yes, therapy helps!
Reductionism and Psychology: why not everything is in the brain

Reductionism and Psychology: why not everything is in the brain

April 13, 2024

Many of the discussions that take place within psychology are not, technically, psychological discussions, but rather philosophical. Philosophy provides an epistemological and conceptual framework that we use to interpret and produce data, and that previous phase is not a scientific task; rather, it has to do with defending a point of view and arguing why it is better than other philosophical positions.

This is something that happens in all sciences, because all of them are based on philosophical foundations that normally have been discussed for decades. However, in psychology something happens that does not usually happen as much with the hard sciences as physics: the scientific debate and that of ideas mixes a lot and can easily get confused. This occurs, in part, because of the popularity of a philosophical position known as reductionism . Let's see what it consists of and what implications and risks it can have in the field of psychology.

  • Related article: "How are Psychology and Philosophy alike?"

What is reductionism?

The reductionism is a framework of interpretation of reality through which everything that happens in a system (whatever it is, from a company to a human brain) can be understood by studying individually its "pieces", its components.

In addition, from reductionism it is assumed that the connection between these pieces and the properties that these pieces express is less debatable than the relationship between the system as a whole and the properties it has, so the general arises from the individual and never The opposite happens. For example, the characteristics of a complex phenomenon, such as the movements of an ant mob, arise from the sum of the individual behaviors of each of these insects.

In turn, if we study the components of a phenomenon, we will conclude that this phenomenon can only change in a limited number of ways, given that its components determine the routes of change through which the whole can pass. The ants will not be able to survive without a queen ant, because their genes bind them to live in a colony totally overturned in reproduction.

The reductionism in Psychology

The reductionist perspective can be very useful, and nevertheless it entails a danger to be taken into account: it can generate circular explanatory frameworks when trying to give an understanding of what happens in a complex and changing phenomenon, as we will see. Specific, when reductionism is applied to psychology or the neurosciences, this risk is relatively high.

The result of this drawback is that, many times, reductionism is resorted to due to technical and methodological limitations and when interpreting the data obtained through this research, it "forgets" that the decision to isolate a problem in its relatively simple parts was a philosophical action, and not objective or scientific. Let's see an example related to cognitive sciences and the study of the brain.

  • You may be interested: "Parts of the human brain (and functions)"

The study of intelligence

Intelligence is such an interesting and popular as controversial concept, since there is no very clear and exhaustive definition of what is or is not. In fact, the most abstract definitions of this characteristic already hint at why it is difficult to limit it to a definition: it is the ability to adapt quickly and efficiently to new problems. As "new problems" is a necessarily open concept (you can not know in advance what is a new problem for someone), intelligence can only be understood as a complex phenomenon and whose back room is constantly changing, as are all our conscious and unconscious mental activities all the time.

How to identify the biological processes on which the intelligence of each person exists? Being such a complicated task, many researchers opted to analyze patterns of activation of specific parts of the brain and compare the combination of these parts of the nervous system with the scores that each person gets in an intelligence test. In doing so, it has been discovered that the main biological differences that distinguish the most intelligent from the least intelligent are found in the frontal lobes, the parietal lobes, and the anterior cingulate of each cerebral hemisphere.

From a reductionist perspective, this can be interpreted as a sign that these parts of the brain are the main ones involved in the intelligence of the person, those that trigger the whole process of reasoning and maintaining information in working memory, etc.The rest of brain structures may be indispensable, but in any case they are auxiliary members, they participate by helping in the work of the others.

This explanation sounds very natural and convincing , with which it can be taken as an objective fact alien to philosophy, but in reality it is far from explaining the neurobiological basis of intelligence.

What would happen if this mental capacity was not the task of parts of the brain working each on their own and "pooling" their work from time to time? What if the intelligence was based on the coordinated work in real time of millions of neurons distributed throughout the brain, in turn maintaining interactions with other nerve cells and with the substances that reach them through the blood vessels? If this explanation were to describe well the logic of the biology behind intelligence, would previous research have detected it?

Do not; because of reductionism, It would have confused a description of the effects that a global system has on the pieces of the brain with the causes of what is seen in that global system. In the same way, it is not the sad or expressionless face that produces depression in people with this type of disorder.


Psychology is a field of research that aims to explain many things: from the behavior of buyers to the most effective learning methods, from the way in which drug use affects social relationships and an infinity of issues that do not They have too much to do with these. Basically, any plot of reality in which there is a living being learning certain habits and behaviors (voluntarily or involuntarily) psychology has a gap.

But psychology it does not pretend to explain everything in the sense in which physics could explain everything , since in human actions all kinds of very complex phenomena intervene, both at the genetic and historical, cultural and contextual levels. That is why the reductionism should only be taken as a tool, and not as a philosophy that allows to generate simple explanations about facts that are not.

Where Does Your Mind Reside?: Crash Course Philosophy #22 (April 2024).

Similar Articles