Meeting the brain on its own terms

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 815 (8) (2014)
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In contemporary human brain mapping, it is commonly assumed that the “mind is what the brain does”. Based on that assumption, task-based imaging studies of the last three decades measured differences in brain activity that are thought to reflect the exercise of human mental capacities (e.g., perception, attention, memory). With the advancement of resting state studies, tractography and graph theory in the last decade, however, it became possible to study human brain connectivity without relying on cognitive tasks or constructs. It therefore is currently an open question whether the assumption that “the mind is what the brain does” is an indispensable working hypothesis in human brain mapping. This paper argues that the hypothesis is, in fact, dispensable. If it is dropped, researchers can “meet the brain on its own terms” by searching for new, more adequate concepts to describe human brain organization. Neuroscientists can establish such concepts by conducting exploratory experiments that do not test particular cognitive hypotheses. The paper provides a systematic account of exploratory neuroscientific research that would allow researchers to form new concepts and formulate general principles of brain connectivity, and to combine connectivity studies with manipulation methods to identify neural entities in the brain. These research strategies would be most fruitful if applied to the mesoscopic scale of neuronal assemblies, since the organizational principles at this scale are currently largely unknown. This could help researchers to link microscopic and macroscopic evidence to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the human brain. The paper concludes by comparing this account of exploratory neuroscientific experiments to recent proposals for large-scale, discovery-based studies of human brain connectivity.

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Philipp Haueis
Bielefeld University


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