Term Paper: Reductionism in Cognitive Neuroscience

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[. . .] Memory consolidation refers to the early stage in memory formation when a memory can be disrupted through distraction.

The Extended Mind Hypothesis

Anthony Chemero and Charles Heyser present a radical critique of psycho-neural reductionism, claiming that some cognitive processes extend beyond the bounds of the body. In light of this, they argue that cognitive and behavioral sciences are not reducible to neuroscience, even in principle (88).

To illustrate their reasoning, Chemero and Heyser critique a type of memory experiment which has been conducted on rodents. The experiments investigate the animals'exploratory behavior when objects are placed in their environment. When a novel object is introduced to the cage, exploration increases. In order to locate the brain regions responsible for the behavior, experimenters would examine how recognition memory is influenced under conditions involving drug and gene manipulation that target certain neural pathways.

Chemero and Heyser showed how these exploratory experiments were fatally flawed, since the experimenters failed to take into account the "affordances" of the objects they supplied for the rodents to explore. Affordances are "features of extended brain-body-environment systems" (Chemero and Heyser 74). Affordances provide "opportunities for action by animals in the environment" (74). For example, one type of textured wooden object with ridges and ledges of the right size might "afford" a climbing behavior, while a slick glass object of the same proportions would not afford this behavior. The relevant affordances in the memory research on rodents were the size and shape and other physical properties of the objects the experimenters introduced into the animals' cages. By varying certain physical properties of the objects to be explored, Chemero and Heyser were able to demonstrate that altering affordances of the objects did in fact influence the animals' exploratory behavior.

Chemero and Heyser argue that the experimenters' failure to attend to the affordances of the objects they used in the exploratory studies resulted from their reductionist assumptions. Since they were exclusively focused on brain physiology, they failed to sufficiently account for how aspects of an animal's external environment might influence its performance in a memory task.

Chemero and Heyser conclude:

"We believe that the conviction that psychological phenomena just are molecular and genetic phenomena, and that studying molecular and genetic phenomena just is doing psychology, leads to this neglect of behaviorally relevant aspects of the environment and thereby to flawed experimental design" (88).

Theoretical Implications of the Extended Mind for Cognitive Science

Chemero and Heyser argue that the subject matter of cognitive science will prove not to be reducible to neurophysiology, let alone molecular biology or genetics. The reason they give for this has to do with the nature of reductionism and the requirements for a comprehensive account of cognitive phenomena.

Extended cognition, Chemero and Heyser's preferred model for explaining some cognitive phenomena, is not reducible to neurophysiology or molecular biology because its subject matter includes information outside the thinking organism. If the subject matter of cognitive science is brain-body-environment systems, as Chemero and Heyser claim, then the most neuroscience can contribute is one important, though not comprehensive, aspect in the study of cognition. Cognitive science, conceived in this way, is not reducible to neuroscience even in principle.

Chemero and Heyser do not deny that some subset of subject matter of interest to cognitive science might be fully accountable in terms of neuroanatomy. They suggest long-term memory consolidation and long-term potentiation as good candidates for the reductive approach (89). Yet there are other cognitive phenomena in which the brain-body-environment approach is required. The question then becomes which approach will be more appropriate for a particular type of cognition, such as perception, social intelligence, developmental stages of childhood, sociolinguistics and motor control. So long as the reductionists limit their examples to certain types of mental phenomena, the approach appears plausible. When you consider other varieties of human cognition, the way forward is less clear.

Works Cited

Allen, Colin, James W. Grau, and Mary W. Meagher. "The Lower Bounds of Cognition: What Do Spinal Cords Reveal?" The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John Bickle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bechtel, William. "Molecules, Systems, and Behavior: Another View of Memory Consolidation." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John Bickle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 13-40.

Chemero, Anthony, and Charles Heyser, "Methodology and Reduction in the Behavioral Sciences: Object Exploration as a Case Study." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John Bickle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 68-90.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1962

O'Connor, Timothy and Wong, Hong Yu. "Emergent Properties." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy., 2009. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Web. 25 Apr.2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/properties-emergent/

Patzia, Michael. "Anaxagoras." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007. Web. 25 Apr. 2011

Robins, Sarah K., and Carl F. Craver. "Biological Clocks: Explaining Models of Mechanisms." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John Bickle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 41-67.

Rosenberg, Alex. "Lessons for Cognitive Science from Neurogenomics." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John Bickle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 143-165.

Silva, Alcino J., and John Bickle. "The Science of Research and the Search for Molecular Mechanisms of Cognitive Functions." The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience. Ed. John… [END OF PREVIEW]

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