, Volume 193, Issue 5, pp 1585–1614 | Cite as

Mechanisms in psychology: ripping nature at its seams

  • Catherine Stinson
S.I.: Neuroscience and Its Philosophy


Recent extensions of mechanistic explanation into psychology suggest that cognitive models are only explanatory insofar as they map neatly onto, and serve as scaffolding for more detailed neural models. Filling in those neural details is what these accounts take the integration of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to mean, and they take this process to be seamless. Critics of this view have given up on cognitive models possibly explaining mechanistically in the course of arguing for cognitive models having explanatory value independent of how well they align with neural mechanisms. We can have things both ways, however. The problem with seamless integration accounts is their seamlessness, not that they take cognitive models to be mechanistic. A non-componential view of mechanisms allows for cognitive and neural models that cross cut one another, and for cognitive models that don’t decompose into parts. I illustrate the inadequacy of seamless accounts of integration by contrasting how “filter” models of attention in psychology and of sodium channels in neuroscience developed; by questioning whether the mappings generated by neuroimaging subtraction studies achieve integration; and by reinterpreting the evidence for cognitive models of memory having been successfully integrated with neural models. I argue that the integrations we can realistically expect are more partial, patchy, and full of loose threads than the mosaic unity Craver describes.


Mechanism Explanation Integration Cognitive psychology Neuroscience 



The first draft of this paper was written with the support of a predoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin in 2010–2011. Thanks are especially due to their wonderful library services. An earlier version formed part of Chapter 2 of my PhD Dissertation, “Cognitive Mechanisms and Computational Models: Explanation in Cognitive Neuroscience” at the University of Pittsburgh, 2013. Thanks to Peter Machamer, Ken Schaffner, Jim Bogen, Floh Thiels, and Boris Hennig for their helpful comments on the chapter. The final drafts were written with the support of a predoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience, Eberhard Karls Universität T\(\ddot{\mathrm{u}}\)bingen. Thanks to the participants at the workshop, Explaining Mental Phenomena, held in T\(\ddot{\mathrm{u}}\)bingen on 24 July 2012, where I presented the paper, especially to Uljana Feest, who provided extended commentary.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Integrative NeuroscienceEberhard Karls Universität TubingenTübingenGermany

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