The Psychologist's Lament

Figuring out how the mind is generated by the brain has turned out to be pretty tricky. When we look at human behaviour, what we see is often a fluid, smooth, glistening, dynamic interaction with the world. It can seem unified from the outside.

'Looking inside the mind doesn’t necessarily get us much closer to how the brain works'

But when psychologists have taken this outside-looking-in approach, they have constantly run into the same problem. What is one thing in psychology is many things in the brain 1. For example, although ‘keeping something in mind’ seems like a single thing, there are many ‘working memory’ systems in the brain that maintain recent neural activity to influence future behaviour, distributed across control systems and specialised circuits. In this resource, we’ll come across many cases of ideas from psychology that turn out to be many things in the brain, among them: the self, attention, learning, concepts, people, language.

Much of psychology is populated by activities, rather than the direct action of individual brain mechanisms. Activities like ‘problem solving’ or ‘drawing’. In an activity, lots of bits of the brain work together; different subsets work together for different activities; and there is fluid interaction between brain, body, and external world including physical and information tools. This complexity isn’t matched in the simpler terms that psychologists use.

Sad to say, simply ‘looking inside’ your mind doesn’t necessarily get you much closer to how the brain works, either. Take that voice in your head, the one that you use to reason with before you make a decision. ‘Should I have that extra slice of cake or not? Well, I only had one slice of toast for breakfast, so maybe it’s okay.’ The voice (psychologists call it the ‘phonological loop’) is generated in the side of the brain, the bit next to the ear. Guess what? That’s not the part that makes decisions. The bit that makes decisions is the front of the brain. When you listen to the voice in your head, you’re listening to the commentator, not the decision maker.

'One experience is lots of bits of the brain interacting with each other'

Psychologists are rightly concerned with consciousness, the mental life – the ‘you’ that you experience, your awareness, the thoughts you have about yourself. Here, neuroscience hasn’t really helped out. We’re still at the stage of seeing which bits of the brain become more active when we have certain experiences. The story, though, seems to be headed in the same direction: one experience is lots of bits of brain interacting with each other.

So, have some sympathy for psychologists. Building detailed links between psychology and neuroscience is a big challenge and will take a while.

Luckily, we don’t need to worry about that too much to understand how the brain works.

[1] For aficionados, here’s an example of scientists beginning to make this realisation a few years back.