I often have trouble explaining to people what I am doing for my PhD. This is not a consequence of the topic being so fiendishly complex that no-one else can understand it. Instead it comes from a fact that the area of study seems to fall between several difference subject areas. When I tell people that I am doing my PhD within the Neuroscience department I imagine this provokes images of test-tubes, microscopes and pipettes, and perhaps associations with genetics, animal testing and stem cells. In reality I have little knowledge or experience of any of these topics, having last done ‘traditional’ lab work while I was at secondary school. If you asked me to dissect something, I would probably run a mile! When I instead say that I work within the psychiatry department this probably brings up an altogether different set of images, of drug therapies, ECT and perhaps of ‘talking therapies’ such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). In fact both the above statements regarding my PhD are true, as the Psychiatry department sits within the Neuroscience department, but neither appear to give an accurate impression of what I actually do.
The best description of my area of research is ‘cognitive neuroscience’, but what does this mean? Cognitive Neuroscience relates to the study of the neural basis of behaviour. Roughly, it bridges the gap between biological sciences, and behavioural sciences such as psychology and psychiatry. It attempts to determine how the brain achieves the legion of processes that it performs – crudely ‘what part of the brain does what’! Cognitive neuroscience has only been seen as a separate area of study relatively recently, partly because the advanced brain imaging techniques which the discipline now heavily relies on have only been developed within the last 30 years (according to Wikipedia the term ‘cognitive neuroscience’ itself was coined in the back of a taxi in 1979!!). However scientists from various disciplines have been trying to understand how the brain functions, using whatever methods were available, since at least the 19th century.
Cognitive Neuroscience relies heavily on work done within behavioural sciences, which have served to define how human behaviour and cognition can be classified into concepts that can be studied. Unsurprisingly therefore, cognitive neuroscience research normally involves the application of a behavioural task which has already been utilised without the use of brain imaging techniques. One question this raises is what does knowing how the brain achieves it function tell us that purely behavioural science does not? Psychologists have been ably investigating the details of mental processes for well over a century without knowing (or even caring) what part(s) of the brain are involved. The knowledge that spatial processing is largely dependent on the Hippocampus is not necessary for studying the intricacies and individual differences in spatial processing. So what does an understanding of the neural basis of mental processes achieve?
Firstly understanding the neural basis of a mental process can help distinguish between different theories relating to how that process is performed. Behavioural data is often not sufficient to distinguish between competing theories (e.g. whether a particular process is performed in totality, or whether it is split into components processes that are dealt with separately, and whether such component processes are performed in parallel or in series). Neuroimaging data can be used to provide strong evidence in relation to these questions (1). Secondly cognitive neuroscience can provide insight into areas of cognition that were difficult or impossible to address without neuroimaging techniques. For example much work has been done on trying to understand what the brain does ‘at rest’ (i.e. when no task is being performed, effectively ‘mind wandering’) which can allow us to understand how the brain might work as an self-contained integrative mechanism. As, by definition, non-task related mental processes can’t be manipulated systematically, it is hard to investigate these processes from a purely behavioural standpoint. Similarly neuroimaging has enabled scientists to begin to uncover the neural basis of ‘consciousness’, raising interesting questions about how our experience of the world is constructed (3). These achievements of cognitive neuroscience help elucidate the nature of human thought and behaviour, shedding light on why we act the way that we do.
On a larger scale, understanding how the brain is able to processes such a large variety of information, and produce such a wide variety of responses, can help guide the design of artificial intelligence systems intended to mimic human abilities, facilitating advances in medicine and engineering. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, knowing how the brain produces certain responses can lead to the development of interventions to alter the functioning of the appropriate brain areas when those responses become problematic (e.g. during mental health disorders). One of the major aims of cognitive neuroscience is to identify the neural deficiencies that mark various psychiatry and neurodegenerative disorders. From this information it becomes potentially possible to identify methods of combating such deficiencies. Indeed biological interventions are being developed that can target specific brain areas, potentially offering great hope for improving the therapeutic treatment of mental disorders.
(1) Jonides et al (2006). What has Functional Neuroimaging told us about the Mind? So many examples, so little space. Cortex, 42, 414-417 http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jjonides/pdf/2006_3.pdf
(2) Van den Heuval & Pol (2010) Exploring the brain network: A review on resting-state fMRI functional connectivity. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 20(8), 519-534 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X10000684
(3) Dehaene & Changeux (2011) Experimental and Theoretical Approaches to Conscious Processing. Neuron, 70. 200-225 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627311002583