A recent article by Russell Poldrack and colleagues begins with an apt quote from Rutherford D. Rogers, the former Yale University Librarian:
“We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge”
They chose this quote to reflect what some brain researchers (myself included) might call a major roadblock in contemporary neuroscience – a huge amount of data covering a conceptual landscape riddled with ambiguities. Although there has been great technological advancement in neuroscience – for instance, the relatively rapid development of functional magnetic resonance imaging and optogenetics – the conceptual foundation and integration (or what the authors call the ‘semantic infrastructure’) necessary for bridging the brain-psychology chasm is not as strong.
There are too many examples of this to note. I would point, for instance, to concepts like reward or creativity. The authors point out ‘working memory’ (Is it holding information in one’s awareness? Manipulating information in awareness? Does it involve both of these ideas or even others?). They then discuss the longstanding tendency, particularly within cognitive neuroscience, to equate the type of task performed in the laboratory with the mental construct. For instance, they point out, the Sternberg Item Recognition Paradigm is typically used to investigate aspects of working memory (and inferences to working memory ability or impairment are justified in most cases), but not all of the task conditions within the paradigm can be equally associated with working memory (e.g. there are cognitive and motor aspects that would likely not be associated at all with working memory in terms of brain functioning). And so, calling it the Sternberg working memory task, as many do, conflates the task with theoretical assumptions about which many experts might not agree.
The issue of fuzzy concepts and inconsistent usage of terminology is, of course, not new to science as a whole. Nor is it new to neuroscience – from Bennett and Hacker’s ‘Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience’ to other recent articles on the subject, such as Bilder’s ‘Neuropsychology 3.0: Evidence-based science and practice’. Every branch of science (and perhaps every rigorously studied topic, including those not using the scientific method directly) has had to come to terms with its terms. Poldrack and colleagues point out the relatively well-known example of Gene Ontology – which provided explicit descriptions of various gene-related concepts (e.g. regarding biological components or processes). What is new, is the creation by the authors of an informatics resource which aims to identify particular usages of all terms and associated sub-terms, effectively allowing anyone to perform an ‘intelligent’ search of such concepts.
Their Cognitive Atlas is an open collaborative project (inspired by projects like Wikipedia). It will avoid imposing a single ontology, which would cause considerable consternation across subfields, and will embrace the current messy state of affairs which represent the agreements and dissenting opinions of experts.
Overall, this seems to me to be a great approach to the problem of fuzzy concepts. I wonder though, should this be a ‘cognitive’ atlas? I’ve often found the term ‘cognitive’ to be too fuzzy in and of itself and wonder how (and if) this will impact this project. If the authors are looking to help bridge the divide between brain function and psychology in general, I suspect it would be best to include all brain-related concepts (including those used in all of neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry and also those in non-human animal studies). It just might turn out, for example, that the difference between the ‘reward’ concept across disciplines, and between studies involving humans and other animals, might not be all that large. Or better yet, the conceptual differences in one area might reveal a limitation or unexplored terrain in another.
When we finally escape the conceptual quagmires within neuroscience, the next great challenge will be to align the neuroscientific concepts with everything else.
Bilder RM (2011). Neuropsychology 3.0: evidence-based science and practice. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society : JINS, 17 (1), 7-13 PMID: 21092355
Cromwell HC, & Panksepp J (2011). Rethinking the cognitive revolution from a neural perspective: How overuse/misuse of the term ‘cognition’ and the neglect of affective controls in behavioral neuroscience could be delaying progress in understanding the BrainMind. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews PMID: 21345347
Marshall, P. (2009). Relating Psychology and Neuroscience: Taking Up the Challenges Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (2), 113-125 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01111.x
Poldrack RA, Kittur A, Kalar D, Miller E, Parker S, Sabb F and Bilder RM. (2011) The cognitive atlas: toward a knowledge foundation for cognitive neuroscience. September 2011|Volume5|Article17| 1