Determining research trends from Neuroscience abstracts

In this paper at arXiv, Yin et al. report on an analysis of the abstracts from the SfN meetings from 2001 to 2006. It sounds like their analysis uncovered several interesting trends: Two they mention in their abstract are that 60% of authors appear in only one year’s abstracts over the studied period, and that systems neuroscience seems to be on the rise relative to cellular and molecular neuroscience.

-John O’Leary

Levels of analysis

Salon features an interview today with Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein:

Proud atheists: Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein interview | Salon Books

After reiterating the physicalist view of the mind, the article ends with this quote from Pinker (reminiscent of Marr’s levels of analysis):

[…] But just by looking at the brain itself, will you ever be able to understand the creative mind?

PINKER: I suspect not. In fact, the reason I’m not a neurobiologist but a cognitive psychologist is that I think looking at brain tissue is often the wrong level of analysis. You have to look at a higher level of organization. For the same reason that a movie critic doesn’t focus a magnifying glass on the little microscopic pits in a DVD, even though a movie is nothing but a pattern of pits in a DVD. I think there’s a lot of insight that you’ll gain about the human mind by looking at the whole human behaving, thinking and reporting on his own consciousness. And that might be true of creativity as well. It may be that the historian, the cognitive psychologist and the biographer working together will give us more insight than someone looking at neurons and brain chemistry.

I think the analogy with the DVD is disingenuous. In the case of the DVD, we know precisely how the low-level pits are combined to form the high-level representation (the movie). The system is not mysterious. To be fair, Pinker doesn’t say that neurobiology is always the wrong level of analysis. Maybe he would have been correct 50 or 100 years ago, but I think it’s clear now that neurobiology is on the path to providing a complete synthesis (certainly, with the help of cognitive psychology) that cannot be achieved without it.