Saturday, 2 January 2016

4b. Fodor, J. (1999) "Why, why, does everyone go on so about thebrain?"

Fodor, J. (1999) "Why, why, does everyone go on so about thebrain?London Review of Books21(19) 68-69. 

I once gave a (perfectly awful) cognitive science lecture at a major centre for brain imaging research. The main project there, as best I could tell, was to provide subjects with some or other experimental tasks to do and take pictures of their brains while they did them. The lecture was followed by the usual mildly boozy dinner, over which professional inhibitions relaxed a bit. I kept asking, as politely as I could manage, how the neuroscientists decided which experimental tasks it would be interesting to make brain maps for. I kept getting the impression that they didn’t much care. Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing; and that experimental data about when and where the brain lights up are, ipso facto, a better thing than most. I guess I must have been unsubtle in pressing my question because, at a pause in the conversation, one of my hosts rounded on me. ‘You think we’re wasting our time, don’t you?’ he asked. I admit, I didn’t know quite what to say. I’ve been wondering about it ever since.


See also:

Grill-Spector, K., & Weiner, K. S. (2014). The functional architecture of the ventral temporal cortex and its role in categorization. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(8), 536-548.

ABSTRACT: Visual categorization is thought to occur in the human ventral temporal cortex (VTC), but how this categorization is achieved is still largely unknown. In this Review, we consider the computations and representations that are necessary for categorization and examine how the microanatomical and macroanatomical layout of the VTC might optimize them to achieve rapid and flexible visual categorization. We propose that efficient categorization is achieved by organizing representations in a nested spatial hierarchy in the VTC. This spatial hierarchy serves as a neural infrastructure for the representational hierarchy of visual information in the VTC and thereby enables flexible access to category information at several levels of abstraction.


57 comments:

  1. I think Fodor undergoes hindsight bias in some of what he says we are expected to know already. The only argument I have against him is that without knowing the neural counterpart to a mental state, how can one say the mental state actually is the result of a counterpart? This sounds a lot like phenomenology, and using introspection to decipher the mind. I also believe that there's also no real definition for a mental state if one cannot figure the mind/body problem, so doesn't studying functional localization at least help out in that aspect of mapping the mental to the physical?

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    1. I could be misinterpreting, but I don't think he's necessarily arguing in favour of introspection, or even of abandoning neuroimaging. I think his point rests on the distinction between whether there is localization in the brain and exactly where all these minute functions are located. I'd say that he is actually in favour of studying and determining whether the brain's capacities are localized vs. diffuse, for the purpose of coming closer to solving philosophical issues like the mind/body problem etc.
      Fodor's issue seemed to me to be much more centred on the futility of localizing every trivial mental correlate, since what would it really tell us? If we can already confirm that the brain works in a way that involves functional loci, what more can we really glean from figuring out what every single one of those loci are? Especially since there are many neuroscientists who believe that 'localization' in the strict sense doesn't really exist.
      For example, I took a class last year that essentially covered all the things we know about individual regions of the brain and their supposed functions, and I can't count how many times the professor emphasized that there is no true, cut and dry localization in the brain. He would always criticize articles and papers that had any title resembling "X brain region is the location of Y ability" since, according to him, for any mental function that we are capable of, there is never just one small region responsible. He compared it to the farce of popular articles that claim to have "found a gene for _____" (intelligence, homosexuality, aggression etc.), which are always huge over-simplifications.

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    2. Yeah I went back to read it more clearly, and I think I misinterpreted it first so I think you're correct with your interpretation. I think I was just a little thrown off with this paragraph:

      "But given that it matters to both sides whether, by and large, mental functions have characteristic places in the brain, why should it matter to either side where the places are? It’s deeply interesting that there apparently are proprietary bits of the brain in charge of one or other aspect of one’s linguistic capacities. And, no doubt, if you’re a surgeon you may well wish to know which ones they are, since you will wish to avoid cutting them out. But whereas, historically, studies of the localisation of brain functions have often been clinically motivated, I take it to be currently the consensus that they have significant scientific import over and above their implications for medical practice. Very well, then: just what is the question about the mind-brain relation in general, or about language in particular, that turns on where the brain’s linguistic capacities are? And if, as I suspect, none does, why are we spending so much time and money trying to find them?"

      This got me questioning if there's no point in studying where specific localization in the brain, then what's the next step? What's the next approach to studying the brain if it doesn't matter where specific functional loci is located? What is the purpose of studying the brain at all?

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    3. "This got me questioning if there's no point in studying where specific localization in the brain, then what's the next step? What's the next approach to studying the brain if it doesn't matter where specific functional loci is located? What is the purpose of studying the brain at all?"

      Understanding all of this could lead us to replicating brain models and possibly understanding 'intelligence' and 'thinking' and applying these learnings to AI/technology to solve real world problems.

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    4. Sidenote:

      Here's a funny contrast to note between 4a and 4b. We have learnt that MNs were discovered because of localization. So if Fodor says localization doesn't matter, then we should be questioning MNs based on that.

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    5. Yeah I was wondering what Fodor would argue against my question. As Adrienne pointed out, Fodor probably agrees with studying whether brain capacities are localized vs. diffuse, but at the same time, she points out that "if we can already confirm that the brain works in a way that involves functional loci, what more can we really glean from figuring out what every single one of those loci are?" However, what does it mean to say the brain works in a way involving some functional loci, but without knowing what those loci are? I understand there's no need to trivialize things, but then that could also be generalized to saying what's the point of studying the brain at all if we could just say the brain works because the brain works, so let's just study it with introspection and behaviorism? That's how I interpreted that comment, and am curious how Fodor would respond.

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    6. I agree with you, it would be interesting to see what his response would be to those questions.

      Fodor mentions "I’m a philosopher, not a neuroscientist, so perhaps I’ve badly missed the point." in which case I do think he's missed the point.

      Also, I think we can learn a great deal about his approach from his last paragraph:

      "I kept asking, as politely as I could manage, how the neuroscientists decided which experimental tasks it would be interesting to make brain maps for. I kept getting the impression that they didn’t much care. Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing; and that experimental data about when and where the brain lights up are, ipso facto, a better thing than most. I guess I must have been unsubtle in pressing my question because, at a pause in the conversation, one of my hosts rounded on me. ‘You think we’re wasting our time, don’t you?’ he asked. I admit, I didn’t know quite what to say. I’ve been wondering about it ever since."

      What I infer from this is that Fodor takes a silence stance on where to go from here. Fodor essentially wrote this article to express his views and raise questions. He clearly has a lot of unanswered questions in his own mind on the lines of neuroscience and its direction. So unfortunately the Fodor from '99 will not be able to answer our questions (probably because he'll have the same ones as us).

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  2. “Maybe the Tuesday Times is really some sort of closet dualist. […]

    It’s reasonable to hold that brain studies are methodologically privileged with respect to other ways of finding out about the mind only if you are likewise prepared to hold that facts about the brain are metaphysically privileged with respect to facts about the mind; and you can hold that only if you think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing.”

    I don’t understand this quick comment that Fodor makes. Is he insinuating that the whole enterprise of neuroscience implies some sort of dualism?
    It is especially the comment “you can hold that [finding out about the brain is more important than finding out about the mind] only if you think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing” that bothers me. In looking for distinct neuronal realizations of distinct of mental states, are neuroscientist really doubting or looking for an alternative to the assumption that the mind and the brain are one and the same?

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  3. “It’s functional localization by neural imaging for which the Times is especially enthusiastic; and I’d guess that as the Times goes, so go the grants.”

    “I wonder why the Times cares. I wonder why anybody cares.”

    16 years later now since this was written, I wonder if Fodor still believes in what he wrote. Does he still stand by the fact that he thought neuroscience was a waste of money and time? Because as far as I am concerned, neuroscience has made a lot of progress over the last two decades and has uncovered a lot there is to know about the brain, functionally and at very deep levels. Most importantly, the research has in fact saved lives, helped neurosurgeons and been a huge part of medical science, psychology, and even fields in other non-science areas such as business!

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  4. “What if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap?”

    Yes, on one hand there has not been concrete, 100% certainty in research that this bundle of nerves firing corresponds to thinking about apples. However, research is making progress. In the following article, it talks about research attempting to “mind read” the patients, which essentially is seeing in the brain scan what nerves are being fired and corresponding them to what the patient is thinking about. http://www.wired.com/2014/04/brain-scan-mind-reading/

    It’s a good read – I highly recommend it to anyone curious about what finding out more information about neuroscience and mental states are intertwined could lead to some serious discoveries, particularly, mind-reading could become an actual, possible thing.

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  5. I think Fodor has built a bit of a straw man when he uses the example of functional while asking “Why does everyone go on about the brain?”. While strictly looking at what brain areas are correlated with an action or thought may not be of tremendous clinical or theoretical interest (and frankly is intellectually lazy), it’s by no means representative of what neuroimaging has to offer or what “going on about the brain” is about.

    I agree with Fodor that “where” isn’t the most interesting question. But characterizing the nature of neural activity in specific brain structures is better. Functional studies using patient populations can tell us a lot about the nature of the illness they are facing and provide new avenues for treatments.

    While neuroimaging may not have lived up to all the hype originally attributed to it (things seldom do), functional neuroimaging has told us a lot. One of the most interesting discoveries (in my opinion anyway) is the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) (kid sib: the DMN is a network of interconnected brain structures that are implicated in mind wandering and self-referential thought, among other things). The DMN is a good example of the relevance of functional neuroimaging because it has been characterized almost entirely using correlational imaging approaches. (see http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/courses/Bio3411/woolsey/Readings/Lecture11/Buckner%20et%20al%202008.pdf if anyone is interested).

    To anticipate a possible question, yes, the DMN is clinically relevant and the findings have great potential utility. Buckner and colleagues have suggested that patterns of continuous use of the DMN across the lifespan engenders the causes and conditions for the deposition of amyloid beta protein in the brain, known to occur in Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neuropathologies. (see http://www.jneurosci.org/content/25/34/7709.full)

    Note that I’ve only discussed functional and resting state MRI, there’s also Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) and structural MRIs, all of which are of great theoretical and clinical utility. There are plenty of reasons to “go on about the brain”.

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    1. Edit: I think Fodor has built a bit of a straw man when he uses the example of functional localization while asking “Why does everyone go on about the brain?”.
      oops

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    2. Hey Joseph, I totally agree with your 'straw man' opinion - especially since Fodor actually (appears to me) to argue in favour of using neuroimaging to study certain things about the brain. But, like you said, I don't necessarily think that makes him wrong. For reasons I posted above in response to Oliver H , I tend to agree that studying functional localization is something of a waste of time for anyone other than perhaps neurosurgeons (and even then, it's not always necessary or sufficient).

      It just seems like a bit of poor wording that the opening line gives the impression of devaluing neuroscience as a whole, since I completely agree (and believe Fodor does too, given his argument in favour of answering the whether question as well as for medical use) that neuroscience has plenty of valuable information and insight to give. I think if he had just rephrased the opening sentiments of this piece, people might take a lot less issue with it.

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  6. I think this article is of course close minded about the benefits of neuroimaging.

    "I want, to begin with, to distinguish between the question whether mental functions are neurally localised in the brain, and the question where they are neurally localised in the brain. Though I find it hard to care about the second, the first clearly connects with deep issues about how the mind works; ones that even us philosophers have heard of” (Fodor 199).

    I would argue the exact opposite that there are specific uses, even nonclinical, of finding where things are localized in the brain. For example, looking at the fMRI activity of long term and short term rewards in people who have addiction or substance abuse disorders showed deficient activity in the VLPFC. The findings of this study were two fold: 1) That this population has a problem with long term foresight, which wasn’t intuitively available. 2) This is tied to activity in the VLPFC. Because we know the VLPFC is associated with executive function and self regulation, we can reasonably add long term foresight as a more specific subset of functions.

    In addition there are very interesting questions that fMRI studies can possible guesses about. A more humorous article I read showed that the amygdala is more activated in political conservatives while political liberals showed higher anterior cingulate cortex activation on a set of tasks relating to political questions. Because we know the amygdala is associated with fear responses and the anterior cingulate cortex is associated with feelings and empathy, we can make some humorous suggestions about factors associated with political allegiance (my conservative friends were not amused).

    I think, like a lot of scientific research, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a specific end goal or final use in sight. Naturally, humans are curious about how we do what we do and I think knowing the locations of some of those functions is a component of that endeavour. To use Fodor’s analogy, to understand how your car works, you need to know the function of a carburetor. But how would I go about working on a car or even constructing a car if I don’t know where these things are located (after all if I opened the hood I would just be staring at indistinctive pieces of metal). Perhaps locations and activity can tell us how the brain executes its functions economically and I think the question of “where things are in the brain” is indispensable for this goal.

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  7. Fodor’s main argument that popular media and the general public get carried away with published findings of functional localization and the implications of this correlational data. When he digresses to talk about metaphysics and dualism, I feel that it is irrelevant (and a bit of nonsense) as it takes away from his main point throughout the article: where/when neural activity takes place in the brain will not tell you the how/why they happen. I agree, by no means is functional localization and neuroimaging a ‘magic bullet’ (something that solves a difficult problem easily) for figuring out how the brain generates its cognitive capacity. However, he takes it too far to claim that nothing noteworthy could come out of neuroimaging and that we are wasting “time and money that is required to train people to do the science.” Fodor does concede that there has been value in the past when studies were clinically motivated. As argued above, neuroscience and neuroimaging have made great strides in this regard in terms of improving the quality of life, saving lives, and helping aid in new discoveries (such as in addiction or behavioural economics). But, if we were going to reverse engineer a T4-equivalent machine, I still cannot wrap my head around how working towards a precise map would not aid in this endeavor (assuming that T4-level was needed to explain how we do what we do).

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  8. Fodor emphasizes that brain localization experiments are futile, since they don't really help us answer the question of how the brain does what it does, i.e. thinks of a teapot.

    Fodor brings up the example of the car machinery: "But why (unless you're thinking of having it taken out) does it matter where in the engine the carburettor is? What part of how your engine works have you failed to understand if you don't know that?"

    I argue that function emerges from (is a property of) localization. The very presence of matter - whether it is brain matter or electrical wires in an engine holds a configuration, which regardless of whether it is dynamic or static, plays an integral role in its overall function. Take a physiological example of how kidney physiology arises out of localization. You could say, well artificial kidneys can be transplanted away from the body and still deliver the same function. Then I'd argue to take a deeper look. The physics of the renal physiology depend on the relative position (i.e. location) of the blood vessels, tubes, and lining cells to reabsorb molecules from the filtrate. Even one step deeper - the function of the smallest atoms that make up ordinary matter emerges due to precise localization of protons and electrons in a configuration.

    To study the function of the brain, as Fodor craves, we need a compass to help guide us within the vast map of the brain, we need to establish locations to hint us towards where we should probe in order to find how the brain thinks of a tea pot. I agree that pure localization studies are not everything, but I think they are a necessary stepping stone to arrive at the greater question of how the brain does everything it does.

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  9. I actually tend to agree (for the most part) with Fodor’s way of thinking.
    I get a little skeptical whenever I read studies related to neuroanatomy. I do think this methodology can provide crucial insight to given topics, however we must be careful in the conclusions and interpretations that one draws from the data.

    For one, I often read in papers things like “area X wasn’t activated during task Y, therefore that given process is not involved for that task”, but just because a given region of the brain didn’t light it, it doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. It simply means that the activation did not reach your threshold. If I set my threshold activation at 40 voxels, whatever is below this threshold won’t get picked up. We’re assuming that whatever regions are activated based on our predetermined criteria is responsible for a particular function – but it’s not very clear.

    It is also not very clear what we get from neuroanatomy data. As Fodor would say; there’s no firm data for any but the grossest correspondence between types of psychological states & types of neurological states. We can get activation for a given area throughout different tasks, however it doesn’t mean that they’re doing the same thing. A given state can be achieved through a variety of neurological means.
    Prior to understanding the neuroanatomy of a function (e.g., linguistic processes), we need to understand what kinds of linguistic functions are there to begin with.

    Although, let’s not just throw the baby in the bathwater – all those tools are valid for us to investigate. There also especially important in other fields, just as Fodor talks about surgeons, however I am not entirely convinced that knowing where a given function is neutrally localized is particularly helpful. I mean no doubt the brain is responsible for our capacities, but it’s much more important to question whether mental functions are neutrally localized in the brain as opposed to questioning where they are neutrally localized in the brain (p.2)
    There is definitely important information that is to be gained through this methodology, however we need to be careful in the way we interpret the data.

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    1. I agree with you! While, as a student in cog sci or psych, I obviously understand the implications of neuroimaging studies and how they provide outstanding insight into the brain’s workings, I also think that Fodor makes a really valid point when he says that researchers may be taking the correlation of functioning and states too far. That being said, I think your point about the threshold is really interesting because I've always thought that there must be a lot of underlying mechanisms taking place in the brain that aren't necessarily picked up/the focal points of neuroimaging and therefore are not considered when mapping our brain patterns of cognitive functioning, for example. Fodor puts this so succinctly when he writes, "To put the same point the other way around: what if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap? Would that seriously be a reason to doubt that there are such mental states? Or that they are mental states of different kinds? Or that the brain must be somehow essentially involved in both?" However, I think that if we can build neural imaging machines that detect lower frequency activity or have lower thresholds for whatever it is they are detecting, that might help to alleviate the issue you’ve found. Obviously that’s much easier said than done but it helps to think of the possibilities of neural imaging rather than just dismissing it.

      It's clear that neuroimaging capabilities have afforded us novel ways of thinking of brain structures and of pathways but I think that there can be dangerous consequences of heavy reliance on them, just as you have reiterated from Fodor's arguments. For brain processes such as visual pathways and sensorimotor processes, I think brain imaging is most useful (at least as it stands now) and is especially relevant because these are things that have a direct stimulus to action process that can be traced through imaging. But I think that if we are to continue to study mental processes like emotions and 'thinking' with neural imaging, simply looking at correlation won't tell us much more than the fact that the brain is constantly working or cognizing, which we already obviously know because we are here.. doing just that. In this way, I'm wondering what sorts of other factors can be included in brain imaging studies in order to enhance their position in research because I do think they have been and continue to be important ways for scientists to actually realize that the brain doesn’t function the same way as other parts of the body. SO, while Fodor might be criticizing the neural imaging side of research for the way it makes scientists think more in categories or in a more restrictive way, I actually think it enhances the global understanding of the brain. Often, neural imaging reveals that a lot more areas of the brain are involved in something than was previously thought, and this can only be beneficial especially when it comes to something as vast as cognition.

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  10. “It belongs to understanding how the engine in your auto works that the functioning of its carburettor is to aerate the petrol; that’s part of the story about how the engine’s parts contribute to its running right. But why (unless you’re thinking of having it taken out) does it matter where in the engine the carburettor is? What part of how your engine works have you failed to understand if you don’t know that?”

    "My Rutgers colleague, Benjamin Martin Bly, seems not to grasp that there is a difference between, on the one hand, trying to find out ‘the way the structure of our minds depends on the structure of our brains’ or ‘the basis of cognition when it depends on a subtle interplay among brain regions’ and, on the other hand, making brain maps of what lights up where when one thinks about teapots (Letters, 9 December 1999). Roughly, it’s the difference between a scientist who has a hypothesis and one who only has a camera."

    I understand Fodor’s point that he is arguing how too much research these days just wants to see lights consistently light up during one task and not during others and not necessarily as a way of proving anything or demonstrating anything meaningful. A lot of this type of research seems just to be a way to get published and be accepted into the scientific community while following the latest trend. The first paper for this week on mirror neurons, while I’m sure was making some point with what seemed to be hundreds of citations that pointed to certain groups of neurons lighting up during certain tasks, I could not for the life of me figure out the point that these individual studies were trying to make.

    The problem with this thinking however is that while if each study were to be given to me one by one I would say its meaningless, but as a whole the hundreds of citation make a strong case for the existence of mirror neurons. The same I believe is true for speech and motor dysfunctions and (from what I know) the result has been that these findings have helped create new avenues for disabilities and for better surgical procedures (a point Fodor himself concedes), so I’m left a bit confused of Fodors point here. On one hand he makes a good point about the seemingly uselessness of finding the probability of brain regions lighting up for specific things, but on the other he admits there is a use for these studies as whole

    -Jordan

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  11. I do understand where Fodor’s critique of producing brain polychrome maps for seemingly trivial tasks comes from, but his approach is close minded and not entirely justified. He tackles the issue with an entirely philosophical point of view, understandably so, but with this he brushes off applications of functional mapping. Mapping the brain on functionality doesn’t really tell us how we do what we do, but it does give us clinically relevant information.

    “And, no doubt, if you’re a surgeon you may well wish to know which ones they are, since you will wish to avoid cutting them out. But whereas, historically, studies of the localisation of brain functions have often been clinically motivated, I take it to be currently the consensus that they have significant scientific import over and above their implications for medical practice.”

    I feel this point makes Fodor’s whole argument a sort of “cop out” in the sense that he removes one of the most important motives of brain imaging, that being clinical applications. From this point he argues about the amount of money spent on brain imaging research and questions the real value in what this research is telling us. With clinical applications removed, I do see the plausibility in his statements; functional localization does not shed much light onto how we are doing what we do as we are just identifying correlations of brain activity with stimulus/action. Despite this, some research that has no clear clinical application at onset, may be proven useful in the future. Take for example the discovery of the organism Thermus Aquaticus. At first look, these organisms seemed to have no practical application, but decades later they made PCR possible. From this, it is not justified to reject research that has no immediate effects, because the results may become useful decades later.

    On another note, a lingering question I had was: If someone knew every functional location in the human brain and as a result could control all “non vegetative” functions of an individual by means of electrical stimulation, would we suggest that this person knows how we do what we do?


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    1. Hello Cristian, you make a great point about the importance of clinical applications.

      I feel this point makes Fodor’s whole argument a sort of “cop out” in the sense that he removes one of the most important motives of brain imaging, that being clinical applications.

      You're totally right here. I would even go as far as arguing that the clinical applications are the most important motive for brain imaging research. As Fodor points out, “science is expensive, and it's largely publicly-funded, and there's never enough money to do all the research that might be worth doing” (page 2), so grant money tends to get allocated towards research that can demonstrate direct improvements to public well-being. And with the NIH and CIHR being as large as they are, a lot of that money gets allocated towards heath research and its clinical application. Fodor simply removes this counterargument from the table so he can proceed with his argument, which makes it seem like a cop out to me too. As you point out:

      From this point he argues about the amount of money spent on brain imaging research and questions the real value in what this research is telling us. With clinical applications removed, I do see the plausibility in his statements;

      Exactly! He makes a fair argument, as long as you completely ignore the clinical applications. But you can't just ignore them and ask what the “real value” of the research is. They are the real value! Enough said! This type of argument reminds me of the scene in the 2011 movie Bad Teacher where Jason Segal screams “It's the only argument I need Shawn!” (for a laugh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwOzfBdqrd4)

      On another note, a lingering question I had was: If someone knew every functional location in the human brain and as a result could control all “non vegetative” functions of an individual by means of electrical stimulation, would we suggest that this person knows how we do what we do?

      That's an interesting question to think about. I picture this scenario as a “surgeon” of sorts, who wields electrodes, standing over a subject with the top of his head peeled back and his brain exposed. And this surgeon can control his subject's behavior by zapping different regions of the brain. In this sense, I don't think it would be fair to say this person knows how we do what we do. They know how to initiate the process, and they can make us do what it is we do, but as far as how we do it, I'm not convinced. They still would not be able to explain the mechanism that creates our behavior, as everything that happens between zapping a certain region of the brain and the subject performing a particular behavior remains a mystery. They have simply learned how to get that ball rolling.

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  12. "Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing; and that experimental data about when and where the brain lights up are, ipso facto, a better thing than most"

    I think this view is a little exaggerated (I agree with the above commenter who called straw man on Fodor) BUT it is true that tasks done in neuroimaging have a very long way to go before they are perfect models of human circumstances. And we can acknowledge that it might not be possible at all to do so. However Fodor's recount is painting a picture of scientists who are ignoring the importance of task relevance when instead its the very opposite: we are aware that tasks are not perfect but we have not yet found a way to perfect them. There are issues in methodology in a lot of empirical studies.

    Moreover, Fodor uses Shaw's writings as a device to illustrate the scientific inclination to study the brain and its localization:

    "She runs into Pavlov, who explains to her why he is, rather horribly, drilling holes in the mouths of dogs: it’s to show that expecting food makes them salivate. ‘But we already knew that,’ she says, in some perplexity. ‘Now we know it scientifically,’ Pavlov replies"

    So to Fodor does only the "what" description matter? Is the "how" and "why" insignificant? I'm not sure how far Fodor would be willing to extend this argument considering that many of the things that he has stated he is willing to see in the Times have come from scientific inquiry and subsequent explanation. If, for example, I say birds exist and dinosaurs (did) exist, does he wish to look no further? We hypothesize that these two species are related through scientific inquiry and explanation; it is not enough to just accept them as they are in the world. By looking more into the "what" science can often get closer to the "how" and "why" and just because we have not yet made connections from description to explanation in the brain doesn't mean the search will be fruitless.

    Lastly...Fodor's straw man grows larger as he completely glosses over any impact that neuroimaging has made in psychology and psychiatry. If all we had gotten from these decades of research was an area that lit up for "teacup" and "lettuce" then his point would stand. But neuroimaging has given us insight into countless brain functions and has served to understand and further treatments of illness in the brain. To dismiss those findings as lettuce localization is unfair.

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    2. I completely agree with you Riona!

      It is a little sad to read Fodor’s discrediting of neuroimaging when it has evolved so immensely in 20th and 21st century – it’s truly incredible. Starting in the early 1900s with pneumoencephalography and EEG and then moving on to CT in the 1960s; to SPECT, PET, MRI and MEG in the 1970s; to fMRI in the 1980s. I’d say we’ve come a pretty long way.

      *warning: I’m pretty biased because I work in a MEG lab*

      Neuroimaging can provide us with great insight to cognitive function; it is simply silly to argue against this. Take EEG/MEG for instance. The existing literature has already shown us how the role of brain oscillations impacts encoding of information (e.g. see oscillatory activity in memory processing), in modulating attentional states within the brain (e.g. see attention modulating gamma-band oscillations), in providing communication between neural networks (e.g. see cross-frequency coupling or phase-locking in local and long-range networks). We can use different neuroimaging techniques to study underlying cognitive events, with hope that we can peer into HOW these cognitive processes emerge.

      Other examples that come to mind that show usefulness of brain imaging:

      1) Experiments have shown how the disruption of gamma oscillations relates to cognitive impairments in schizophrenic subjects (see Mooney Face task; Grützner et al. (2013)).

      2) Studies of subjects with ADHD are now employing neurofeedback techniques to try to modulate their attentional networks

      3) MEG is being used for precise localization of neural spiking activity for pre-surgical brain mapping for epileptic patients

      4) Functional connectivity networks that are found through subtraction analysis using fMRI/MRI/MEG allows us to see how brain regions are working together and are being recruited for vision, motor-processing, at rest [see default mode network (DMN)], etc.

      5) Neuroimaging has provided us with biomarkers (e.g. for AD, for MS, for stroke, soon for ADHD, etc). Fun fact: in 2015, it was shown how functional neuroimaging can distinguish PTSD from TBI using SPECT.

      If we see common activation patterns in the brain for specific cognitive processes then we can see different cognitive modules (for ex. Fusiform face area for facial recognition). We can also see the integration of multimodal information down to the millisecond time scale using MEG in particular. Anyways, I believe that by studying psychological tasks in neuroimaging, we WILL continue to advance our understanding of cognition and behavior.

      To cap it all off, I found that what Benjamin Martin Bly wrote in the commentary summarized my views well:

      “In point of fact, brain imaging not only provides a way to identify brain structures that support cognition when those structures are modular and local, it also offers something much more powerful: a way to study the brain basis of cognition when it depends on a subtle interplay among brain regions, or the detailed action of brain physiology.”

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  13. “I admit, for the sake of the argument, that consciousness is correlated with certain neurons firing at 40 Hz cycles; and that some bits of the brain light up when we hear nouns but not when we hear verbs”
    I agree with the last sentence. Yes, some area of the brain shows an increase in metabolic activity during specific task. However, I wouldn’t quite agree that the consciousness of a task is specifically related to the activation of its related brain area. I think consciousness is more diffuse. It might be the result of the high speed of processing from highly parallel pathway. Activation of a specific brain area is the result of the activation of many other brain areas. It might be the process of those different brain pathway and regulator that leads to the consciousness of an event. Bearing that in mind, is it really important to know the exact location of a specific mental state? Yes. Because learning about the location is necessary to learn about its connexion. Then, would spending an increasing amount of money and time into the brain localization research is really worth it? Well, that is subject to opinion. But I would rather study cognition, since it has the goal to tell us about what, in a sense, makes us human.

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  14. “That being so, why does it matter where in the brain their different counterparts are?”

    In the article, Fodor continually comes back to this question asking why we care about where certain function are localized. It seems that he is convinced that determining whether functions are localized is a relevant or useful goal of scientists, but he views the search for specific sites of localization disdainfully. However he has answered his own question (or perhaps I just agree with him).
    No, it is not important to know where in the engine the carburettor is in order to understand how the car works. But, if you want to fix the engine you must avoid toying with the wrong parts and causing more damage than harm. He addresses this earlier when discussing linguistic abilities localized in the brain and how localization information can aid surgeons to “avoid cutting them out”.

    I agree that functional imaging data can often be interpreted in a way that over-states what can actually be concluded. Many inferences are made and conclusions are drawn but, doesn’t this happen in a lot of scientific writing? I don’t mean that over-interpretation of imaging data is excuseable. Of course I think all scientists should maintain a certain level of academic integrity. However, I do think that the responsibility of critically analyzing publications lies in the hands of the scientific community at large.

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  15. Jerry Fodor points out to an interesting phenomena that is present not only in science publications but also in terms of what research is done. For example, if we look at the relative percentage of research that is done in terms of each part of the body, brain cancer is one of the most studied even thought brain cancer is not as deadly as other types of cancer. The brain and its functioning are indeed a ‘’sexy topic’’ these days. This emphasis is however understandable, the brain locates most of our functions that identify us as human beings and provide us an identity. Damage to some other part of your body can be more dangerous for your overall health, however, damage to functioning of the brain can alter your personal perception and your personal identity, characteristics that are crucial to human existence.

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    1. Hi Anastasia,

      "The brain and its functioning are indeed a ‘’sexy topic’’ these days. This emphasis is however understandable, the brain locates most of our functions that identify us as human beings and provide us an identity."

      I appreciate that you put forth a little bit of appreciation for Fodor's view and at least temper his more radical sentiments so that they're more palatable.

      I kind of get where's he's coming from. While I think he unfairly represents neuroimaging research (separating the clinical from the basic science is impossible I think) he does provide some food for thought as you pointed out.

      The way we spend research dollars is particularly biased in favour of the methode du jour. By being so critical he's brushing up against a problem that scientific research often deals with: funding the research that will generate the most attractive headline. As you alluded to, our natural interest in ourselves and our own humanity makes neuroimaging an attractive research topic, and I'll concede that imaging studies can get carried away.

      I won't undercut the definite good that comes from these sorts of studies, but it's worth discussing a more equitable distribution of resources to focus on other areas research that aren't in the spotlight.

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  16. When I began reading Jerry Fodor’s diary, I grew with excitement, mistakenly thinking that he was headed in a different direction with his critique of modern neuroscience. When he said “Over the last several years, I’ve noticed a striking increase in articles whose common theme is where things happen in the brain.” I was expecting him to criticize the thought that an entire activity or action could be localized rather than spread throughout different circuits in the brain. When he went on to say “And, though perhaps not mandatory, it’s natural enough to infer from a reliable correlation between a mental process and a locus of neural activity that the latter is the site of the former.” I was expecting Fodor to follow up with a statement on the process of reverse inference found in many fMRI studies. I was shocked to see that instead of questioning the scientific method involved in neuroimaging, he questioned the science itself. From what I understood, Jerry Fodor does not understand why people care to understand which parts of the brain are responsible for certain actions and thoughts.

    I would like to defend these studies, and cognitive science in general. In my opinion, our overarching goal is not just to find distinct neural areas responsible for specific tasks, but to start off with this basic knowledge and create an understanding of how the brain as a whole works. Individual imaging studies just give us pieces of a much larger and complex puzzle. Once we do complete the puzzle, if ever, the goal is to understand the brain the way we understand other bodily functions, so that we can develop medications or procedures to help people with damage and to ameliorate people’s mental well being.

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  17. “What if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap? Would that seriously be a reason to doubt that there are such mental states?”

    I think that if you don’t find a corresponding brain region, you don’t assume that mental states don’t exist, but you try another experiment or method to see how they do. Knowing that I feel, or that I have a thought, is one of the only things that I can be sure of. This knowledge would not be questioned if our technology or methodology is not advanced enough for us to understand how. The point is not for us to know that thinking of teapots differs from taking a nap; that we know. The point is for us to understand why it does. Asking “why” is a fundamental part of science, and helps us understand more about the world we live in. Why can’t asking “why” about our thoughts be the same way?

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  18. Well, Fodor did speak some truth in his fourth paragraph…

    “It particularly likes those polychrome maps that show a place in the brain that’s red when you’re thinking about one thing and green when you’re thinking about something else. (Disappointingly, I gather it’s not that the brain turns red or green depending on what you’re thinking about; the colours are computer generated to summarise the levels of neural activity that the experiments discover.) Well, to come to the point, I wonder why the Times cares. I wonder why anybody cares.”

    I’ve indeed heard of people who believe that our brains are emitting different colours depending on neuronal activity. *sigh* Anyways, I couldn’t help but think of that time last year when the announcement of $50m being donated to neuroscience research at USC was published along with an illustration of a backwards brain. Maybe with that support, they were finally able to figure out which way it goes.

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  19. “Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing; and that experimental data about when and where the brain lights up are, ipso facto, a better thing than most… … One of my hosts rounded on me. ‘You think we’re wasting our time, don’t you?’ he asked. I admit, I didn’t know quite what to say. I’ve been wondering about it ever since.”

    I think that Fodor was being a bit cheeky in this article – intentionally minimalizing brain imaging studies to that of green and red brain pictures and teapots. While he was seemingly trying to raise the question about whether or not all brain imaging is necessary, he leaves the reader with the impression that perhaps none of it is – perhaps the entire field is useless, as the mapping out of brain functions is splitting hairs on a beast that we have yet to identify. (For a vegan equivalent of that expression... splitting blades of grass in an unknown pasture??) I think this was specifically highlighted when he refers to science as being driven by technology; suggesting that scientists in the field are gathering more and more data without a specific goal, simply because of available techniques. Perhaps the point of the article then is not to suggest that the field is irrelevant, but rather to probe scientists who are collecting data to think more about what the ultimate goal of such research actually is. I think Fodor’s arguments would have a hard time carrying over to suggest irrelevancy of imaging that has led to the creation of the robotic arm, among other technologies based on the specific mapping of brain areas such as the hippocampal place cells. There is clearly a benefit to such research. So then why raise the question about it?
    Ultimately, I think the goal of the article is what I mentioned above: he knows the research is relevant to something, he just wants scientists to know and keep in mind what that something is. However, I don’t necessarily agree with him on (what I perceived to be) his point. Not all findings have to be top down findings (i.e. designed to test a very specific hypothesis and confirm what we already think we know). He speaks briefly to serendipity, but I think he completely skips over a very significant style of scientific discovery – what I will call ‘bottom up’ findings. I think brain research often necessarily needs to be done in this bottom up fashion. To borrow from my previous expression, I don’t think the field is splitting hairs, I think it is ‘counting’ them, hoping that mapping function after function to a specific neural correlate will eventually lead to a larger understanding of the brain and cognition as a whole. This can be seen in the deduction of the primary functions of the various lobes of the cortex – this could not have been done without various mapping techniques over time. (And Phineas Gage, but we could call that serendipitous to a degree). So while Fodor seems to be arguing against this persistent mapping of the brain, I maintain that it is relevant. Without such bottom-up approaches to scientific research, many things would still be undiscovered (ex. many particle discoveries were made through proton collisions in colliders that were built entirely on the hunch that ‘something else might be there’ – only once they had discovered enough to create a theory could they begin to theorize exactly what they were searching for).

    In one of the comments on the article, Benjamin Martin Bly quotes a previous Fodor article:

    “In a critique of the status and prospects of evolutionary psychology (LRB, 22 January 1998), Fodor wrote:
    what matters with regard to the question whether the mind is an adaptation is not how complex our behaviour is, but how much change you would have to make in an ape’s brain to produce the cognitive structure of a human mind. And about this, exactly nothing is known. That’s because nothing is known about the way the structure of our minds depends on the structure of our brains. Nobody even knows which brain structures our cognitive capacities depend on.”

    [continued in comments]

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    1. [continued from original post]

      This removes all doubt for me that the purpose of Fodor’s article was because he himself did not know the answer to ‘why bother’, but rather than he felt the need to remind scientists involved in the research what exactly the purpose was. If we want to know how the structure of the mind depends on the structure of the brain, then at some point the more tangible of the two needs to be mapped out in terms of cognitive functions. That is the purpose of brain mapping. Sensationalising it in Time magazine is to keep people supportive of the research, without conceding that the overall goal is one that, if evidenced, would disprove the scientifically accepted but not publicly accepted notion that dualism (particularly through religiosity) does not exist. He suggests in the current article that the connection referred to in the quote above is not important since it would be a redundant proof of what we already know. I again disagree on that point, and think he was saying that to probe critical thought, not because he necessarily believed it himself. I think it is narrow minded to write off attempting to prove something because we believe it will be redundant – the same argument could have been made against proving whether or not the world was flat.

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  20. ''Why, why, why does everyone go on so about the brain?''
    In his article, Fodor seems to be arguing that by just working out localisation of brain functions (by using techniques like neural imaging), will not lead us any closer to finding out how and why humans think. He argues there are still important philosophical and theoretical questions about the human mind that need to be addressed before research technology will lead us any closer to discovering how the mind works.
    Fodor highlights the debate between empiricists and rationalists, about whether mental capacities are developed by experience or are part of our innate brain structure. I would argue that neural mapping and brain imaging could actually bring us closer to discovering the interplay of these two approaches for various human abilities. By comparing neural activity across individuals and across their lifetimes, it may start to be possible to map the brain's development and the development in a person's behaviour and form links between the two. And discovering where this activity happens is a prerequisite for getting to this stage of research. Although philosophizing about the mind can raise interesting questions, I think that for tangible results it is important to keep looking within the brain. The scientific approaches are not perfect, but by investigating the brain methodically there is more of a possibility narrowing down the possibilities of how humans manage to do what we do. By merely making abstract speculations, would we be able to move forward in the search for answers, or even questions, about human cognition? And if we can't find what we are looking for? Disproving theories can also be beneficial.
    The more research that has been done, the more scientists have come to realise that merely localizing neural activity is not enough to explain how human cognition works. Maps that ''show a place in the brain that's red when you're thinking about one thing'' only provide a piece of the bigger picture. However, in the bigger picture, each piece can play a significant role. Sometimes it can seem like an impossible task to form this picture, but imaging techniques can play an important role in at least allowing us to attempt to achieve it.

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  21. "Likewise for anyone who cares about how much of the mind’s structure is innate (whatever, exactly, that means). If you think a lot of it is, you presumably expect a lot of localisation of function, not just in the adult’s brain but also in the infant’s. Whereas, if you think a lot of mental structure comes from experience (whatever, exactly, thatmeans), you probably expect the infant’s brain to be mostly equipotential even if the adult’s brain turns out not to be.”

    I found this exert of the article to be particularly interesting. It sheds light on the topic of nature nurture, which I believe the whole article ultimately boils down to. Although there has been much debate and controversy, I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to clearly identify one reason. Perhaps the view of localization as innate or not is driven by individual beliefs and not rooted in enough scientific knowledge. One of the most famous examples of nature vs nurture is with a female named Genie, who was neglected and abused up until age 13. Her cruel upbringing impaired all domains of her developmental skills, such as language, human interaction and ability to perform simple tasks. From the help of scientists and doctors, she was able to improve her language skills, however they reached a plateau at a certain point, which prohibited her from forming grammatical sentences and proper syntax to this day. Therefore, it seems as if her upbringing and experience played a larger role in her development. However, this is still quite controversial because perhaps she was born mentally impaired, which hindered her development. Therefore, similar to the article, I think a lot of it boils down to nature vs nurture and it is still early to determine one concrete cause.

    Another point that I wanted to address was the "Rationalists are generally nativists and preformationists; empiricists generally aren’t either one or the other.”

    I am having some trouble with that statement.If nativists are people who believe that things are primarily in the brain at birth; how can they be classified as rationalists who are people who use judgement and reasoning to form conclusions. It seems like empiricists should be nativists, because they both rely on empirical data.

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  22. Maybe we're heavily invested in finding answers to which we don't know the corresponding questions. (page 2)

    Fodor raises an excellent point here. It is quite possible that the reason we focus so much on neural imaging is that we have spent so much money on it. And since science and money are so interconnected, we need to make sure we get an intellectual return from our investment. Otherwise, the investors who provided the initial capital are less likely to finance future scientific pursuits, and the scientists who advocated for neural imaging studies will have a hard time finding another job. So it is fair to critique the notion that “while we don't know the questions, we know neural imaging is the way to find answers, and we are going to find those answers and those answers alone because that's what the grant money tells us to do.”

    However, what bothers me about Fodor's article is that he doesn't provide any feasible alternatives. He simply bashes on the current way of doing things, almost like he just wants to vent his frustrations about it. Trying to find the answers when you don't know the questions is not the best way to go about research, but at least it's still progress. What questions do you propose we investigate? We may not be doing things in the best way possible, but at least we're still doing something. Fodor even raises this idea himself in his final paragraph:

    I kept asking, as politely as I could manage, how the neuroscientists decided which experimental tasks it would be interesting to make brain maps for. I kept getting the impression that they didn’t much care. Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing. (page 5)

    Fodor has a good point, the types of experimental tasks being chosen are probably more important than the neuroscientists seem to think. But he just ends his argument here when he should have developed it further. What types of tasks are better than others? And why are they better? While I agree that particular data sets can be better than others depending on their context, the neuroscientists have a good point as well. Having data is better than not having data, which seems to be what Fodor is suggesting. To be fair to Fodor, he does point out that investing in certain research means not investing in other forms of research:

    If you put your money (which is to say: our money) into the elaborate technology required to establish neural localisations of mental functions by imaging techniques, you almost certainly take it out of other kinds of psychological research. (page 2)

    But again, Fodor does not suggest any “other kinds of psychological research” in which we should invest. And while the past 16 years, which have demonstrated the direct benefits of neural imaging, may create some bias against Fodor's article, his lack of concrete alternatives leaves me unconvinced. Had he argued against neural imaging in favor of, say, Method A, his evidence as to why Method A is a better way of approaching the problem may have won me over. But because he argues against neural imaging in favor of, well, nothing, I find myself siding with neural imaging.

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  23. I really have a lot of problems with this article, as is probably expected form someone in science. Firstly, neuroimaging has provided us with a wealth of information that, while perhaps only correlational, has lead to many useful treatments. To give one simple example, neuroimaging helped us to discover the location and types of neurons involved in Parkinson's disease, for which we have now created very effective pharmaceuticals as well as deep brain stimulation to treat. Both have increased immeasurably the quality of life of those effected. So as for the author's case against whether neuroimaging is a useful research endeavor in and of itself (and whether it deserves any press or funding), in my opinion, he couldn't be more wrong. Perhaps it hasn't told us much about similarities of mental states etc, but I really don't think that was ever the goal of neuroimaging. At the very least, we learn many fascinating correlations about brain function and at the best we can develop new, more specific treatments.
    "It occurs to me that maybe we’re heavily invested in finding answers to which we don’t know the corresponding questions. Maybe the availability of the new technology is running the science rather than the other way round. It would hardly be the first time." …."‘you can never tell, it might pan out,’ you probably ought to have your research strategy looked at."
    Maybe the author doesn't realize just how many insanely useful inventions, treatments, and applications of science have been discovered either by accident or through what some scientists call "fishing expeditions". Especially when it comes to the brain, we know so little that often having hypothesis-driven research goals isn't very useful. It does us no good to pretend that we know more than we do by trying to find specific hypotheses to test. In many cases, it is much more useful to simply "go fishing" with a new technology or concept and see what we find. For sure, some scientists disagree with this more liberal approach to science but I think it has great merit for many fields, neuroscience included.
    "it’s reasonable to hold that brain studies are methodologically privileged with respect to other ways of finding out about the mind only if you are likewise prepared to hold that facts about the brain are metaphysically privileged with respect to facts about the mind; and you can hold that only if you think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing."
    Firstly, what other ways to study the mind does he suggest here? It does no good to bash something and then not provide a decent alternative. Secondly, I really don't agree that by saying neuroimaging in a good way to study the mind, one must also hold that the brain and mind are separate things. In fact, I'd say it's quite the opposite - we study the brain as a way to understand the mind (psychology) because we believe they are unchangeably intertwined.

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    1. Hello Allish, I do agree with you that he was rather dismissive towards neuroimaging and the many benefits that functionality of the brain. Upon first reading, his constant questioning about the validity in the study of brain really got me too (as a student that have read through many studies with breakthrough by looking at brain region functionality).

      But in going back for another read and attempt to see more of his message instead of focusing on his polemic style and critique towards neuroscience, his message also carries something you mentioned in your comment, in that to understand mind, "we study the brain as a way to understand the mind because we believe they are unchangeably intertwined" which seems parallel to me as he said that "the basis of cognition when it depend on a subtle interplay among brain regions." (Fodor 1999). What do you think?

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  24. First of all, I found Fodor's article to be a disorganized combination of underdeveloped examples, eventually producing a rather fruitless piece. That being said, I do appreciate that, as a philosopher, he chose to examine the field of psychological science. And, with THAT being said, I do think that his inexperience in the field of psychology is probably the reason for the lack of direction in this article. His genuine curiosity as to why we truly care where in the brain some things happen is relatable and honest, and he also made some interesting points, such as the metaphor of the mind having the mechanics of a car. However, for a man who admits to being a philosopher rather than a psychologist or a scientist, I couldn't help but be a little skeptical with regards to his fixed views on education.

    "Do you think that a classical education disciplines the mind for whatever pursuits it later undertakes? If so, you should think that learning Latin gives rise to intellectual capacities that are more or less equally in play in devising a foreign policy, or designing a bridge, or making money on the market. Similarly, if you think there’s such a thing as ‘general’ intelligence – what IQ tests are supposed to measure – then you should also think that designing bridges and designing foreign policies manifest much the same kind of cleverness, albeit applied to different tasks. People who are good at the one should then be, potentially, equally good at the other."

    Believing in the existence of a "general intelligence", the kind measured by an IQ test is not to say that designing bridges manifests the same intelligence as does designing foreign policy. In my opinion, general intelligence should be looked at as a baseline. General intelligence should be that which a healthy and average brain should have acquired after the most basic years of average, appropriate schooling. General intelligence can still exist even if the brain is heterogenous and different things happen in different places. Just as how someone can be in general good health even though completely different and unrelated bodily functions happen at different places in the body. Designing foreign policies versus designing bridges happens at a place beyond general intelligence. Just because someone is in good, overall physical health does not mean he or she has the capacity to be a great skier and also a great gymnast. The existence of general intelligence should not negate the idea that individual brains differ in their potential for different things. Therefore, believing in a general intelligence does not necessarily mean that brains are equipotential. Maybe I'm missing the overall point of the article, but I found Fodor's article was underdeveloped with respect to his examples and I don't think he thought through each of them carefully enough to be able to stand on them to make his point. I respect his desire to question the reason for scientific inquiries such as these, but I found it hard to deduce his final point, and the example about which I just wrote was something I thought robbed the article of its validity.

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    1. Interestingly, Fodor’s tongue-in-cheek comment about the insufficiency of a “classical education” is paired with his repeated use of Latin phrases throughout his article (Latin supposedly being the “original” classical language) in which he clearly demonstrates he views himself as both highly intellectual and capable. For a short piece of writing, he works in a number of esoteric Latin expressions (e.g. ‘obiter dicta’, ‘sui generis’, ‘ipso facto’) – which are brilliant, nonetheless – but don’t really serve to substantiate his refutation of a classical education as a groundwork for intellectual capabilities.

      Independent from his use of Latin, I think that Fodor’s logic in the aforementioned example is way off. In my opinion, the conclusion he draws is based off of unclear premises that do not form a strong inductive argument, or a strong argument period. Furthermore, no part of this argument seems to me to be sufficient or even useful to reasonably conclude anything about ‘general intelligence’ or the localization of mental processes. Fodor seems to be going off on a bit of a tangent, which is less than ideal in a paper of this length especially when it is making such a radical statement.

      I could be misunderstanding his argument, or perhaps I just disagree with his claims. I do not think that an individual’s value judgement about the usefulness of learning Latin (which Fodor uses synonymously with a classical education) as a means of cultivating discipline in the mind can then be used to then assume that those who do see this type of value in learning Latin must also believe that some kind of ‘blanket’ intellectual ability must be at play in devising a foreign policy, designing a bridge, or making money on the market. I think that discipline of the mind is a hugely abstract concept, and it does not follow that even if one did believe that learning Latin offered some intellectual capacity, say increased mental discipline (whatever that means), that this capacity would be “more or less equally in play in devising a foreign policy, or designing a bridge, or making money on the market”. One individual may learn Latin by rote memorization over hours of reading while another may learn it through another means of study, say conversation/verbalization. Both individuals have “learned Latin”, such that they appear identical in their use and application of the language (I’m veering dangerously close to Searle’s Chinese Room, I’m going to try and redirect myself). That does not indicate the means each individual took to get to that end are the same, and/or that they can therefore be predicted to perform in a certain way in another domain of learning based on the fact that they have “learned” Latin. Devising a foreign policy and designing a bridge involve a very different kind of pre-existing knowledge to be properly executed, which may or may not require or denote the same or different types of intellectual capacities. We can’t assume they’re even moderately associated in terms of intellectual requirements. Suppose we did; it still wouldn’t suggest that we believe a general intelligence underlies all tasks that require a certain amount of “cleverness”. A massive body of empirical evidence amassed from the study of intelligence tests shows that intelligence can not be adequately measured with a one-factor test, and is much more likely to be accurately represented by a three- or four-factor model. This observation is noteworthy because it further undermines Fodor’s assumption of the relationship between learning Latin, the intellectual capabilities underlying tasks such as devising foreign policy versus making money on the stock market, and general intelligence as a concept.

      I do acknowledge Fodor’s use of examples and analogies can at times be illuminating, I just don’t think that this was a good one. I may be prosing a faulty argument myself… if so, mea culpa.

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  25. Fodor highlighted the public media’s interest and emphasis on neural imaging and functional localization, and following up by the discrimination between the questions: of whether mental functions are neurally localized in the brain and of where they are neurally localized in the brain. Through out his article, he seems to be undermining the investment of neurological research focus on the study of brain regions, as he also did state “given that it matters to both sides whether mental functions have characteristic places in the brain, why should it matter to either side where the places are?” (Fodor, 1999).

    The article definitely leaves a strong impression with his radical dismissiveness towards brain imaging and studies of brain regions. I do understand his intentions in that grouping neurons in this and that region of the brain would not lead to new knowledge on the studies of the mind. But also noted, in that it is true that grouping of brain regions may be a misleading approach, but it is a derivation for neurologists to understand different methods in brain studies and to explore beyond neurons localization.

    Fodor also mentioned, the excessive focus on functional localization through neuroimaging was occupying too much of “expensive science” resources. However, it should be noted that the article was published in 1999, the end of 20th century, where only a century ago we were still largely fascinated by phrenology. As it neuroscience progress, we have strayed away from the cookie-cutter-black and white ideology of the brain regions. From all the neuroscience courses I have taken here, I can confidently say that, although we do learn about brain regions and its functionality, the professors have repeated stressed that it is solely to study previous works and that these claims are undoubtedly the more conventional approach to neuroscience. The modern study of the brain is no longer focused on solely brain region grouping but more of the matter as a whole. Despite his polemic article, it could have been said that Fodor was ahead of his time in noting to discriminate “the way the structure of our minds depends on the structure of our brains’” versus that of “the basis of cognition when it depends on a subtle interplay among brain regions” (Fodor, 1999).

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  26. A lot of comments have already touched upon a bit of what I want to say, but I can’t figure out the best place to put this so I am making my own (sorry for the clutter).

    First of all, I think that dismissing his view entirely and claiming he is anti-neuroimaging isn’t what he is trying to say. What he was getting at from what I understand is that because neuroimaging is the new and “hip” technology in a lot of ways it is not being regulated or governed by any empirically great standards yet. Partially because it gives us functional pictures of brains and partially because it is so expensive, it is given much more credibility and reliability than it deserves.

    I like this point he makes about the fact that trying to privilege studying brain localizations because of mental functions is only possible if “ you can hold that only if yu think the brain and the mind are essentially different kinds of thing .”
    I think that the way Fodor talks about dualism being privileged in neuroimaging is really interesting. We can only really justify the search for mental processes being grounded in physical brain states if we accept Cartesian dualism that says that the two are distinct entities that interact somehow. Given the ultra-empirical nature that neuroimaging tries to give, it is interesting that it rests on a dualist intuition.

    His last paragraph intrigued me as well, because many of the studies I am familiar with seem to be grasping to justify themselves (and I am not saying I am any sort of expert). I think Harnad’s kid-sib explaining should hold for choosing why you chose to justify examining a specific location for a specific process. I am not trying to say I am against neuroimaging but just against accepting any form of science without being critical of the methods and theories underlying it.

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  27. from the commentary by Steven Rose: "for a proponent of the case for the modularity of mind to argue that understanding the dynamics of brain processes is an empirical irrelevancy is pretty cheeky"

    I can't help but agree with this! How would Fodor suggest to go about illustrating his theory of modularity of mind (which suggests that the mind is at least in part segmented in encapsulated and non-interpenetrable 'modules' that are specialized and have a fixed neural architecture)

    That aside, I think what he's trying to illustrate, namely that correlation is not causation, and that perhaps the neuroscientific community is overestimating the significance of the neural correlates to behavioral outputs, is a reasonable critique.

    The commentator Steven Rose again offers a good rebuttal to Fodor's 'cynicism':
    "A theory which integrates brain and mind processes will be a major goal for
    neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers in the coming decades. It will need to understand both the particularities of the micromechanisms of nerve cells and their interactions and the dynamics of the system as a whole."

    Fodor expresses his interest not in 'where' mental functions are localized in the brain but 'whether' they are localized at all. He then offers an interesting line of inquiry:
    "If the brain does different tasks at different places, that rather suggests that it may do them in different ways. Whereas, if anything that the brain can do it can do just about anywhere, that rather suggests that different kinds of thinking may recruit quite similar neural mechanisms." (this again seems to me to be a curious approach coming from a partisan of modularity of mind, though it may not be)
    At first, I took his 'where'/'whether' dichotomy as an expression of the mind/body problem, but with this additional passage, I think he was trying to get at the issue of the domain-specificity vs. domain-generality functioning of the mind in the brain, which is a very pertinent point to raise, and from this perspective, his criticism of the neuroscientific emphasis on brain localization of behavioral and mental functions seems to make more sense.

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  28. *Continued in the comments*
    Upon first reading this article I found it infuriating just how biased it seemed to me. Like many others have said in previous comments, he completely trivializes the usefulness of neuroimaging studies and their important clinical usages. Instead, Fodor seems to be entirely stuck on the fact that these correlative studies have no efficacy in explaining the hard problem of consciousness (a task researchers are usually not setting out to accomplish):

    "Likewise, if certain neurons fire at certain frequencies just when a guy is conscious, one might infer that that’s where his consciousness hangs out. All the more so if the correlation holds across subjects"

    After reading some comments here about misunderstanding upon first read the point of Fodor's argument, I decided to go back and reread the article.

    Upon doing so I actually softened a bit to Fodor's argument by relating it back to the 4A reading on mirror neurons. There seems to be a misguided tendency for popular neuroscience to exaggerate the extent to which firing in localized regions of the brain are responsible for cognitive functions (e.g. the grandmother cell, genetically determined individual mirror neurons, or as he suggests a localized region of the brain that would be responsible for consciousness - though I'm not sure that any neuroscientist actually believes in something like that). From this perspective, I can sympathize more with the point he is trying to make. He complains that such scientific methods of research are expensive and these showy studies (he seems to be aiming specifically at studies on cognitive functioning - thus the constant references to "teapots" and "lettuce") that catch the public's attention are getting most of the funding, though they may misguided in their foundational beliefs that high level cognitive processes can be isolated in specific regions. He goes on to give the example of the debate between rationalists and empiricists in believing the brain is solely functionally divided into discrete areas vs the belief that the brain works as one homogenous organ with no functional separation:

    "I don’t know who’s right about all that, but it’s easy to see that whether mental functions are neurally localised is likely to be relevant. If the brain does different tasks at different places, that rather suggests that it may do them in different ways. Whereas, if anything that the brain can do it can do just about anywhere, that rather suggests that different kinds of thinking may recruit quite similar neural mechanisms"

    While, for the most part, neuroscientists would agree that some functions of the brain are localized while others may not be so easily isolated to a specific area, it seems he is critiquing neuroimaging studies for relying too heavily on the idea that everything can be localized in the brain.

    However, I think he goes too far when he states:

    "It [aka the neural activity in your brain] belongs to understanding how the engine in your auto works that the functioning of its carburettor is to aerate the petrol; that’s part of the story about how the engine’s parts contribute to its running right. But why (unless you’re thinking of having it taken out) does it matter where in the engine the carburettor is? What part of how your engine works have you failed to understand if you don’t know that?"

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    1. *Continuation*
      I think Fodor is taking this analogy too far since, while certainly not all functions of the brain are localized, some may be, and this can be helpful in helping individuals with certain neurological disorders. What happens if the engine starts to act up or make strange noises, or flat out dies on you? You know what the function of the carburettor is sure, but you have no idea where it is or what constitutes it. How can you fix the engine if you only understand what the function of the parts of an engine are and not where they are or what it is they're made of? A good point about this specific quote was made in the comments of the actual article by Graham Kemp:

      "Jerry Fodor (LRB, 30 September) asks why learning where the carburettor is should be thought to help us understand how an engine works. By itself it doesn't, but it would be useful to discover that it's connected to the inlet port. This is perhaps an argument for closer links between functional neuro-imaging and traditional neuro-anatomy."

      Neuroimaging also allows for demonstrating the connectivity of certain areas, not simply discovering "functional loci" (techniques such as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) are examples of how imaging studies focus on connectivity and dispersed brain activity, rather than functionally isolated activity). While this comment may be tangential to what Fodor is really arguing for, I still think his carburettor argument comes off as a too one-sided/ill-posed – making it seem as though he believes that there is no point in studying the brain AT ALL (which sounds just as ridiculous as saying that there is no point in studying the rest of the body at all).

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  29. "Science is expensive, and it’s largely publicly funded, and there’s never enough money to do all the research that might be worth doing. In particular, brain imaging is expensive compared to other ways of trying to find out about the mind. If you put your money (which is to say: our money) into the elaborate technology required to establish neural localisations of mental functions by imaging techniques, you almost certainly take it out of other kinds of psychological research….
    I kept asking, as politely as I could manage, how the neuroscientists decided which experimental tasks it would be interesting to make brain maps for. I kept getting the impression that they didn’t much care. Their idea was apparently that experimental data are, ipso facto, a good thing; and that experimental data about when and where the brain lights up are, ipso facto, a better thing than most "

    This seems rather unfair to the field of neuroscience. Should we dismiss the entire discipline simply because it does not (presumably) contribute significantly to our own? Beyond a certain basic understanding of its structure Biologists probably don’t have much to learn about DNA by looking at its chemical composition — not much to gain as far as understanding how it encodes our entire genome, at least — should they decry the amount of funding “wasted” on chemical research? even if this research were to focus entirely on the nitty gritty of every base and phenyl group in a strand of DNA? Much in the same way that we realize the importance of the brain and the fact that neurons firing and neurotransmitters being released is somehow ultimately how we do everything we do and yet can also acknowledge the “triviality” of the details, and the plausibility that any number of accidents of evolution might have yielded structural differences that would not make any difference to our studies, so can biologists rationalize the simultaneous importance of the chemistry at work in cell genetics and not quite care. This does not mean Biologists have any right to dismiss Chemistry or deny it a right to funding.


    "But given that it matters to both sides whether, by and large, mental functions have characteristic places in the brain, why should it matter to either side where the places are?”
    Verifying that that these functions have characteristics places in the brain and going about finding what these places are comes down to about the same, wouldn’t we say? Are we to take it on reasonable assumption that they functions are indeed “segregated” and not look to see if we are right? A philosopher’s take on it, indeed.

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  30. From a connectionist standpoint, localizing the areas involved in different tasks is not irrelevant to deeper understanding. Information on functional localization need not be considered in isolation. Rather, it can be combined with further research into the connections between different areas. As Graham Kemp pointed out in a letter commenting on the article:

    Jerry Fodor asks why learning where the carburettor is should be thought to help us understand how an engine works. By itself it doesn't, but it would be useful to discover that it's connected to the inlet port. This is perhaps an argument for closer links between functional neuro-imaging and traditional neuro-anatomy.

    In order to elucidate the precise role of a given brain area in different cognitive processes, it helps to see not only what areas are active during the task, but how they are connected, and how activity progresses between them over the course of the task. Such observations can give some understanding of how the system itself works. With finer and finer functional observations of this nature, connectionists hope to keep pushing the problem back from the total system of the brain, toward smaller systems that perform distinct functions, and finally toward the neural networks that they think constitute it all.

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  31. Fodor, while being quite blatant about his disregard for neurological localization studies, brings up a good point about the disjunction between scientific research and practical or clinical usefulness of that research. There are thousands of papers and many more thousands of hours of research time and funds that have resulted in nothing more than a publication or doctorate dissertation. Due to the recency with which localization studies have been made possible and the huge number of potentially novel findings, and it’s not unlikely that some of these fall into this category. From the present perspective, it is justifiable to inquire as to why funds would be allocated to something that has minimal use to the scientific world at present, at the expense of funding, say cancer research, which is more likely to produce tangible results that can directly help society.
    I agree that to develop an understanding of higher cognitive functions of the mind we need to understand the “micromechanisms of nerve cells and their interactions” of the brain (Steven Rose, Letters). These localization studies can provide important information for this purpose, but it is important that each of these new projects is undertaken in the hopes of moving the discussion forward, instead of simply bringing about a piece of the puzzle that we already know.

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    1. I agree with what you wrote in the last paragraph. It's definitely important to study what could provide new information rather than going over what is already known. But I don't think that's what researchers purposely do. Say they're convinced they're studying something new, which they believe will yield new information. What if the results of the investigation end up showing something that in the end was already know? Can they really be accused of “bringing about a piece of the puzzle that we already knew”? Because in this case they initially believed that was not the case. Therefore while it’s true that some papers are redundant of one another and might never come to use, I don’t believe it’s a purposeful occurrence. I think all researchers strive to discover/study something new, but it can’t be helped if it turns out whatever they discover is just redundant of existing knowledge.

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  32. "Science is expensive, and it’s largely publicly funded, and there’s never enough money to do all the research that might be worth doing. In particular, brain imaging is expensive compared to other ways of trying to find out about the mind."

    1) While I agree with Fodor that functional neuro-imaging is disproportionally more expensive than other ways to inquire in the vast sea that is human cognition, I do not necessarily agree that it's a moot endeavour. I would guess that Fodor might have different views on this topic now-16+ years later- simply because of the ways in which medical technology has advanced even in the last 5 years, and especially because of the rapidly growing potentials of 3D printing in neuroscience.

    2) I will make the case that there are many sociopolitical factors that influence one's mental health as well as cognitive functions. It's uncertain whether Fodor is making that case in the second sentence. On the off chance that he is, then yes I agree that outside of the field of neuroscience, there are an infinite studies waiting to be conducted- for example, in respect to how social determinants of health affect brain development and cognition in children.

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  33. After a careful read of Fodor's commentary, it seemed his dismissive conclusion boiled down to a question he asks: "why are we spending so much time and money [on studying the brain]?"

    While his questions about whether neuroscientists are wasting their time seems to discredit what we (cognitive science students) have devoted our undergraduate careers to, it is still important to pause and question if the techniques and technology, on which much research is based, are truly worth pursuing, as Fodor outlines in his Diary. However, I disagree with his argument that funding in brain imaging and functional localization research is misguided. As described in above comments, this kind of research has had huge clinical implications, and it would be imprudent to dismiss it.

    It would be interesting to see a more thoughtful and well-developed argument on Fodor's perspective.

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    1. I agree with you that it seems very foolish to dismiss brain imaging and functional localization as a waste of time. Although Fodor does acknowledge the significance of localization for surgery and clinical applications..."But whereas, historically, studies of the localization of brain functions have often been clinically motivated, I take it to be currently the consensus that they have significant scientific import over and above their implications for medical practice."

      So he does agree upon that. His real qualm is with the consensus that neural imaging has scientific importance beyond medical practice. He is opposed to the idea that localization will tell us anything about how we think. However, he is coming from the field of philosophy, whereas those performing the neuro-imaging are coming from neuroscience. So I don't think they in fact necessarily believe localization is going to tell them more about function. I think they simply want to obtain a full mapping of the brain because this may be a useful reference in the future, particularly in clinical applications.

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  34. Fodor’s main argument seems to be against the concept of what we nowadays call grandmother cells – that is certain cells firing for a specific instance of an entity. He argues that it does not matter whatsoever. We only care about so much because we have been able to develop the technology to answer such questions and therefore want to put it to good use (or else I suppose it would feel like a waste?). He argues against the concern for such things but not against the claim itself, which is that there are grandmother cells. In other words he argues for the usefulness of the thing but doesn’t deny the existence of the thing itself. However in the field of brain related study it is quite common knowledge (now) that there are no such things as grandmother cells. Therefore in a way, he’s correct in arguing that it’s no worth studying because what is being studied is not tangible.
    Now, let’s not take him literally, and assume that he broadly means it’s a waste of time to study where anything happens in the brain (regardless of the accuracy of theories regarding localization). I believe man is by nature curious and in need of understanding as much as possible and accessible at a given time. If the tools for studying the brain are available, might as well put them to good use at learn more about it. In the long run findings can prove to be interesting if not useful (and there are many fields that are based on interest rather than use). Perhaps he should find another newspaper more suited to his taste if the Times’ science section is too frustrating to behold.

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    1. At the risk of sounding redundant or repeating much of what's been said, and for what it's worth, I agree with you.

      "If the tools for studying the brain are available, might as well put them to good use at learn more about it. In the long run findings can prove to be interesting if not useful."

      I think that this is an important point to note. The emphasis of this chapter seemed to be that we shouldn't be so obsessed with the brain when we're trying to decode the 'how' and 'why' of cognition, but if Fodor's argument is the best we've got saying so, I think that stance should be re-evaluated. While I concede that functional localization studies don't always have immediately obvious applications, they can be "interesting if not useful," as you've said.

      In research such as this, where no one is being harmed (ie animals) curiosity-driven research can tell us a lot about the correlation between behaviour and brain function. Not only is this "interesting" but 1) correlation is the first step towards causation, 2) an understanding of basic neuroanatomy could prove useful in laying a framework for other more clinically relevant research and 3) this research in the context of more neurophysiological research (looking at the nitty gritty of neurons and their firing properties and how they convey/compute information) could actually tell us a lot about cognition.

      I don't really appreciate Fodor's dismissive tone when he seemingly wraps up all of non-clinical neuroimaging in a neat little bow and sets it aside as pointless. It is important to consider research such as this IN CONTEXT. As you said, maybe he should go find something else to read.

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  35. Everyone has different memories, thinks differently, different interests, different abilities.. the list goes on. So as a result, I would assume that different people must arrive at the same decision differently. In class, we were discussing that Fodor was interested in ‘how’ things happen rather than the ‘where’ things happen (which much of neuroscience seems to be interested in). It seems that different thought processes are localized to different brain regions, and this does not differ from person to person. Would the ‘how’ problem that Fodor is interested in seeing researched/investigated, even have the capacity to accommodate every person living on this planet?

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  36. I think the author’s humor is very appropriate for the nature of his article. He/she wants to point out how contemporary brain imaging seems to be missing the point of its scientific pursuit. According to the author, the point should be to explain whether brain functions are locally neutralized within the brain. We want to understand more of how the brain works as process flowing through time. The goal is not to catalogue various seeming characteristics of a brain that is functioning at a particular moment. Merely pointing at a final product of cognition is not enough to explain the process that produced the final products of cognition which are accessible to us as humans.
    I think its helpful to think of brain localization as similar to finding something on a GPS (global-positioning-system). The location of, for instance, anxiety becomes similar to a set of numbers referring to something like longitude and latitude. If someone tells you the longitude and latitude of a location on Earth, can you then tell me anything about the functional characteristics of this structure-over-there? I don’t think so, because all you have are numbers, but we need a lot more than numbers to uncover the actual processes occurring at this location.

    This discussion about location versus function is directly relevant to the author’s topic of brain-imaging. We want to know the how of cognition, but the author thinks most of the brain-imaging literature is concentrated merely upon the where of cognition. If we focus only on the where, we end up in the same territory as phrenology. This is the territory of getting caught up in the pursuit of un-grounded “scientific” facts that cannot be disproven, according to their un-grounded nature. Basically, correlation is not causation.

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  37. I think one of the points that Fodor makes I really respected and just wanted to shed light on. He states, ““It bears emphasis that there are lots of things other than looking for functional loci that brain scientists do for a living; and that they use lots of experimental techniques other than neural imaging to do them.” I think it is quite commendable for him to explain how not all neuroscience based research should be dismissed when it comes to understanding the process of cognition.

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