Science Directions

Advances in neuroscience and genetics have created fantastic new opportunities to understand the nature of life. Uncovering the neural, cellular, and even molecular, bases of cognition, emotion, and action will move us much closer to answering the most important and enduring questions of psychology and behavioral science.

Complex systems--such as human behavior and cognition--are better understood through careful analysis of their components. This is just good science. The risk, of course, is equating our understanding of the components with understanding of the complex system itself. This is the mistake of reductionism. It is ubiquitous, and it creates a false sense of advancement, especially when it comes to the goal of understanding human behavior, cognition and emotions.

The seduction of reductionism

Reductionism has always been a central concern in psychology. With each new era, the red flag of reductionism is waved and critics warn of the danger. We now stand at the precipice of a new era, spawned by neuroscience and genetics. With this new era comes the promise of new knowledge about the building blocks of life. And with this new era comes the old risk of reductionism--confusing our understanding of the parts with our understanding of the whole.

I do not mean to denigrate the incredible advances and importance of neuroscience and genetics. Yet, the benefits we derive from these advances will be small if we lose sight of the bigger picture--the complex systems in which neurons and genes operate, and through which they have been shaped. These systems are often characterized by emergent properties that reflect much more than the sum of smaller parts. And it is these emergent properties that we ultimately seek to understand, predict and control.

I understand the seduction of reductionism. Functional magnetic resonance imaging and explication of the human genome make us feel as if we are getting closer to the Holy Grail. We are attracted to the promise of future pharmacological interventions tailored to our own unique genetic composition, which will prevent the onset of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes or even depression. We are fascinated with the possibility of looking inside the brain to better understand how that organ accomplishes its great feats of thinking, learning and perceiving.

This newest age of reductionism is being fueled by the federal funding agencies, by Congress, and by the general public. Everyone seems to think that focusing on ever finer grains of sand will hasten cures for the worst of human afflictions and produce enormous leaps forward in our understanding of the human condition.

Off balance

The dramatic shift in funding priorities at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers perhaps the best example of the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of reduction. NIMH--once the greatest protagonist of the biopsychosocial model of mental illness and health--is now paying little more than lip service to the social and behavioral systems in which mental health is embedded.

I wonder why this is so. Of all the areas of health for which the National Institutes of Health is responsible, mental health is the one area that can benefit most from a balanced approach--one that supports science and intervention from the social level to the neural level, from behavior to genes. Yet the approach currently pursued by NIMH has all but abandoned the biopsychosocial approach.

I suspect that NIMH has been seduced, like so many others, into thinking that a reductionistic approach will lead to faster cures and a quicker development of interventions. Perhaps this is reasonable for a subset of the "diseases" that fall within the domain of NIMH. For example, this may be the right approach for unlocking the mystery of schizophrenia.

Yet, for most areas of mental health (and mental illness), the reductionistic approach will not lead to faster cures or to the quicker delivery of interventions. I'm thinking here of depression, anxiety, phobias, aggression and generally positive mental health. Understanding the neural and genetic underpinnings in these areas will help, but it will not bring faster cures or quicker interventions. Indeed, in the absence of a more balanced biopsychosocial approach, progress could well be impeded.

Even in the case of something like schizophrenia, a significant portion of the "burden" of the illness is borne by others in the social environment (family, friends and co-workers). NIMH cannot help to relieve this "burden" without proper attention to research on interpersonal relationships, social support and stress. I think I am on safe ground in asserting that a reductionistic approach is the wrong one to address these problems.

I have great admiration for the work of NIMH. The institute has simply let the pendulum swing too far in one direction. Let's hope that nature helps us to find more balanced ground.