It’s the behaviour, stupid

An article in the Atlantic by Ed Yong called ‘How brain scientists forgot that brains have owners’ reports on critics and criticisms of current neuroscience and the BRAIN initiative specifically. You should read it, it’s short! The main criticism is – and with this I whole-heartedly agree – that it’s all about the behaviour. The brain generates behaviour, and trying to understand the brain without understanding behaviour is like ‘trying to understand a bird’s flight by studying only feathers. It just cannot be done’, as David Marr pointed out (and is also quoted in that article). Now do not get me wrong – I am not saying that I do not welcome new tools; on the contrary, I think these new tools are pushing neuroscience forward in leaps (and the BRAIN initiative actually sounds pretty sensible, at least form this side of the Atlantic, where we have the Human Brain Project). It’s just that the study of behaviour has not nearly kept pace – in fact has been very much sidelined. The behavioural readouts used in many studies are very crude and the importance of that behaviour to the animal very much in doubt. I am convinced that we need to understand behaviour in much greater depth to have any hope to ever understand the brain.

So next time you design your study, start from the behaviour, and not from the fancy tool that you happen to have in your lab.

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