by William R. Uttal
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Vanja Kljajevic on Feb 14th 2002
book is an exhaustive review of arguments for the negative answer to one of the
most fundamental questions of psychology: Can psychological processes be
localized? The question implicitly asks: Is the mind modular? Are the modules mutually interacting functional units? Are the modules of the
mind localizable in the brain?
Answers to these questions have sharply divided scientific community, leaving
modern cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology with an a priori assumption that positive answers to all these questions
are plausible. The book is exploring the localizationist hypothesis from
different perspectives: definitional, conceptual, methodological and logical,
strongly suggesting that localization of cognitive processes is just an example
of the much wider debate between representatives of the two distinct paradigms
- cognitivists and new behaviorists.
1 is a brief history of the localizationist hypothesis. At the same time, it
introduces Uttals main idea: mental processes are not accessible and
analyzable. The whole book is organized around this idea, and each chapter
analyzes it from a different angle. In short, introspective reports, behavioral
and neuropsychological measures, the imaging techniques all fail to specify
mental processes. At the same time, Uttal argues against the modularity of the
mind: decomposition of the mind into modules, components or faculties is at
best a methodological convenience and at worst a seriously misleading
intellectual artifice (p. 148). Apart
from that, the brains inherent complexity and the limitations of even the best
imaging techniques are only peripheral to the fact that psychological processes
for which loci are being sought are ill-defined. Thus Uttal argues for
redefinition of psychological processes and reconsideration of the conceptual
assumptions underlying localizationist enterprise.
sees the most recent efforts to localize psychological processes in particular
brain areas as a reflection of phrenology.
Namely, 19th century phrenologists had vehemently argued for the
idea that there is important relation between the skulls superficial features
of a person and his/her personality and abilities. Therefore, the title of the
book The New Phrenology is a put-down
term, suggesting that the relationship between the brain and cognitive
processes is much more complex than cognitive neuroscientists and neuropsychologists
are willing to admit.
once characterized as "conceptually brilliant but hopelessly in
error" (Posner), however, are still credited for few important ideas, such
as, for example, the idea that the mind consists of independent mental
components localizable in the brain.
What are the ways of learning about these components? Much of what is
known about the functional systems of the brain has come from the lesion
studies and studies on animals, and only recently from the new imaging
techniques. However, the degree of uncertainty in reconstruction of the brains
functions, which almost always marks the lesion and animal studies, seems to be
the lowest in the neuroimaging modeling. Since the powerful imaging techniques
have enhanced our potential to understand the brain-behavior relationship in
its different aspects, and since localization of functions is important not
only for purely theoretical, but also for practical reasons (e.g.
neurosurgery), Uttal finds it important to address progress and limitations of
the neuroimaging modeling. Chapter 2 is an exhaustive review of the modern
imaging techniques, presented in a simple way and thus highly recommended to
the newcomers in the field.
view, however, is that, in spite of the enormous progress in neuroimaging,
there are three categories of difficulties that make localization of cognitive
processes a futile effort. Among the neuropsychological
and neuroanatomical difficulties are, for example, these: even the simplest
form of learning, classical conditioning, involves more than one brain region;
extreme localization is challenged by new results obtained through the imaging
techniques; the boundaries between the cortical regions are not clear-cut, but
rather fuzzy. The technological and
instrumentation difficulties are mostly related to the imaging methods: the
threshold effect in fMRI, the averaging procedures, distortion of images, the
types of tasks that subject are required to perform during scanning. Finally,
among conceptual and logical problems Uttal
analyzes the modularity hypothesis, claiming that usual arguments for
modularity built on computational modeling, linguistic theory, neuropsychology
and neuroanatomy, and cognitive psychology actually do not demonstrate that
modularity is a general property of the system underlying human cognition.
This will probably be the subject of many discussions inspired by Uttals book.
is interesting to follow how Uttals criticism stratifies into many different
layers: it cuts across disciplines (cognitive neuroscience, cognitive
psychology and neuropsychology, and philosophy), problems (localization,
modularity, cognitive modeling), the logic of argumentation behind the modern
cognitive mentalism, and different methodological issues. Thus the new
behaviorism, mainly defined through the authors attacks on his opponents,
modern cognitivists, is emerging almost as an alternative paradigm. It assumes
that localization of high-level cognitive functions is not possible because the
brain is spatially and temporally uncertain (e.g. fuzzy borders of its
regions in the former, and brains constant ongoing activity in the later
case). According to this view, brain complexity, on one side, and informational
complexity of cognitive processes on the other, are the main reasons for which
any version of localizationist hypothesis will fail. However, it will be
interesting to see how far the new behaviorism can go in the age of cognitive
The New Phrenology is a provoking book. What is provoking
about it is not only its title, or a neat way in which the five chapters of the
book are devoted to different types of arguments on which Uttal has built his
view. More than that, the arguments he has presented here, and they are many, keep
the constant heat for a possible debate.
Finally, the book has a few errors. For
example, Sylvian fissure is not the central, but the lateral fissure (p. 30),
which is obvious even from the enclosed figure (p. 31); the term aphasia is
not necessarily speechlessness (p. 22), although the word itself suggests it,
but a general disorder of spoken language.
short, this is an exciting book that can at least make us reconsider some of
the assumptions that have very often been taken for granted.
Kljajevic is PhD student in cognitive science at Carleton University,
Canada. Her interests include linguistics, neuropsychology and philosophy of