Honoring William Uttal's Contributions to Cognitive Neuroscience (BS 132)

Dr. William Uttal, who died last month at the age of 86, had a very unusual career, going from physics and engineering to psychology and cognitive science. I think his unique background contributed to the refreshing skepticism that he brought to the growing use of imaging (especially fMRI) in the cognitive sciences.

He was a prolific writer on the subject and back in 2012 I had the honor of talking with him about his book Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience. In addition to shedding light on the limitations of imaging (such as poor reproducibility), Dr. Uttal also argued that it was premature to abandon other psychological testing methods.

This month I am replaying that 2012 interview. Brain Science 132 includes a new introduction and closing remarks.  While Dr. Uttal's writing was aimed at a technical audience I think it is important for listeners of all backgrounds to be aware of these issues because they remain as relevant as ever.

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Links and References


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  • I am planning to attend this year's Society of Neuroscience Meeting, which is being held in Washington DC November 11-15, 2017. Please email at brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com if you are going to be in Washington during those dates. If there is enough interest I will arrange a listener meet-up.

  • I am also in the early stages of planning a trip to Australia in 2018 and would love to hear from Australian listeners for ideas and advice, including leads on speaking opportunities.

"Mind and Brain" with William Uttal (BSP 83)


William Uttal, PhD

There is nothing more exciting than the mind/brain problem" according to Dr. William Uttal, author of Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience.  In the latest episode of the Brain Science Podcast  (BSP 83) I talked with Dr. Uttal about why he feels that brain imaging can not solve this mystery.

First, there is the problem that brain imaging represents the wrong level of analysis because every spot you see on a brain scan actaully represents thousands of neurons.  This means that the activity and interaction between individual neurons has been lost. Then there is the problem of reproducibility, with divergent results between studies.

The evidence is accumulating that "much of the brain responds to any stimulus, and every area of the brain participates in multiple functions."  This means that asking where a given function occurs may be the wrong question.

BSP 83 represents an on-going discussion of these issues, so I have included links to related episodes in the show notes. 

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Brain Imaging: Recorded LIVE at Dragon*Con 2008 (BSP 46)

Dragon*Con 2008

Dr. Campbell at Dragon*Con 2008

Brain Science Podcast #46 is a discussion of brain imaging with Dr. Shella Keilholz and Dr. Jason Schneiderman.  The focus of our discussion is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is revolutionizing neuroscience.  We talked about both the strengths and weaknesses of this technique.  Both of my guests agree that mainstream coverage of this technique tends to exaggerate what we can actually tell from this kind of brain scan.  An important principle is that the scan of any single individual can vary greatly from day to day, which means that valid conclusions require data from a large number of people.

Since this episode was recorded LIVE in the Podcasting Track at Dragon*Con 2008, it includes audience questions at the end, which helped bring out additional ideas.  I have posted an edited version (but there is still some noise from the room next door).  If you are interested in hearing the raw unedited version, click here.  I also want to thank Swoopy from Skepticality for all the work she did to make the podcasting track a great success.

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More about my guests:

Shella Keilholz, PhD, is an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineeering at Georgia Tech and the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA.  She is doing studies that involve correlating fMRI scans with the reading from electrodes placed in rat brains.  This work is fundamental to improving the correlation between fMRI scans, which reflect brain activity only indirectly, and what is actually happening in the neurons of the brain.

Jason Schneiderman, PhD studied psychology before earning his PhD in neuroscience.  His dissertation involved the use of diffusion tensor imaging, which is a new method of scanning that is being used to track the axonal connections in the brain.  He is currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where his team is trying to determine if the connections in the brains of young schizophrenics are different from normal.  The goal is to improve early diagnosis because early intervention makes a big difference.

Some recent discussions of fMRI:

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A Closer Look at Mirror Neurons (BSP 35)

Mirrors in the Brain

Brain Science Podcast #35 is a discussion of Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia.  Mirror neurons were discovered in Rizzolatti's lab in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and his book is a detailed to discussion of the experimental evidence in both monkeys and humans.  Direct single neuron recordings have been made in monkeys.  The evidence in humans is indirect, since it is based on mainly on neuro-imaging studies like PET scans and fMRI scans.  Even so, mirror neurons appear to be essential to our ability to understand both the actions and emotions of others. 

In this episode, we also explore the evidence that there are other neurons in the motor areas of the brain that have sensory properties and that the areas of the brain traditionally thought to be devoted to sensory functions also contain neurons with motor properties.  Another fascinating discovery is the fact that there are neurons that respond not only to somatosensory inputs (such as being touched) but also to visual or auditory inputs from objects within our peri-personal space.  For background on these body maps, I recommend listening to Episode 21 and Episode 23.  If you are new to the Brain Science Podcast, you may want to listen to those episodes first, because this week's episode is a little more technical than most.

I will be exploring the importance of these discoveries in future episodes.

How to get this episode:

  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • Buy mp3 for $1.
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  • New episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE.  All episodes posted after January 1, 2013, are free.  See the individual show notes for links the audio files.


Donations and Subscriptions are appreciated