11 June 2012

Psychology and Neuroscience - Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

The Edge 370 features Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who studies adolescent brain development.  The overall news on neuroplasticity is good:
The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong. There's no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can't change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s, and even after that it's plastic forever, the plasticity is a baseline state, no matter how old you are. That has implications for things like intervention programs and educational programs for teenagers.
But I found this passage quite revealing:
One interesting thing to think about, when you're thinking about brain imaging, is why is brain imaging important? What does it teach us that we didn't already know from psychology studies? This is a really important question that a lot of people are asking. Why does it matter that we know that one part of the brain is involved with a process? Why does that matter more than just knowing about this process from a kind of psychological point of view? For example, if you know that one method of teaching works better than another method of teaching, so one method of memory rehearsal worked better than another method, why does knowing that the hippocampus is more involved in one than the other? Why is that useful? Does it tell you any more than you already knew from the psychology results or the education result? I think this is a very open question and often, actually, especially when you're talking about the implications of neuroscience for education, actually, often it's the case that is sort of seduced by these brain images, and we see them and they are very tangible and people suddenly think, "Oh, my God, it has a biological basis," and they somehow seem more convincing and attractive than just pure psychology results. But often they don't really tell us anything more.
This raises the issue that brain imaging itself is not really revealing much without the component of the subjective experience (or at least some sort of behavioral evaluation).  Psychology, and understanding of the subjective experience obviously still matters!

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