Proceed at Your Own Risk

Becoming an adult in today's society

The Neuroscience Obsession: Good or Bad for Psychology?

What is lost as psychology focuses so much on neuroscience?

Anyone who has looked at job advertisements in psychology departments lately knows that neuroscientists are being hired into these departments in droves. Almost every psychology job advertisement that I have seen in the past 3 years (at least) has been looking for candidates who specialize in some kind of neuroscience - cognitive neuroscience, clinical neuroscience, social neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and on and on.

Many people think this is a good development. The 2013 New York Times obituary for Candace Pert, who helped to discover endorphins, said that she was pleased that psychology was "finally becoming scientific." In a 2008 paper, University of Pennsylvania neuroethicist Stephen Morse used the term "folk psychology" to refer to the study of values, beliefs, intentions, and other constructs that cannot be directly observed. Now that we can directly observe the brain through neuroimaging and other brain-scanning technologies, why do we need to study people's thoughts and feelings?

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There are many ways in which the neuroscience movement has facilitated important breakthroughs. We are learning about the specific parts of the brain that are damaged through drug and alcohol use, the brain structures that are damaged by Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative conditions, and the brain regions that are activated by specific social and cultural cues. We are learning about how the brain develops in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and about the connections between brain development and reckless behavior in the teens and early 20s. We are learning about how people's brains react when they are facing conditions of severe threat or stress.  

Few would argue that these aren't all extremely important steps forward for science. It is clearly essential that neuroscience be well represented within psychology, and that neuroscience research be funded by government agencies.

But does the value of neuroscience mean that other areas of psychology are suddenly unimportant? Young people today are facing an uncertain and difficult job market; the Western world is witnessing a wave of immigration unlike any other in recent history; and the problems of genocide, terrorism, and group violence are badly in need of psychological insights. What can neuroscience contribute to helping us help young people navigate a difficult job market that requires strong self-direction and resilience? How can brain imaging help immigrants to adjust to their new homelands and to raise well-adjusted children? How can brain science help us to understand and prevent terrorism and genocide? Or do other areas of psychology, outside of neuroscience, have more to tell us about these important social issues?

Few scholars would say that the issues enumerated in the previous paragraph are not important, or that psychology does not have a role in addressing them. However, if we use hiring practices as a reasonable proxy for the values that the field holds as a whole, then we would conclude that brain science represents the lion’s share of what is valued within psychology. We do not see many positions advertised seeking candidates who study development of self-direction, identity, and agency in adolescence and the transition to adulthood; who study cultural adjustment in immigrants; or who study terrorism. We do not see positions advertised for candidates who study self-esteem and well-being. Bill Swann and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin published a landmark article in the American Psychologist several years ago (Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Larsen-McClarty, 2007) demonstrating persuasively that people’s self-views are important – but the only job openings in Swann’s own department this year are neuroimaging positions. Why is this?  Although psychology seems to recognize the importance of various subdisciplines, why is neuroscience so heavily dominating hiring trends within our field?

A likely answer involves not only scientific values and progress, but also money. Two of the National Institutes of Health agencies that have traditionally supported behavioral research—the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—are now directed by biologists with little interest in psychological or mental processes. The director of NIMH, Tom Insel, is a biologist and primate researcher who has cast mental illnesses as brain disorders (Insel, 2009, 2010). The director of NIDA, Nora Volkow, is a biologist who has characterized addiction as a brain disease (Volkow, Fowler, & Wang, 2004). Neither of these directors—both of whom are medical doctors—accord much importance to mental or psychological processes in their writings (Satel & Lilienfeld, 2013). Having worked in a medical school for more than 13 years, I can tell you that the vast majority of training provided to medical doctors is biologically oriented. Particularly in psychiatry, in which both Insel and Volkow specialize, biological research is encouraged to the exclusion of psychosocial or other types of work (Stone, Whitham, & Ghaemi, 2012).

So what do Insel, Volkow, and their biologically based interests have to do with psychology? Consider the following excerpt from a job advertisement posted by the psychology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

“The Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is hiring an Assistant Professor with expertise in biological models of psychopathology, including the study of biomarkers, psychophysiological processes, neuroimaging, and/or genetics/epigenetic processes relevant to psychopathology in youth or adults.”

What is most striking about this advertisement is that it aligns almost perfectly with Tom Insel’s funding priorities at NIMH. Although it is certainly conceivable that the department is intrinsically interested in biological processes associated with psychopathology, it is also quite possible that the university is seeking to use the advertised position to increase its competitiveness for grant dollars.

Is this good or bad for psychology? To the extent to which the neuroscience movement is driven by scientific priorities, values, and progress, and to the extent to which room is left for other areas of psychology to flourish, there may be much in this movement that is good for psychology as a field. However, to the extent to which the dominance of neuroscience within psychology’s value system (as indexed by hiring practices) is driven by desires to secure grant funding rather than by the scientific needs of the field, what does this mean for our students, our clients, and the world that we are entrusted to serve? Are pressing social issues destined to be neglected by psychology because the funding agencies are run primarily by biologists? Twenty years from now, will most of us even be able to recognize psychology as a field? Will we be teaching our students what they need to know? Will we be providing the essential insights and services that the world needs from us?

Clearly, neuroscience has much to contribute to our field, but so do many other subdisciplines within psychology. It is up to us, as a community of scholars, to decide what the future of our field should be. Neuroscience has a place at the table, but it is our responsibility—not Insel’s or Volkow’s—to decide what that place should be. We all know that grant money is important, but it cannot be the driving force behind the decisions that we make regarding the direction of our field.

 

REFERENCES

Insel, T. R. (2009). Disruptive insights in psychiatry: Transforming a clinical discipline. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 119, 700-705.

Insel, T. R. (2010). Rethinking schizophrenia. Nature, 468, 187-193.

Morse, S. (2008). Determinism and the death of folk psychology: Two challenges to responsibility from neuroscience. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 9, 1-36.

New York Times. (2013, September 19). Candace Pert, explorer of the brain, dies. Retrieved October 4, 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/science/candace-pert-67-explorer-of-the-brain-dies.html?_r=0.

Satel, S., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience. New York: Basic Books.

Stone, K., Whitham, E. A., & Ghaemi, N. (2012). A comparison of psychiatry and internal medicine: A bibliometric study. Academic Psychiatry, 36, 129-132.

Swann, W. B., Jr., Chang-Schneider, C., & Larsen-McClarty, K. (2007). Do people’s self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62, 84-94.

Volkow, N., Fowler, J. S., & Wang, G.-J. (2004). The addicted human brain viewed in the light of imaging studies: Brain circuits and treatment strategies. Neuropsychopharmacology, 47, 3-13.

Seth Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Miami. He researches identity, immigration, and acculturation.
 
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