Goals and Strategies in Brain Research: The Place of Comparative Neurology

  • Theodore Holmes Bullock


Scientific explanation amounts to describing a mystery in the language of a lower, more basic level, usually the next one down. The mystery is simply pushed down to become phenomenology at the lower level, and now requires “explanation” in a still more basic language. Applied to the brain and to its organizational or system aspects, the goals here addressed, out of the many possible, are much like asking “How does a university work?” Answers at different levels are compared.

The brain presents formidable obstacles to understanding and neuroscientists take a leap of faith—or make a large bet—in acting on the assumption that it is indeed understandable to us. The choice of strategies, in the face of the difficulties, leads me to operate on several fronts, especially the relatively neglected one of comparative neurology and the search for differences among taxa, beyond their commonalities. Accounting in large degree for the neglect is an asymmetry of two kinds of search: one for universal or general mechanisms and one for significant differences, especially those relevant to behavior. Comparative physiology lags behind anatomy in discerning rules and trends; the same is true of comparative behavioral biology.

Pointing to the great span of complexity between the nervous systems of simple invertebrates and those of mammals, primates and humans, my claim is that to understand the nervous system we have to know something about how it has evolved. The amazing distance from a nearly aganglionic net to a simple ganglionic system and then an elaborately centralized brain mediating the vast behavioral repertoires of higher animals is not just an increase in size or numbers.


Brain Research Dorsal Cochlear Nucleus Comparative Neurology System Aspect Squid Giant Axon 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theodore Holmes Bullock
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Neurosciences 0201University of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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