There and Up Again: On the Uses and Misuses of Neuroimaging in Psychology

Cognitive Neuropsychology 30 (4):233-252 (2013)
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The aim of this article is to discuss the conditions under which functional neuroimaging can contribute to the study of higher cognition. We begin by presenting two case studies—on moral and economic decision making—which will help us identify and examine one of the main ways in which neuroimaging can help advance the study of higher cognition. We agree with critics that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies seldom “refine” or “confirm” particular psychological hypotheses, or even provide details of the neural implementation of cognitive functions. However, we suggest that neuroimaging can support psychology in a different way—namely, by selecting among competing hypotheses of the cognitive mechanisms underlying some mental function. One of the main ways in which neuroimaging can be used for hypothesis selection is via reverse inferences, which we here examine in detail. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, we argue that successful reverse inferences do not assume any strong or objectionable form of reductionism or functional locationism. Moreover, our discussion illustrates that reverse inferences can be successful at early stages of psychological theorizing, when models of the cognitive mechanisms are only partially developed.

Author Profiles

Marco J. Nathan
University of Denver
Guillermo Del Pinal
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


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