Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. There are many important clinical applications of neuroscience in Psychiatry, Neurology, Neurosurgery and Clinical Psychology. Depending on the criterion used for defining neuroscience we can say that neuroscience has developed over a period of several thousand years. We can say this because developing knowledge of the nervous system has emerged from numerous lines of enquiry ranging from philosophical investigation to the use of applied physics. The division of Mind and Brain characterised by the work of Rene Descartes had practical implications both for scientific investigation of nervous system phenomenon and also for the applications of Neuroscience although it is only in recent times that Neuroscience has become established and developed a strong identity. Indeed Neuroscience has arisen because of one simple assumption – in the study of the nervous system the arbitrary division into mind and brain is irrelevant – all lines of enquiry are valid. The compartmentalisation characteristic of different periods not only in the Twentieth Century but throughout the preceding centuries has been removed.
This approach to the study of the nervous system brings a set of unique problems faced by those that initially established the compartmentalisations. There is a very significant difference in the way in which Mind and Brain matters are dealt with theoretically. In the parlance of philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn significant changes occur within scientific communities when one paradigm is replaced by another. However if we move to a more fundamental level of analysis by removing the a priori assumption that Mind and Brain must be investigated separately how much more of a shift does the community face? The Neuroscience community therefore is not restricted by the dialogues within the paradigm of a single community. Instead the community has the freedom to move between paradigms, to move outside of paradigms and to develop new paradigms.
However such freedom brings significant risks. The paradigm anchors the community and ensures that there is a strategic direction within the work of that community. Working outside of such paradigms perhaps facilitates a more innovative work which relies on the communities of the related paradigms to take forward this work. Does the Neuroscientist explore the nervous system by means of various techniques before finally becoming a cellular biologist or Neuroanatomist or Neurophysiologist? By remaining a Neuroscientist, he or she faces a fundamental problem – the division of Mind and Brain is not just arbitrary but reflects a very real and perhaps irreconcilable difference in the approach needed to understand these phenomenon. In this sense, the challenges of Neuroscience are fundamentally philosophical. One man who has written about this is the Australian Psychiatrist Dr Niall McLaren (see review here). McLaren’s central argument is that there is no core BioPsychoSocial Model (originally proposed by Engel) and he instead proposes one approach to this.
I propose that a fundamental problem in the approach to Neuroscience and the Mind/Brain division is the use of language. Language is the ‘language of the Mind’ and the product of the Brain. Language is the key to the human understanding of the Mind and Brain. Individual words are building blocks of a language. Neuroscience incorporates the work of many different communities with specialised languages. This presents a significant challenge since it is not practical for the members of the Neuroscience community to be readily familiar with the language of many scientific communities. At one level a simple approach is to generate a language for use within the Neuroscience community. The artificial generation of such a language however is unlikely to succeed as languages develop organically and to some degree evolve as a result of the generation of practical solutions to shared problems. The Neuroscientist must to some degree speak the language of the related communities but to what degree is another matter. Perhaps a study investigating the language use of Neuroscientists and members of other communities would shed light on this matter although for maximal benefit this would need a strategic direction.
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