Seeing with New Eyes Toward an Evolutionarily Informed Cognitive Neuroscience

The task of cognitive neuroscience is to map the information-processing structure of the human mind and to discover how this computational organization is implemented in the physical organization of the brain. The central impediment to progress is obvious: The human brain is, by many orders of magnitude, the most complex system that humans have yet investigated. Purely as a physical system, the vast intricacy of

From Michael Gazzaniga, ed., The New Cognitive Neurosciences, 2d ed., Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000). Reprinted by permission of The MIT Press.

chemical and electrical interactions among hundreds of billions of neurons and glial cells defeats any straightforward attempt to build a comprehensive model, as one might attempt to do with particle collisions, geological processes, protein folding, or host-parasite interactions. Combinatorial explosion makes the task of elucidating the brain's computational structure even more overwhelming: There is an indefinitely large number of specifiable inputs, measurable outputs, and possible relationships between them. Even worse, no one yet knows with certainty how computations are physically realized. They depend on individuated events within the detailed structure of neural microcircuitry largely beyond the capacity of current technologies to observe or resolve. Finally, the underlying logic of the system has been obscured by the torrent of recently generated data.

Historically, however, well-established theories from one discipline have functioned as organs of perception for others (e.g., statistical mechanics for thermodynamics). They allow new relationships to be observed and make visible elegant systems of organization that had previously eluded detection. It seems worth exploring whether evolutionary biology could provide a rigorous metatheoretical framework for the brain sciences, as they have recently begun to do for psychology (Shepard, 1984, 1987a, 1987b;Gallistel, 1990;Cosmides and Tooby, 1987;Pinker, 1994, 1997;Marr, 1982; Tooby and Cosmides, 1992).

Cognitive neuroscience began with the recognition that the brain is an organ designed to process information and that studying it as such would offer important new insights. Cognitive neuroscientists also recognize that the brain is an evolved system, but few realize that anything follows from this second fact. Yet these two views of the brain are intimately related and, when considered jointly, can be very illuminating.

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