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Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Mind Doesn’t Matter Anymore


Some of us are old enough to have witnessed the end of the Hull-Spence variety of behaviorism that featured elaborate equations to explain simple maze learning by rats. Then in the 1970s, it seemed that everything in psychology became cognitive, which perhaps it always was. No living  psychologist, however, was around for the really intense debates and research on the composition of the mind in the early 1900s. If such a person is still around, I hope he or she will see this blog.

Edward Bradford Titchener was a leader in this controversy which revolved around the contents of the mind as revealed by introspection. Thomas Leahey reviewed The Philosophical Background and Scientific Legacy of E. B. Titchener’s Psychology: Understanding Introspectionism by Christian Beenfeldt which presents the controversy clearly and in depth. A central question was whether there can be imageless thought. But the research method used, introspection, was not as controversial. To be sure, there were forms of introspection; Leahey reminds us not to confuse Wundt’s methods with those of his student, Titchener.

Well, all of that is water over the dam, if you get the picture. My question here is whether anyone doing research cares anymore about what the mind is. After all, most current research involves introspection: people speaking or completing some form of questionnaire. Even a yes-or-no response is a form of introspection. And do those colorful brain-imaging photos mean we have pictures in our head or just blood flowing?

Read the Review
ReviewThe Decline and Fall of Introspection
By Thomas Leahey
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(3)


Bill Adams

Titchener was right about imageless thought. There are no pictures in the head because there are no self-existing pictures at all. A picture (or an “image”) must be mentally constructed, then described and agreed-upon for identification, whether it’s a perceived scene or scratches on paper that “represents” that scene. James Gibson (1966, 1979) demonstrated all this (though he would not have said it that way), and Alva Noe (2004) has reiterated the point that all visual perception is constructed, not “captured.” Without introspection, there are no pictures, anywhere.

Once you have constructed, described, and agreed, however, then pictures do exist, and are easily reified into self-existing entities. Thus, the Wurzburg school was also correct. Further, colorful brain-image photos can then become indices to pictures in the head. Ganis et al. (2009), concluded that “there is an overlap of at least 90% between brain regions recruited by visual perception and visual mental imagery” (p. 218).

In his review of Beenfeldt’s book, Thomas Leahey cites Chalmers’ (1996) distinction between functional consciousness (mentality inferred to cause behavior) and phenomenal consciousness (awareness of qualitative mental content). I suspect that might be one of those Kantian distinctions that makes no difference. What does make a difference is Chalmers’ observation in that same book that:

“Our grounds for belief in consciousness derive solely from our own experience of it. Even if we knew every last detail about the physics of the universe -- the configuration, causation, and evolution among all the fields and particles in the spatiotemporal manifold -- that information would not lead us to postulate the existence of conscious experience. My knowledge of consciousness, in the first instance, comes from my own case, not from any external observation. It is my first-person experience of consciousness that forces the problem on me” (1996, pp. 101-102).

In other words, without introspection, we would have no field of psychology at all. Everything depends on it, and not merely, as James Korn points out, because cognitive psychology relies on self-reports. Even behaviorism depends on introspection, because a unit of behavior cannot be defined unless you first presume that it has some meaning or purpose. Unless you do that, you see only random, meaningless twitching, like a Martian watching a tap dancer without the sound. In order to define a “lever press” or other meaningful unit of behavior, you must presuppose that you understand the intentionality of the observed animal, and that depends on a surreptitious use of introspection. So even for behaviorists: no introspection, no psychology.

Even more broadly, teaching and learning of any kind is not possible without intersubjectivity, which also presupposes knowledge of another’s intentionality (e.g., Braten, 2007). I have argued (Adams, 2012) that empiricism itself depends on surreptitious use of introspection.

So to answer James Korn's question, “Does anyone doing research care anymore about what the mind is?” My answer is “Probably not. But they should.”

Adams, W. A. (2012) Scientific introspection: A method for investigating the mind. E-book, online from
Braten, S. (Ed.) (2007). On being mMoved: From mirror neurons to empathy. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins North America.
Chalmers, D. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Ganis G., Thompson W.L., & Kosslyn S.M. (2009). Brain areas underlying visual mental imagery and visual perception: An fMRI study. In J. Brockmole (Ed.), The visual world in memory. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gibson, J.J. (1966). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston, NA: Houghton Mifflin.
Gibson, J.J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Noe, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

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