Can Neuroscience Inform Everyday Life? The “Translation Problem”

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A new paper asks why neuroscience hasn’t had more “impact on our daily lives.”

The article, Neuroscience and everyday life: facing the translation problem, comes from Dutch researchers Jolien C. Francken and Marc Slors. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but it left me feeling that the authors are expecting too much from neuroscience. I don’t think insights from neuroscience are likely to change our lives any time soon.

Francken and Slors describe a disconnect between neuroscience research and everyday life, which they dub the ‘translation problem’. The root of the problem, they say, is that while neuroscience uses words drawn from everyday experience – ‘lying’, ‘love’, ‘memory’, and so on – neuroscientists rarely use these terms in the usual sense. Instead, neuroscientists will study particular aspects of the phenomena in question, using particular (often highly artificial) experimental tasks.

As a result, say Francken and Slors, the neuroscience of (say) ‘love’ does not directly relate to ‘love’ as the average person would use the word:

We should be cautious in interpreting the outcomes of neuroscience experiments simply as, say, results about ‘lying ’, ‘free will ’, ‘love’, or any other folk-psychological category. How then can neuroscientific findings be translated in terms that speak to our practical concerns in a nonmisleading, non-naive way?

They go on to discuss the nature of the translation problem in much more detail, as well as potential solutions.

In my view, Francken and Slors are quite right that neuroscience often studies particular aspects of phenomena that are quite far removed from everyday reality. A study of emotion, for instance, might provoke positive emotions using pictures of chocolate while using bloody gore images for the negative stimuli. Clearly, emotion is rather more complex than that.

Neuroscientists have their reasons for using these kinds of simplistic experimental set-ups, of course. They provide reliable, controllable emotional responses, something less easy to achieve in the real world. There is also value in using well-studied tasks, to permit comparisons with previous work, even if the tasks might not be ideal.

I do think that neuroscience should endeavor to better approximate real life – to become more naturalistic, as the phrase goes. I also think that neuroscientists often need to clarify their concepts. Francken and Slors make the same recommendations, but for different reasons than I do. I think the main benefit of this would be that neuroscience would be better able to understand the brain. Francken and Slors however suggest that neuroscience could be (and ought to be) able to change the way we think about everyday issues:

If… our everyday ‘folk-psychology ’ could be operationalised unproblematically and unambiguously in neuroscientific experiments, the outcomes of these experiments would ideally directly inform [everyday] practices.

I disagree. I don’t see any reason why neuroscience would change our everyday lives. To put it simply, we already know what our brains do – we are familiar with the behaviours and experiences that make up human life (i.e. with psychology, broadly defined). Neuroscience is the search to understand how the brain does what it does, but this knowledge won’t change the facts of psychology.

To give an example, we now know a great deal about the structure and function of the retina (which is part of the brain.) Retinal biology is useful in diagnosing and treating retinal diseases. But it hasn’t changed how we use our retinas in everyday life, or how we think about vision. We already knew how to use our retinas; science just explained why the retina works the way it works.

So I don’t think that knowing (say) the neuroscience of decision-making would help us to make better decisions. In general, I don’t see Francken and Slors’ ‘translation problem’ as a problem. We shouldn’t look to neuroscience for life tips.

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