The pathetic fallacy in neuroscience, part 1: is it a help or a hindrance?

Why shouldn't neurons firing feel of something?
--Consciousness Explained, 1991

In his autobiography, Recollections of my Life (1937), Santiago Ramon y Cajal wrote of his studies of brain growth and development:

"What mysterious forces precede the appearance of the processes, promote their growth and ramification, stimulate the corresponding migration of the cells and fibers in predetermined directions, as if in obedience to a skillfully arranged architectural plan, and finally establish those protoplasmic kisses which seem to constitute the final ecstasy of an epic love story?"

This is an exquisite (as Ruskin would have put it) example of the pathetic fallacy, which in science is a term usually used in criticism of some scientific writing's false tendency to use poetic but technically incorrect language as a way of attributing emotion or cognitive features to nature. In the study of the nervous system, we see this when we attribute high level features of the organism, like thought, to lower level parts of the organism.

Let's look at another poetic quote, from English writer Thomas Hardy:

"The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow, boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks."

When attributing speech to a waterfall, it's clear poet Hardy does not mean his metaphor scientifically, and I'm sure neither did Nobel winner Cajal in his autobiography quoted above. Yet there is a danger in such attributions when untrained enthusiasts use imprecise language to shortcut the hard work of understanding cognition, ignoring the parts we cannot explain about the mind in a blur of sciento-poetic metaphor.

Let's look at a few examples from recent neuroscience texts:

"The frontal cortex is an organ of civilization..."
--Neuronal Man, 1985

...the brain's reward system:  a complex circuit of neurons which evolved to make us feel "flush" after eating or sex..."
--Key Studies in Psychology, 2007

mirror neurons...give the observer a direct feeling of what the others feel.
--Handbook of Neuroscience for the Behavioral Sciences, 2009

What might be an advantage of such loose language?

First, it might allow us to bridge the explanatory gap more explicitly than we otherwise do, and thus help us teach the correlates of consciousness without constantly mentioning the gap.  This might make descriptions of brain function more concise.

Second, it might facilitate student memorization by making neuroscience facts more important in explaining features of human life. If we are taught that your amygdala is where you feel afraid, this kind of teaching is much simpler than explaining the fear as a potentially nuanced cognitive and emotional feature which is complexly and probably irreducibly related to much more of the brain than we can teach a typical freshman undergraduate, which is related to the whole body's endocrine status, its social and physical environment past and present, and which can be modulated by memory integration which is itself modulated via activity in the amygdala.  Or, if pain is just C fibers firing, we don't have to inquire where or how we feel any further, and we might remember better about C fibers and their pain related transmission function.

Third, it might be correct linguistically to use brain region personifications, the way it might be correct to say the sun rises and sets, just because it conveniently fits the data from a certain point of view. Unlike sunrise, though, brain localization is not a common datum of the people who read the books above.  This leads to exaggeration and oversimplification by the readers.

There is a potential threat to future views of current neuroscience in our metaphors when they are inaccurate or misleading. There is a risk of creating a false optimism about where we are in our understanding of the links between our brains and ourselves, and of a backlash of drops in respect and/or funding against neuroscience when the media reports turn out to be just of misinterpreted, empty promises.

Finally, if there is something to be discovered about cognition that is as yet far outside our theories and technical means to find-- which I strongly suspect to be the case-- why should we dawdle with metaphors when we could be looking for the reality?

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