[Comp-neuro] Physics, psychology and learning

Todd Troyer todd.troyer at utsa.edu
Sat Aug 16 19:24:34 CEST 2008

Much of the discussion of scientific method has focused on the analogy with
16th century physics.  How about 19th century psychology as an analogy?
There's another field dealing with a highly complex object of study and a
bad case of physics envy.  I'll put William James up as a hero - he combined
introspection and story telling par excellence with a keen interest in and
respect for observation and experimental data.

The drive toward formal laws led to significant advances in the study of
perception, but also led to a drive to extinguish all 'mentalizing' from the
science of psychology.  In broad strokes this led to behaviorism and
eventually Skinner's radical behaviorism. On the flip side, it also gave
rise to Freud's 'scientific' method of psychoanalysis.  These trends took
3/4 of a century before they started to subside in the latter half of the
20th century.

So maybe Jim is worried about the 'Freudian' nature of much of modern
neuroscience (i.e. compelling theories told in a compelling manner backed up
by poorly defined terms and selective data).  Maybe others view Jim's
critique of all abstract models as akin to behaviorism's imbalance in
excluding all mental constructs, including the 'cognitive' approaches of the
latter 20th century that returned some balance to the field.  I'd hope we
can retain some balance and not go too far down either one of these
extremes.  If you read James, he sounds much more 'modern' than either Freud
or Skinner.

This analogy also allows me to express puzzlement at Jim's linking of
learning with free will.  Skinner was all about learning, but was no big fan
of free will.  The main issue isn't free will, but whether the slate is
truly blank, i.e. are there innate constraints on learning given by the
structure of the brain and it's rules for development and learning that are
specified by evolution?  Of course there are, and the nature of such
constraints are poorly understood and under-studied.

I'd put a plug in here for the field of neuroethology where issues of
innateness, evolution and learning are front and center.  Actually, we could
probably have a whole separate debate about the value of studying abstract
behavior (lever pushing, maze running, platform finding) vs. more natural
(read realistic) behavior.


Todd Troyer
UT San Antonio, Biology Dept.
One UTSA Circle
San Antonio TX 78249
Todd.troyer at utsa.edu
W: 210-458-5487, FAX: 210-458-5658

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