Language trouble in brain science and psychology

It’s time for another guest post. This time I’m delighted to introduce Elric Elias, PhD candidate at the University of Denver, cognitive neuroscientist, and a fellow metal fan. His dissertation work pits two fundamental computational methods, each leveraged by the visual system of the human animal brain, against each other in a duel to the death. In so doing, he hopes to learn about how the visual system turns a potentially infinite amount of incoming visual information into useful, adaptive output. He has been published in multiple scientific journals, and has shared his work at several academic conferences. He lives with his best friend Ladybird (also an animal—dog) in Denver, Colorado. You can contact him at his first name dot last name; gmail.

If you haven’t watched the Sixty Symbols in which Dr. Moriarty gets testy about the idea that physical objects never really “make contact”, quit jackassing around and do it. It’s great for a list of reasons. Near the top of that list is how forcefully and clearly it demonstrates language’s incredibly important role in science. Language matters, as they say. Now that’s not a new idea, but I may be approaching it from an angle you’re not used to. I’ll be talking about two instances in which, I think, sloppy language leads to problems in brain science and psychology. Read on.

Culture, technology, song lyrics that don’t really make sense but evoke an emotional reaction nonetheless: language is pretty useful and potent stuff. On the other hand, though, it’s a really imprecise medium. I mean, physicists tell me that the standard model can be captured on the back of an envelope (right, Dr. Moriarty?). So much explanatory power, so much precision… all on a scrap of paper. Of course, that’s only true if it’s written in mathematical notation, not English. The book that linguistically describes that notation to a layperson is considerably less efficient and precise (no offense to the author, thank the imprecision of language!).

This is why, when scientists speak, they chose their words very carefully. They even (hopefully) take the time to meticulously define their terms before they use them. To the non-scientist, this sometimes looks like nerdy pedantry. And proudly, in part it is. But nerdy pedantry minimizes the ambiguity of language. When Dr. Moriarty says the word “contact” to another physicist, each understands that word to mean precisely the same thing. Not only is that useful, it’s necessary. In the absence of nerdy pedantry, you end up with one group of people hollering “objects never make contact” and another group saying “but they do, though”. Round and round, for EVER. Turns out, the two groups had different notions of what “contact” meant all along (p.s., trust the physicist’s definition).

I’m a scientist in the sprawling field called psychology. More informatively, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, or a vision scientist. I try to figure out how you see. Not with your eyes, but with your brain. So, the science I’m most familiar with deals with the brain, animal behavior (in my case, human behavior), and in general, the… ahem… “mind”. Ah. A familiar bit of language. One that you normally encounter and pass right over. The mind. Yeah, the mind. You know what that is, right? So—what is it?

The “mind and brain”

Well, “mind” is a term that you can find in plenty of popular representations of psychology and brain science. Sometimes the idea is that the “mind” is different from the brain (yes, that’s the stubborn specter of dualism). Sometimes people take a more agnostic stance, and wonder about the relationship between the mind and brain. Non-specialists might casually mention “the brain and the mind”, or even more teeth-grindingly, “my brain” (what, exactly, is the “owner” of the brain supposed to be… other than the brain itself?). Regardless, this much is almost always true: people treat the existence of “minds” as a given. It’s self-evident. We might wonder about its relationship to the brain, or assert that the two are different, but the existence of minds is just… too obvious to even bother questioning.

Brain scientists and psychologists are a bit different. Much of the time, they are careful about how they use brain/mind language. As an excellent example, see this very readable and reasonable take on conscious awareness—conscious “minds”. But occasionally, language that seems to assume the existence of minds, distinct from brains, seeps into more formal scientific settings (if you don’t want to scour that last article for “mind and brain” language, just take a look at the name of the journal it was published in). Sometimes, “mind and brain” language seeps into conversation among fellow scientists, or between scientists and students (you can take my word for that last assertion, or decline). Ok, fine. Maybe non-specialists sometimes assume the existence of minds, apart from brains, and sometimes even specialists do too. So what?

Well, since I’ve just spent the better part of four paragraphs talking about how carefully scientists use language, if a scientist distinguishes the mind from the brain, you might suppose that there’s a very good reason for doing so. What is that reason?

Beats the crap out of me. All the evidence brain science has gathered—and we have certainly gathered some—points towards this: every passing thought, every lingering emotion, every sensation, every dream, every decision, every moral indignation, every space-out, EVERYTHING you have ever experienced has been your brain doing its thing. Hell, “you” are a brain doing its thing. Neurons firing, populations of cells reacting to input from the external world or from other cells. Although the details are insanely complicated and no one claims to understand it all, every time brain scientists “look under the hood” and try to catch a glimpse of a thought, or a feeling, or an idea, or a plan, or an identity, what we observe is a brain making computations. Every. Single. Time. Nothing more, and nothing less. We have never, ever, observed or measured a “mind” in the absence of a brain. The evidence isn’t just correlational, though. Damage area X in the brain and observe a reliable change in the “mind”. Stimulate area Y in the brain and observe the conscious experience of mental state Z. Sure, it feels like my thoughts and feelings are somehow different from my brain, which is, after all, a three-pound lump of jellyish meat (decidedly not qualitatively similar to a thought or emotion). But even a mediocre psychologist will tell you that introspection is an insanely unreliable way to get at what’s true. So what’s my point?

Well, language matters, remember? If a scientific field goes around using a term (the “mind”, say), the onus is on them to provide evidence for the existence of that construct. I see plenty of evidence for the existence of brains. I am aware of zero evidence that suggests that minds are something above and beyond a brain over time. Instead, brains that are active over time are the conscious experiences we colloquially refer to as “the mind”. That’s what a “mind” is. Brain activity over time. Nothing more, nothing less. If you do not agree, I am open to evidence that the mind and brain are dissociable! Good luck.

My own field needs to be clear and consistent about what constitutes the “mind”: brain activity over time. Else don’t use the damned word. Language is imprecise enough. Good scientists should do their best to minimize that imprecision, not to keep it moist and let it fester. No more implying that the “mental” is separate from the physical. The “mental” is physical. Like it or not, all the evidence points in that direction. Sloppy language that implies otherwise just keeps the stubborn spectre of dualism well-fed.

Humans and animals

Let’s turn away from brains and minds and instead think about humans and animals. Psychology sometimes uses “animal models” to help us understand how brains work; often the goal is to infer how human brains work by studying how animal brains work. Psychology departments sometimes offer “animal cognition” courses, in which you can learn about the brains of birds or monkeys or rats or other amazing critters. Sometimes animal cognition or behavior is a program unto itself. Certainly representations of popular science use this kind of language (check out this double-whammy). There are humans, and then there are animals. Nothing contentious so far. Nothing worth getting your blood pressure up for, right?

Damnit, humans are animals! Every model in psychology is an animal model, including the ones that describe humans! What else would they be, mineral models? Gas models? The entire field of psychology is about animal cognition and animal behavior! Imagine if I told you this: “humans and women are capable of producing pretty good death metal music”. You would rightly punch me right in the mouth. The distinction between “humans” and “women” is grossly incorrect at best, incorrect and value-laden at worst. Likewise, the phrase “humans and animals” is sloppy nonsense, imprecise and potentially laden with value judgment.

Now, there’s no doubt that the human animal brain has some pretty unique capacities. But that’s true of all species. By creating linguistic divides that do not reflect the way nature really seems to be (e.g., human/animal, mind/brain), we map our own biases and value-judgments onto our understanding of the world. That is true whether a scientist is using the imprecise language or whether a non-expert is.

No more sloppiness!

There’s no excuse for such sloppy language in science. Sloppy imprecision is everything we’re not. At least, I really hope we’re not. As an interesting side-note, I don’t think it’s sufficient for a scientific field to be internally consistent. For example, let’s say that some middling evidence could be interpreted such that minds might exist absent brains (it doesn’t, that I know of, but pretend). And further imagine that psychologists came up with some theory that accounted for this interpretation. Their theory hung together with other theories in psychology; the field was consistent, no obvious contradictions. Well, that wouldn’t be good enough. Ultimately, theories have to be consistent across scientific disciplines. Chemistry is consistent with particle physics. Biology with chemistry. Psychology with biology. And to close the loop, psychology must ultimately be compatible with physics. If “minds”, above and beyond brains, are posited to exist, their existence would have to be consistent with physics, not just with other theories in psychology. I’m not sure that can be done, though I’m confident that hasn’t ever been done. Perhaps more on that in the future.

In sum:

Dear Psychology,

                No more sloppy language. All available evidence suggests that “minds” are brains doing their thing over time. Nothing more, nothing less. And, damnit, humans are animals. Nothing more, nothing less. Avoid the word “mind” unless you’re clear about what you mean. Say “human animals” or “non-human animals”, because that language is more precise and correct. Precision is worth the extra keystrokes. Let’s be the good examples; maybe it will spread.


Elric Elias