by latent tendencies computations are intuitive
    and unconscious in the movements of the body in every
    present moment. In every present moment sense forms come in as sense
    impressions and trigger selected latent tendencies by matching into them. As a
    result there is an apparent goal to the continuous motion of the body which
    goal appears only in mind as idea created by predispositions. The sense forms
    also create, together with predispositions, imageries of the action in the mind
    in every present moment which humans mistake to be the cause of actions. The latent tendencies and predispositions are
    correlated to place and grid neurons, whose movements are part of the action
    created by latent tendencies and imageries created by predispositions. [Extract
    from “Science of Person jiva vidya” by N.Sivasubramanian available on Amazon

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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