The Northwestern University
Cognitive Science Program
presents a cognitive science dialogue:
Is Cognitive Neuroscience the New Phrenology?
William Uttal               Michael Posner
Wednesday, April 23, 2003, 4:15 pm, Harris Hall 107


  • Can high-level cognitive processes really be localized in the brain?
  • Does greater localization provide a better understanding of and ability to predict human behavior?
  • How should cognitive neuroscience proceed in its quest to understand the human brain and mind?


Technical and conceptual difficulties abound in the effort to localize high-level cognitive functions to narrowly circumscribed regions of the brain. Some of the most serious involve the ambiguous definition of the putative mental components that are to be localized and the generally unacknowledged nonlinear complexity of both the mind and the brain. In addition, the imaging techniques themselves are replete with technical difficulties that raise additional questions about this particular application even though these wonderful machines can make extraordinary contributions to our knowledge of brain anatomy and physiology.          — William Uttal

Prof. William Uttal has performed a service to the field by pointing out potential limitations to neuroimaging and asking whether it is merely a new phrenology. Pictures of the brain, however great their resolution, do not constitute a complete answer to the pressing issues of mind and behavior. However, the answer to Uttal’s question about phrenology is clearly NO. While there has been strong empirical convergence on the issue of localization of function, neuroimaging has moved well beyond saying where processes are located to provide information on:  (1) the activation of brain areas in real time (circuitry), (2) connections between neural areas, (3) changes in brain activity with experience (plasticity), (4) normal and abnormal development in relation to genetics and experience. These findings do have important implications for treatment of pathology, for education, and for other important areas of application.  Like other sciences, neuroimaging has spawned impressive new technologies and attracted people from diverse fields into a common agenda.   The ability to image the living human brain during cognitive and emotional tasks has supported a broad interdisciplinary approach capable of significant contributions to our understanding of mind and behavior.     —Michael  Posner