Dear blog reader. After a brief hiatus we are back in action with a contribution from Rodrigo Vianna de Almeida. Rodrigo has recently started his PhD and is going to reflect on his personal journey through linguistics, neuroscience and behavior analysis, and the accompanying challenges faced and lessons learned in his pursuit of psychological science.
Colin and Dermot
About the author:
Rodrigo Vianna de Almeida is currently pursuing a PhD in Psychology at Ulster University under the principal mentorship of Professor Dermot Barnes-Holmes. His research is concerned with the role of levels of derivation in the relating of emotional facial expressions with arbitrary symbols and the transformation of fear and avoidance functions along this relating. He holds a Master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience of Language (2020 to 2021) from the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (University of the Basque Country), where he conducted research on diffusion-weighted MRI of streamlines bidirectionally connecting the ventral occipito-temporal cortex to the opercular, triangular, and orbital parts of the inferior frontal gyrus. He is a psychologist graduated from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil (2013 to 2018), with a major in Clinical Psychology and a minor in Statistics.
Off She Goes! But From Where?
Neurath’s boat was never a better metaphor for anything in life, let alone science. Life is a journey, but we call it home. Science is an ill-founded enterprise, but we call it truth. They who never saw a pão de queijo (a Brazilian cheese bread) would be
straightforward in saying that bread is bread, and cheese is cheese, and as a verbal community they would call it an observational sentence. So did every new student of the scientific enterprise. We all thought we were standing on the shoulders of giants, but, as newly born dwarves, we never really understood the extent of the heights that lay before us. At least, that was the story of this one dwarf, whose observational sentences can henceforth only be observations. This text tells the story of how this dawning rower sailed stormy, distant seas across psychology, linguistics and neuroscience.
I took Neurath’s boat departing from a bizarre love triangle between philosophy, linguistics, and psychology – the extent to which any of these fulfils the definitions of a science is as questionable as the fact that natural sciences never really cared about fulfilling that definition. The departure was, therefore, not a scientific one. However, I wanted to understand why people deem science true, or, more ambitiously, why it is true. I finally understood that if one has never made pão de queijo, one can never theorise about why it is true that it is a cheese bread, given a lack of referents for the meaning of cheese or bread or how it is made. Along with my desire to understand language, this led me to study psychology in Minas Gerais, Brazil, where I started to have the opportunity to make pão de queijo.
Studying psychology instead of linguistics was not a trivial decision. Not taking language as the object of studies, but instead the system (whether human or not) that uses, produces, understands, and updates it, changed absolutely everything. Had I departed from a pre-defined scope of what a language is, or should be, my trip could have been akin to that of a logician (a rather Chomskyan one), according to which everything will always perfectly add up if all the rules are set up front. Even though it is evident that Logic is among the most complex and perfect intellectual enterprises of humanity, and even though it is beautiful to see a theorem sorted out after centuries of doubt, logic is, nevertheless, still artificial, for it is an axiomatic system. The beauty of science is a different one, for it attempts to pursue a similar rationale when the axioms are not predefined propositions, but natural observations. Observations will always be the fundamental source of hyperbolic doubt when one takes into account the solipsist problem, according to which philosophers could never find a proof of the existence of souls other than one’s own – or minds, preceptors, observators, whatever the name is of that which we are as we think and perceive at some degree of consciousness. Science will therefore always be hindered by the dubious source of evidence that is nature.
That was the challenge I signed up for as I sailed through Psychology. Like many who want to continue to develop psychology as a scientific discipline, I fell in love with quantitative methods and statistics. When I now see social scientists who start to enter this path like I did a few years ago, I notice some of the anxious statements that had also haunted my spirit back then: “this is the ultimate truth that goes beyond any belief!” Well… If one picks up randomly some three professional statisticians out of a box containing N professional statisticians and asks them whether or not an estimated parameter is itself a random variable that requires prior probability distributions, we start to see that statistics is itself travelling its own seas. They who want their science to recruit statistical methods need to respect statistics as its own science, instead of borrowing it as a captive, unreflective tool. This leads me back to my system that uses, produces, and understands language, dynamically updating it, and to the question of which approach could be used to sort it out. The next shore at which I stop to change rotten planks (on Neurath’s boat) is thus neuroscience.
Anyone first faced with the good-old nature vs. nurture problem in psychology can be tempted to reckon: culture cannot change the anatomy of our bodies, and western medicine seems to work fine for any human being (we know this is not true, though), so why don’t we let psychology go biological? Well… As appealing as this approach may seem, if one samples some three free-roaming specimens of biologists or physicians and asks them whether the understanding of the human species can be sufficiently explained by its anatomy, the answer is necessarily going to be a rounded no, simply because, before even considering culture, we need to take into account other biological systems to explain it, such as the biochemical, endocrinological, physiological, and evolutionary, to name only a few. These are necessarily influenced by culture, leaving the role of anatomy as an explanatory tool constrained to making explicit the limits and 3D constraints of biological processes. Some cognitive neuroscientists with access to MRI machines, notwithstanding, need to justify their funding grants by providing some results from whatever contrasts those machines they admittedly know little about could provide. So, they often just go anatomical since the fundamental purpose of their tool was supposed to be helping inform radiology. Usually these are the BOLD contrast or the diffusion-weighted contrast.
From the perspective of trying to understand cognition from the BOLD contrast or the diffusion-weighted contrast, the interesting fact is that there is scarce evidence for the relationship between the physiological processes estimated by these contrasts and cognitive processes. The first issue arises from the very definition of the cognitive process under investigation, whose psychological reality is often questionable to start with. The second issue is, given an assumed reality of the cognitive process under scrutiny, the question of how come this process is inferred from a blood-oxygen level-dependent contrast. Even if we assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between the metabolization of oxygen in the haemoglobin that promenades somewhere in the cortex several seconds after something should have taken place, why should this relationship be located at a particular piece of the brain? In other words, is the location the best explanans for this explanandum? Diffusion-weighted contrasts, by their turn, recruit assumptions that are way less heavily loaded. Yet, when one finds out white-matter tracts connecting piece A with piece B of the cortex, prior research that assumes localised cognitive functions in particular slots of the cortex will still be brought forward into the interpretation of such structural-only research outcomes.
As critical as these words may seem, they are rather bluntly realistic. Most neuroscientists that use MRI methods are pretty much aware and knowledgeable of these limitations – some of them even taught those to me. And who am I to deny that MRI research is definitely quite complex and hard. But, as always, the dwarves that come afterwards do not always appreciate the extent of the heights of the giants on whose shoulders they stand. This goes not only for cognitive psychologists using MRI as a tool with respect to the chemists and physicists who originally developed MRI, but also for the neuroscientists inferring psychological processes from very-specifically-edged pieces of the brain with respect to the first physicians who started to figure out behaviour from that organ at their patient presentations in nineteenth-century Paris. To name an example, Paul Broca was never a hardcore localizationist. He concluded for localizationism as “extremely likely”, in his very words, after thoroughly discussing the suitability of this theoretical approach, because he was basing this conclusion on the evidence he had – never saying that the triangular or opercular parts of the left inferior frontal gyrus should encompass alone “his” area, but making it clear that he would not open further into the white matter because he knew dissection was not good enough to explore the impact of stroke over subcortical tracts (Broca, 1861a,b). By preserving Lelong and Leborgne’s brains in the museum, he left this task to the scientists who would come later (Dronkers et al., 2007), but when they came, some of them just called him a cortex-obsessed localizationist and implied they reinvented the wheel all by themselves (Duffau, 2018; Tremblay & Dick, 2016).
None of this is to say there is nothing from brain research that helps explain behaviour. It is just that, in the pursuit of interdisciplinary endeavours, the scientific approaches need to become one, across their theoretical perspectives. In light of this, cognitive science and MRI will never get into terms, because they are fundamentally contradictory to each other. To develop a such scientific line of thought that holds logically, one either ought to depart from MRI by acknowledging what these contrasts can actually inform, to then construct behavioural inferences coming from that shore, or has to start from a behavioural-evolutionary theoretical perspective of the integral bio-psycho-social human being, to then include neuroscientific evidence in it, when it really makes sense (i.e., when there is effectively a relationship between behaviour and central nervous system processes measured in several different levels, from biochemistry to physiology).
After pursuing a relatively interdisciplinary career up until now, however short and incipient this may have thus far been, one lesson that I could have learnt from it – which might change as I eventually start to get experienced at some point, hopefully – is that interdisciplinarity that forcibly brings together two or more discretely different theoretical perspectives is necessarily a recipe for disaster. Interdisciplinarity, like anything else in the scientific sail, must arise naturally from bare necessity. When the motive actually exists, all theories involved need to have all of their underlying premisses entirely accounted for, so they can row the same vessel together. Only then can interdisciplinarity work. Otherwise, the vessel sinks, or worse, navigates in circles, despite the rowers’ belief that they are going straight forward. Each scientific endeavour alone (e.g., engineering, neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science) already has its own problems! If the theoretical foundations of each of them are not accounted for, science is at risk of becoming a tower of Babel – we know how it ends. Any enterprise that needs collaborative work will ultimately need its constituents to speak the same language. If there are different sciences speaking discretely different languages, each leading to contradictory conclusions, only one of them, if any, can be true.
Throughout this cruise, the science that kept up with me, often providing me with new planks from harbour to harbour, was behaviour analysis. I started to be interested in equivalence relations research when I was trying to discover a model for experimenting the formation – in a system that uses, understands, produces, and updates language – of Lakoff’s original conceptual metaphors. Different from cognitive sciences, the science of behaviour does not check for truth validity if not by means of a pragmatic approach (Barnes-Holmes, 2000). This is helpful because it suits Neurath’s analogy in a productive way. Many people have actually availed of the ongoing technology of behaviour that this science has slowly been accomplishing. It also hardly shows the same level of contradictions with current neuroscientific methods as cognitive psychology does, because it does not attempt to submit brain evidence to the whim of its hypotheses according to which the standard cognitive machinery must function. Rather, Behaviour Analysis only regards evidence as evidence. In this scenario, the brain is just like any other organ of the human body, that evolved throughout phylogenetic processes and tries to cope with its environment as it develops ontogenetically. If metabolization of oxygen in wandering haemoglobin is not a useful proxy of this explanandum, then it is no problem! This evidence just goes to some other research field, if it does not help understand the particular behaviour under analysis.
The brain, for behaviour analysts, is therefore not a black box. It just had not been a sufficient source of evidence during the first decades of the twentieth century, if behaviour is concerned, because the sources of evidence were dead, and, hence, not behaving. Apart from anatomo-clinical correlations, what functional analysis can one grasp from a corpse? Currently, depending on the method (in particular, MRI), brain research still is not quite sufficient yet, if the contrasts being scrutinised have little to do with behaviour. Other neuroscientific techniques are nevertheless useful for the science of behaviour, such as the electrophysiological ones, and that is why an awful lot of studies intersecting these with Behaviour Analysis are being conducted since at least the 1950’s (e.g., Amd et al., 2013; Barnes-Holmes et al., 2005a,b; Dias et al., 2021; Porter et al., 1959; Ross et al., 1962; Silveira et al., 2021; Slucki et al., 1965; to mention only a few). The brain only becomes a black box when the evidence it actually provides is dissimulated in order to be forced into mythic theories.
My trip has been, undoubtedly, a wavy one. It is not unexpected from a Psychology undergraduate student to eventually feel rather unsatisfied with the behaviour-analytic approach to human language and cognition, when our original port of departure encompassed natural-language-based questions concerned with the explanation of that which we call a thought, a decision-making, a problem-solving, a creativity, a language production. We are seduced by appealing approaches out there that we think explain all the truth, until we go through them and realise how illuded and unfair were our expectations from sciences of their own. The study of equivalence relations and relational frames is a beautiful approach to human language and cognition because it stems on solid grounds. It is nevertheless true that current so-called mainstream psychologists will usually ignore the reasons why this approach is better founded than cognitivism, and will simply deem it surpassed. But reasons exist. The current cognitive approach believes faithfully in its method, the hypothetico-deductive one. It is indeed a solid method, should it mind where the hypotheses come from. Any hypothesis can be formulated out of one’s imagination if natural evidence is not to be duly concerned aforehand. Then, proving it true or false based on frequentist statistical inference may seem like enough, but the only problem is that this proof is post-hoc to whatever the hypothesis could have been – this leads us back to the observational sentence.
For the sake of example, I can hypothesise that people with big noses are sadistic, and people will small noses are not. That is a perfectly formulated hypothesis. Then, I measure a sample of people’s noses and separate them into two groups: one with noses bigger than the median, and the rest. I ask all of them to respond to a personality trait questionnaire that I constructed to measure what I call sadism. Maybe the scale of my questionnaire allows for a test of mean difference based on a seemingly normal distribution. I can therefore run a two-sample t-test for this hypothesis, and I can find out whether or not my hypothesis was true. Nose measurement can be perfect. Scale can be validated. It just does not make sense to invent a unidimensional variable called sadism, let alone to consider nose size an independent variable. However aberrant this example may seem, our common-sense language can be just tricking us into doing this: i.e., thinking that what we deem meaningful, here and now, actually is. The problem starts, therefore, from our descriptive approach to data – observed natural data.
We finally come back to the questions we felt had been unfulfilled by the behavioural account to human language and cognition, and we realise that it really does not answer these questions the way we wanted it to. This happens because our questions were never well posed in the first place. If natural sciences are to be used as example, we realise that these seasoned sciences did not start by the end. They never designed a Titanic before just rowing around a bit, always trying to construct solid knowledge over small waves and strokes along the way. We are eager to create the ultimate psychological science that explains what we call thought, language, and emotion immediately. But we need to row over a pragmatic ocean if we do not want to keep deluding ourselves. We also need to understand our observational sentences much better before proceeding to hypothesising. The reality is that some loaves are bread, some cheeses are cheese, and, ultimately, it is possible to make pão de queijo if we are hungry – that is true.
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