Friday, September 24, 2010

Popular Neuroscience

This is a personal blog, it is not necessarily a reliable source of information.

I don't normally talk about the work I do on co-op terms, because I don't want to accidentally offend my employers by telling everyone how horribly nice they all are or making the similarly unfortunate error of posting confidential information. However, as I'm currently working for a neuroscience lab and it is pretty awesome I figure it couldn't hurt to write a series of posts about neuroscience stuff. Now, having said all that, here's a confidential training video:

Okay, so that video wasn't actually confidential, but I did steal the link from our lab forum. Now, Cleese's talk is pretty advanced (though quite entertaining), so I'm going to take a step back with a short Q&A (I'm not one to pass up an opportunity to talk to myself).

Q: What is neuroscience?

A: It's the study of the nervous system, nominally. In the long run, neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, biology, and computer science are all intricately linked in a crazy quest to understand the way we think, the way intelligence and information processing in general works, and how it all somehow works with physical, biological components.

Q: Is neuroscience really that similar to cognitive science? Isn't it really just biology, but concentrating on the nervous system / brain?

A: I'm not very good with all the research classifications in the area, but it seems like most of what's being published under the label of neuroscience is neurobiology. From an experimental perspective this certainly makes sense: the brain is biological, after all, so obviously a substantial amount of the work being done in reverse-engineering it involves biology. Ultimately though, we're largely interested in the functionality of the brain and the way it gives rise to the interesting, complex interactions we all know and love: calling this functionality 'cognition' and attempting to understand said functionality is more or less what cognitive science is about. There is a big gap in understanding currently between neurobiology and cognitive science which is (to grossly and incorrectly simplify things) what theoretical neuroscience is puzzling over.

Q: tl;dr

A: Grr. Ok, look: biological understanding of brain = improving, but massively, insanely complex already and not capable of explaining brain function. Cognitive science = good at finding ways to do specific things; lacks general theories and can't compete with real brains. Gee, it sure would be nice to have people working on some combination of the above things! Those people would definitely deserve enough funding to pay their co-op students. Big time.

Q: I'm not convinced. What's the point of taking multiple different (and possibly conflicting) approaches?

A: First, which one's 'right'? I dunno. That's pretty much answer enough: they both provide more information, thus they're both valid approaches. If they happen to conflict, even better: there would then be an opportunity to investigate and fix problems that are found with the theories. That's pretty much how science works.

Q: Fine, fine. You can start at either the biology or psychological/cognitive levels, I get that. How could you possibly work from the midpoint between the two levels outwards?

A: This conversation makes more sense when it's less abstract. Instead of talking in terms of a 'midpoint' between two different research areas, I should really have framed this as a need to go beyond current empirical biological data to build more functionally complex models. Instead of making hypotheses based solely on raw data, you can start making predictive models constrained by assumptions, information processing requirements, simplifications required for tractability, and so on...

Q: Sorry to interupt, but isn't this post way too long already?

A: Yes.

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