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Injective and surjective neuroscience

May 29, 2011

This was posted on Arts & Letters Daily, so it’s not as if it is a discovery on my part, but I’m posting it because it touches on a topic of significant interest which I haven’t yet mentioned. This book review of The Power of Music: Pioneering New Discoveries in the Science of Song does a good job of pointing out some of the holes in how neuroscience is used to prove things about how our brains work. I particularly like these two paragraphs:

Often scan-based localization of functions in the brain reminds one of a crooked real-estate agent leasing the same property simultaneously to dozens of different customers. This problem may be a reflection of the crudity of present techniques, but even if they were refined so that they could pinpoint the precise brain locations that light up in response to different components of music, we would still learn little about the source of the singular joy that certain melodies may bring. The musical experience is a totality that taps into memories and emotions and, beyond this, into the greater totality of private and shared worlds.

Ms. Mannes’s neo-phrenology is in any case undermined when her mentor, Aniruddh Patel of San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute, asserts in the book’s introduction that music engages “everything above the neck.” The brain areas activated when we listen to pleasurable music, we are told, are also activated by drugs or sex—but that fact merely confirms how uninformative much neuroscience is. Techniques that cannot distinguish between hearing an organ played and having one’s organs played with tell us nothing about either.

In other words, the basic problem with using neuroscience to “explain” literature, music, art, etc, is this: just because we can draw more and more precise surjective mappings from our thoughts to the state of our brain doesn’t mean we will ever be able to draw an injective mapping. Neuroscientists have a tendency to ignore this fact.

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