Why Procrustean Neuroscience

Procrustean Beds

illustration-15The Greek myth goes that Procrustes was a man who had a place between two cities. He invited travelers who were passing by to stay in his iron bed. When the guests were too short for the bed, he would stretch them out to fit it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recounts this myth in The Bed of Procrustes to argue that people deal with a complex world by perceiving it with overly simplistic and often incorrect theories. In the same way that Procrustes fit people to a bed, Taleb contends that we fit data to a theory. In both cases, the wrong variable is modified.

Fitting data to a theory is bad for two reasons. First, the theory prevents its user from understanding the data properly. A neuroscientist cannot fully understand the role of the cerebellum in speech if her theory tells her that the cerebellum plays no role in speaking.

Second, people forget that a theory is always a working theory: a work in progress that needs updating when new data begins to disconfirm it. A theory may state that the cerebellum is not involved in speech production, but the theory may be completely wrong.

Neuroscience Commentators

Neuroscientists are scientists who study the nervous system. In this blog, I will write mostly about neuroscientists who study the function of the human brain with tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging. I do this not only because I was trained in this area, but also because the study of human brain function may be the area of neuroscience that lends itself the most to fitting data to bad theories. I explain why in a future post.

I define neuroscience commentators as those individuals who communicate findings from neuroscience studies to the general public. Most commentators are journalists who write about this science, but they also include scientists who write in the popular press.

Epistemic Humility

Too many neuroscience commentators have Procrustean beds. They take studies with specific, tentative findings and draw general, confident inferences about psychology (how we act, feel, and think) that are unwarranted by the data. At best, this misrepresentation of science is ignored and forgotten. At worst, it is accepted by the public and exploited by neuroprofiteers (more on them in a future post).

Neuroscience has taught, is teaching, and will teach us much about psychology. But the brain is complex, neuroscientific tools are imperfect, and our knowledge is limited, so progress will be slow and tentative. Neuroscience commentators should acknowledge these facts and approach their subject aware of the limitations in what they know and how they know it; they should show epistemic humility.

In Seven Psychologies, Edna Heidbreder writes that “psychology has acquired … the skepticism that for science is the beginning of wisdom. It knows that it knows little and that that little is tentative.” Epistemic humility from neuroscience commentators should show that neuroscience is just as wise as psychology.


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