, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 415–438 | Cite as

What are neural correlates neural correlates of?

  • Gabriel Abend
Original Article


How should neuroscience research about social-psychological phenomena identify its objects of inquiry, so as to develop adequate experimental paradigms and tasks to elicit them, and then look for their neural correlates? How should it go about conceptualizing objects such as morality, empathy, art, love, creativity, or religious belief? If a neuroscientist is after the neural correlates of X, how can she tell X from non-X? This is an important methodological problem, to which neuroscience hasn’t given enough thought. I argue that it actually consists of two distinct questions: first, what counts as object X; and second, how to tell what counts as object X. At neither level can neuroscientists avoid taking sides in philosophical and social science controversies. I further argue that they can therefore benefit from the relevant literatures in philosophy, social science, and the humanities. These literatures can help neuroscience studies better conceptualize and operationalize the social-psychological phenomena they are interested in—and thus better get at them, specify how experimental results might speak to the real social world, and clarify what exactly neural correlates are neural correlates of.


neural correlates logic of inquiry philosophy of neuroscience critical neuroscience 



Logically, this article has been made possible by an infinitely large number of people, organizations, and Brazilian butterflies (Lorenz, 1993). For their intentional or unintentional causal effects on it, I’d like to thank Alain Berthoz, Alain Ehrenberg, Ann Morning, Antonio Rangel, Bérangère Thirioux, Bruno Wicker, Claude Rosental, Claudio Benzecry, Claus Lamm, Dale Jamieson, Daniel Andler, Daniel Margulies, David Sbarra, Dennis Patterson, Devin Terhune, Diego Golombek, Fernando Vidal, Gil Eyal, Gretty Mirdal, Jan Slaby, Jimena Mantilla, Leila Hamit, Luciana de Souza Leão, Marie Meyerhoff, Mariano Plotkin, Mariano Sigman, MaryAnn Noonan, Michael Pardo, Olessia Kirtchik, Oriel FeldmanHall, Patrick Sharkey, Rafael Mandressi, Rubén Flores, Saadi Lahlou, Samuel Dinger, Sebastián Abreu, Sheila Jasanoff, Simon Luck, Steven Epstein, Steven Lukes, Steven Tester, Suparna Choudhury, and Torsten Heinemann. My research has been supported by the Department of Sociology at New York University, Institut d’études avancées de Paris, Uses and Abuses of Biology Programme (Faraday Institute, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge), and Lichtenberg-Kolleg at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. I’m thankful, too, to BioSocieties editors Nikolas Rose, Ilina Singh, and Catherine Waldby, editorial assistant Beatrix Daniels, copy-editor Lauren Baker, and anonymous reviewers for their terrific comments. Because my causal effects on this article were larger than these individuals’ and organizations’, the blame for its shortcomings should be laid on me. I may pass on the blame to those Brazilian butterflies, though.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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