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Linking Mind to Molecular Pathways: The Role of Experiment Tools

Abstract

Neurobiologists talk of linking mind to molecular dynamics in and between neurons. Such talk is dismissed by cognitive scientists, including many cognitive neuroscientists, due to the number of “levels” that separate behaviors from these molecular events. In this paper I explain what neurobiologists mean by such claims by describing the kinds of experiment tools that have forged these linkages, directly on lab benches. I here focus on one of these tools, gene targeting techniques, brought into behavioral neuroscience from developmental biology more than a quarter-century ago. Discussion of this tool does more than illuminate these claims by neurobiologists, however. An account of its development shows the doubly dependent role that theory plays in neurobiology. Our best current theories about “how the brain works” depend entirely on the experiment tools neuroscientists have available. And these tools get developed via the solution of engineering problems, not the application of theory. Theory is thus of tertiary importance in neuroscience, not of the primary importance that many cognitive scientists assume it to occupy.

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Notes

  1. I will say more about these techniques and their early development and successes in Sect. 4 below. The discussion to follow in this section draws on a more detailed account of gene targeting experiments in neurobiology in Bickle (2016, 3–9).

  2. Lisman’s model was a neurobiologically more specific version of Hebb’s (1949) famous “neurons that fire together, wire together” speculation.

  3. Morris and Kennedy drew their title from this line of Alexander Pope’s early-eighteenth century poem, “An Essay on Criticism.” The line of the couplet that precedes it, also quoted by Morris and Kennedy at the beginning of the review, is perhaps the most famous line from the poem: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

  4. This cell signaling pathway and its role in synaptic plasticity is so prominent in contemporary neuroscience that one finds detailed treatment of it in any good up-to-date textbook. I recommend Purves et al. (2018, chapter 7), especially for readers less familiar with molecular biology.

  5. See Bickle (2018) for a similar assessment and reproduction of a published page from Karl Diesseroth’s laboratory notebook depicting the initial schematic cartoon for the inserted light source for activating the light-sensitive receptor proteins used in optogenetics, a more recent tool in cellular physiology and behavioral neuroscience.

  6. In recent talks I have offered two additional case studies that illustrate all these points: the metal microelectrodue and the patch clamp. Bickle (in preparation) elaborates both cases.

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Correspondence to John Bickle.

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Bickle, J. Linking Mind to Molecular Pathways: The Role of Experiment Tools. Axiomathes 29, 577–597 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-019-09442-1

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Keywords

  • Mind-to-molecular-dynamics linkages
  • Theory-centrism in neuroscience
  • Experiment tools
  • Gene targeting techniques