Open Pages: Reductionism and the Seduction of Neuroscience

APA Books Open Pages is an ongoing series in which we share interesting tidbits from upcoming books. Find the full list by browsing the Open Pages tag.

Reductionism does not necessarily arise from oversimplification or misapplication of neuroscientific findings but, rather, from an inflated admiration of the field. Neuroscience is popular, and some of its findings about the human brain are indeed remarkable, even awe inspiring. As a result, it is easy to become so enamored with neuroscience that we are tempted to think that neurobiological descriptions are the only legitimate descriptive systems for human experience. For example, it’s tempting to describe such human phenomena as love, hope, and altruism in terms of brain structures, circuitry, and chemistry. Although such descriptions are indeed fascinating and perhaps even accurate from a neurobiological perspective, it is easy to forget that there are other descriptive systems, equally valid, that place these important human experiences in a phenomenological context, describing them in terms of the meaning and value they hold for human beings. Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger with the current fascination with neuroscience may be the tendency to describe important human experiences in material, biological terms without also acknowledging their subjective, value-laden, and phenomenological dimensions. This is not to deny that all human experiences have neurological substrates but, rather, to affirm that in our scientific age, biologically based explanations can push aside other ways of knowing that are just as valid and sometimes more important to human life. For example, it would be unthinkably reductionistic to describe a mother’s love for her child in terms of neural activity and brain chemicals without also recognizing that her subjective and value-laden experience of love for her child, a phenomenological experience, is a vital component of any full and accurate description of parental love.

human elements psychotherapy–From Chapter 3, “Neuroscience and Evolutionary Theory: How Our Brains Are Evolved to Heal Through Social Means,” pp. 54-55, in The Human Elements of Psychotherapy: A Nonmedical Model of Emotional Healing by David N. Elkins. Copyright © 2016 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, including, but not limited to, the process of scanning and digitization, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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