Monday, 25 June 2007

Drowning in data

I watched this talk yesterday given by Jeff Hawkins, someone who has worked on many well-known pieces of technology, but whose real love is the brain. I was struck by his thought that neuroscience suffers from a surfeit of data and a dearth of theory. Researchers act as though simply accumulating more data will solve their problems. Hawkins' own take on the mammalian brain is that we shouldn't think of it in terms of sensory input and behavioural output, but rather understand it as a prediction device.

Psychosomatic medicine seems to be following the neuroscience approach, a largely atheoretic accumulation of 'facts'. You can see this from recent editions of what was once the flagship journal, Psychosomatic Medicine.


Ron Mawby said...

I wonder if there is a connection between your last two posts: drowning in data, and goldfish research. When we have data but no theory with which to understand them the data never become facts and are easily overlooked or forgotten. This is a commonplace in the cognitive psychology of memory. Suppose you had good statistical evidence for ESP phenomena, but no explanatory account whatsoever; your 'data' would never become incorporated into an ongoing theoretical science. To conceptualize human beings so that what is seen to be actual can be thought to be possible is not easy.

david said...


I think you're onto something with that. Then there are the obstacles standing in the way of theory. Any comprehensive theory of an organism or artificial mechanism must involve an understanding of what it is for it to be working 'well'. We understand a functioning computer, or a thriving ecosystem or animal colony. With humans, though, this quickly touches on political and moral perspectives.

I think fundamental disagreements in psychology run up against this problem.