Can Neuroscience Inform Everyday Life? The “Translation Problem”

By Neuroskeptic | September 22, 2017 11:42 am

A new paper asks why neuroscience hasn’t had more “impact on our daily lives.”

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The article, Neuroscience and everyday life: facing the translation problem, comes from Dutch researchers Jolien C. Francken and Marc Slors. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but it left me feeling that the authors are expecting too much from neuroscience. I don’t think insights from neuroscience are likely to change our lives any time soon.

Francken and Slors describe a disconnect between neuroscience research and everyday life, which they dub the ‘translation problem’. The root of the problem, they say, is that while neuroscience uses words drawn from everyday experience – ‘lying’, ‘love’, ‘memory’, and so on – neuroscientists rarely use these terms in the usual sense. Instead, neuroscientists will study particular aspects of the phenomena in question, using particular (often highly artificial) experimental tasks.

As a result, say Francken and Slors, the neuroscience of (say) ‘love’ does not directly relate to ‘love’ as the average person would use the word:

We should be cautious in interpreting the outcomes of neuroscience experiments simply as, say, results about ‘lying ’, ‘free will ’, ‘love’, or any other folk-psychological category. How then can neuroscientific findings be translated in terms that speak to our practical concerns in a nonmisleading, non-naive way?

They go on to discuss the nature of the translation problem in much more detail, as well as potential solutions.

In my view, Francken and Slors are quite right that neuroscience often studies particular aspects of phenomena that are quite far removed from everyday reality. A study of emotion, for instance, might provoke positive emotions using pictures of chocolate while using bloody gore images for the negative stimuli. Clearly, emotion is rather more complex than that.

Neuroscientists have their reasons for using these kinds of simplistic experimental set-ups, of course. They provide reliable, controllable emotional responses, something less easy to achieve in the real world. There is also value in using well-studied tasks, to permit comparisons with previous work, even if the tasks might not be ideal.

I do think that neuroscience should endeavor to better approximate real life – to become more naturalistic, as the phrase goes. I also think that neuroscientists often need to clarify their concepts. Francken and Slors make the same recommendations, but for different reasons than I do. I think the main benefit of this would be that neuroscience would be better able to understand the brain. Francken and Slors however suggest that neuroscience could be (and ought to be) able to change the way we think about everyday issues:

If… our everyday ‘folk-psychology ’ could be operationalised unproblematically and unambiguously in neuroscientific experiments, the outcomes of these experiments would ideally directly inform [everyday] practices.

I disagree. I don’t see any reason why neuroscience would change our everyday lives. To put it simply, we already know what our brains do – we are familiar with the behaviours and experiences that make up human life (i.e. with psychology, broadly defined). Neuroscience is the search to understand how the brain does what it does, but this knowledge won’t change the facts of psychology.

To give an example, we now know a great deal about the structure and function of the retina (which is part of the brain.) Retinal biology is useful in diagnosing and treating retinal diseases. But it hasn’t changed how we use our retinas in everyday life, or how we think about vision. We already knew how to use our retinas; science just explained why the retina works the way it works.

So I don’t think that knowing (say) the neuroscience of decision-making would help us to make better decisions. In general, I don’t see Francken and Slors’ ‘translation problem’ as a problem. We shouldn’t look to neuroscience for life tips.

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  • CL

    Disruption of memory reconsolidation, if it works (it seems to), could change how we use our brains

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

      Hmm, that’s a fair point. There is some recent evidence it may not work however e.g. here and here.

      • Jamie

        Studies of reconsolidation in specific paradigms (e.g. motor memory, or behavioural interventions more generally) should not be taken as evidence against the idea of reconsolidation generally. Pharmacological studies continue to show strong effects and a failed replication in a finger tapping task does little to counter this evidence

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

          True

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  • Joycelyn Campbell

    What are these “facts” of psychology that are apparently impermeable to any knowledge or information that might be revealed by neuroscience? I think psychology requires at least as much skepticism as neuroscience.

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

      I agree! Certainly any given claim about our psychology may be false, but whatever the facts of psychology are, I don’t think neuroscience will change them.

      • Joycelyn Campbell

        I get that you believe what you believe, but you haven’t made a convincing case (from my perspective) to support your beliefs. I believe neuroscience can and should (and already does to a very limited extent) inform our everyday behavior. This seems like a topic begging for further debate, either formally or alcohol- or caffeine infused. Since that’s not going to happen, I believe we will have to agree to disagree. I do enjoy your column. Thank you.

  • http://www.RNA-mediated.com jvkohl

    Neuroscientists have linked energy dependent changes from electrons to ecosystems in all living Genera via the physiology of Pheromone controlled reproduction, which biophysically constrains the virus driven degradation of messenger RNA that links mutations to all pathology.

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  • José E. Burgos

    Bennett and Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (admittedly, too big a title for a book about a Wittgensteinian take on the conceptual foundations of cognitive neuroscience) is relevant here. They argue, compellingly imho, that cognitive neuroscientists commit the mereological fallacy, attributing to a part what only makes sense to attribute to the whole (e.g., to say that brains think, learn, decide, perceive, feel, etc., when logically it is the brains’ possessors who do all this). While cognitive neuroscientists keep committing this fallacy, no plausible translation will be possible. On the other hand, there are the eliminativists’ prediction that all this folk psychology will eventually disappear. Also relevant is William Uttal’s argument in his 2011 book Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience, that current brain imaging techniques suffer from deep technical, procedural, and interpretative flaws.

    • Jonathan Led Larsen

      Good points! The first resonates with concerns about open vs. closed systems and ecological systems thinking. As for flawed (or ‘hubristic’) neuroscience, the interested can find a podcast featuring William Uttal explaining his skepticism here: http://brainsciencepodcast.com/bsp/mind-and-brain-with-william-uttal-bsp-83.html
      This does not rule out, of course, that neuroscience informs everyday life – it e.g. already informs how we contemplate personal responsibility. The question is if it does it on a meaningful basis or if it’s more like the influence of… say… a religion…

      • Jonathan Led Larsen

        … And I forgot: Neuroscientifically framed arguments have informed the roll-out of diagnostic culture and widespread use of psychopharmacological solutions for decades – thus very much changing how we perceive mental distress and how we react to it. And assuming that 15-20 percent are considered as having some sort of mental illness – yes, it very much informs everyday life. Perhaps the discourse has greater influence than the science per se.

        • Jolien Francken

          The latter point is exactly the reason why we wrote this paper: because we are not happy with the current way in which neuroscience informs/transforms our daily lives, we aimed to propose alternatives.

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  • s k

    I hope the blog improves.

  • Jolien Francken

    It’s great to see that our article sparks discussion, that’s what we were hoping to achieve. We are happy to see that you agree with our analysis, although you arrive at a different conclusion. Why do we think the translation problem does exist and is waiting for solutions? We agree that neuroscience has a different aim than folk-psychology (see Section 3 in the paper), following Daniel Dennett: folk-psychology enables understanding and predicting our own and others’ behaviour, to facilitate human interactions. Neuroscience, on the other hand, aims to explain the brain, cognition and behaviour in a scientific way. There are two things to note here, though. First:

    “[…] the lay public’s enthusiasm for neuroscience does stem mainly from the fact that it promises to reveal something about ourselves, e.g. how we make decisions, where our desires come from, why we have certain preferences or whether we correctly assess the reasons for which we act. Indeed, most cognitive neuroscientists do ultimately aim to impact on our day-to-day practices and this demands the translation of brain data to common-sense cognitive concepts” (Francken & Slors 2017, p. 3).

    Second, as was noted in a comment by Jonathan Led Larsen below, while you believe neuroscientific data have no bearing on our daily lives, you are a minority. Neuroscience is already influencing many aspects of our lives: think of neuromarketing, fMRI based lie detection, and indeed, more seriously, the rise in neurobiological explanations of ‘deviations’ of behaviour in psychiatry.

    Therefore, denying the problem is one strategy, but facing it and trying to improve the current situation is the one we believe is more appropriate. We acknowledge that our solutions are imperfect first attempts, but we have to start somewhere. Once again, thanks a lot for writing this post and providing a platform for discussion.

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

      Many thanks for the comment and for the very thought-provoking paper!

      I don’t deny that there’s a problem here – as you point out, there is a huge appetite for neuro-ideas and neuro-solutions. In many cases this has given rise to seriously exploitative neuro-products (see this recent example).

      So in my view there is a translation problem, but the problem is that the public thinks neuroscience is translatable (or more immediately translatable than it is.) I’ve written before on some possible explanations for this widespread belief.

      • Jolien Francken

        Yes, exactly right. I think we’re equally skeptic about the current translatability of neuroscience. What makes it worse, is that I think many neuroscientists don’t see the problem either.

  • Matthew C. Barrett

    I think neuroscience can at least provide life tips in the sense that we might be able to work with our brains rather than against them. People create problems for themselves by treating memory as a recording device, for example. Are such benefits purely the province of psychology, with nothing to come from neuroscience?

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  • Libbero

    Isn’t this the job of Cognitive Psychology?

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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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