Neuroscientists: What’s the most interesting question right now?

After 20 years of cognitive neuroscience, I sometimes feel frustrated by how little progress we’ve made. We still struggle with basic issues, like how to ask a subject if he’s in pain, or what exactly our multi-million dollar scanners measure. We lack a unifying theory linking information, psychological function, and neuroscientific measurement. We still publish all kinds of voodoo correlations, uncorrected p-values, and poorly operationalized blobfests. Yet, we’ve also laid some of the most important foundational research of our time. In twenty years we’ve mapped a mind boggling array of cognitive function. Some of these attempts at localization may not hold; others may be built on shaky functional definitions or downright poor methods. Even in the face of this uncertainty, the shear number and variety of functions that have been mapped is inspiring. Further, we’ve developed analytic tools to pave the way for an exciting new decade of multi-modal and connectomic research. Developments like resting-state fMRI, optogenetics, real time fMRI, and multi-modal imaging, make for a very exciting time to be a Cognitive Neuroscientist!

Online, things can seem a bit more pessimistic. Snarky methods blogs dedicated to revealing the worst in field tend to do well, and nearly any social-media savy neurogeek will lament the depressing state of science journalism and the brain. While I am also tired of incessantly phrenological, blob-obsessed reports (“research finds god spot in the brain, are your children safe??”) I think we share some of the blame for not communicating properly about what interests and challenges us. For me, some of the most exciting areas of research are those concerning getting straight about what our measurements mean- see the debates over noise in resting state or the neural underpinnings of the BOLD signal for example. Yet these issues are often reported as dry methodological reports, the writers themselves seemingly bored with the topic.

We need to do a better job illustrating to people just how complex and infantile our field is. The big, sexy issues are methodological in nature. They’re also phenomenological in nature. Right now neuroscience is struggling to define itself, unsure if we should be asking our subjects how they feel or anesthetizing them. I believe that if we can illustrate just how tenuous much of our research is, including the really nagging problems, the public will better appreciate seemingly nuanced issues like rest-stimulus interaction and noise-regression.

With that in mind- what are your most exciting questions, right now? What nagging thorn ails you at all steps in your research?

For me, the most interesting and nagging question is, what do people do when we ask them to do nothing? I’m talking about rest-stimulus interaction and mind wandering. There seem to be two prevailing (pro-resting state) views: that default mode network-related activity is related to subjective mind-wandering, and/or that it’s a form of global, integrative, stimulus independent neural variability. On the first view, variability in participants ability to remain on-task drive slow alterations in behavior and stimulus-evoked brain activity. On the other, innate and spontaneous rhythms synchronize large brain networks in ways that alter stimulus processing and enable memory formation. Either way, we’re left with the idea that a large portion of our supposedly well-controlled, stimulus-related brain activity is in fact predicted by uncontrolled intrinsic brain activity. Perhaps even defined by it! When you consider that all this is contingent on the intrinsic activity being real brain activity and not some kind of vascular or astrocyte-driven artifact, every research paradigm becomes a question of rest-stimulus interaction!

So neuroscientists, what keeps you up at night?

11 thoughts on “Neuroscientists: What’s the most interesting question right now?

  1. Of course what you called ‘intrinsic brain activity’ matters, but that’s not all. I would call it unconsciousness, and the real state of mind is its combination with consciousness. This is what I’m interested in…

  2. Thanks Guillaume, and I concur. I find it interesting that there is some speculation that slow-wave activity may integrate fast oscillations and allow for cross-frequency information transfer. Raichle has speculated that out of this process consciousness may emerge, and I’ve also speculated similarly in my Frontiers paper. I think it’s an interesting turn from “what are the neural correlates of consciousness” to “what are the neural correlates of conscious-unconscious interaction” which you properly term as ‘mind’.

    • Your hypothesis is interesting. Unfortunately I don’t know much about oscillations but I would not consider this aspect only. Sometimes it reminds me of the famous debate about wave/particle duality in physic, to better describe light. In neuroscience I like the idea that each neuron carries an information besides synchronicity and oscillation with others. It may also be related to the conscious-unconscious interaction.

  3. As you say, neuroscience is the future, but we have also communnicate that neuroscience is a young and exitated science, and it needs development. For my the most interesting topic in neuroscience is consciousness.

  4. I’m also of the opinion that understanding resting-state network activity is a fundamental question at the moment. Given that so much of the brains perceptual and cognitive activity necessarily occurs on a time-scale of a few tens of milliseconds, what are these slower fluctuations for? No-one has come up with a convincing answer as yet, beyond some woolly generalisations about organising and coordinating neural activity.

    What’s also crucial is understanding how these fluctuations in large-scale networks arise, as a function of, say, local field potentials within regions, or even down to the level of individual neuron spikes.

    It’s tempting to get side-tracked by the issue of consciousness – of course it’s always fun to speculate on that stuff. RS-networks are clearly a fundamental feature of the mammalian brain though, and seem to be involved with many aspects of ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ functions. Understanding the machinery is more important than understanding just one of its possible functions!

    • I totally agree that we need to focus on getting clear about what these slow signals actually measure. I’ve got a post-doc application in the works investigating exactly those issues, using multi-modal methods. Still, I think to get a totally clear picture, we need to improve our ability to assess a participants experience while in the scanner. In many ways, I believe being more critical about this aspect of experimental design may yield as many fruits as more fundamental research. Both are crucial in my opinion; we need to get clear methodologically and phenomenologically to make sense of our data.

  5. I completely agree with you Micah. Our field suffers from multiple problems. I’m concerned by the publishing pressure and the lack of “maverickness”. The most interesting questions seems sadly hidden by chapels’ war unfortunately. What about humility? What about collaboration, Open Science? Anyway, the good news is that there is a huge load of remaining interesting questions and exciting methods growing out there (connectomics <3). So change the pessimistic stance online is a great challenge. Art could be an interesting way to catalyze that process. Here is a short film I made for instance: This will also present what keeps me up at night by the way ;o) Cheers!

  6. Great post. I too think that the issues of resting state activity and correctly interpreting imaging signals are paramount to moving forward. (Disclaimer: I’ve written academic papers on these issues.)

    Given that your question was about neuroscience as a whole (as opposed to cognitive neurosci only), I think that we neuroscientists need to better integrate the existing information (especially regarding human and non-human animal findings; also from other related fields, e.g. Anthropology, Philosophy). This is often a major weakness, in my opinion, especially in human studies. Overall, we are in a very good position to benefit from such considerations.

    • Couldn’t agree more; I would love to see more primary, ontological work being done on what terms like ‘information’ and ‘representation’ actually mean. I think there is some great interdisciplinary work being done in the ‘4E’ movement, although sometimes it feels a bit too focused on it’s own sense of ‘revolution’. I think we could benefit greatly from a re-examination of the core concepts that guide and structure our empirical endeavors. Anthropology is a good one too; what kinds of social practices are structuring the way we view our data, and our participants? These are intriguing and important questions if we want to actually know what goes on in the scanner.

  7. Great post Micah

    Does neuroscience have a single generally accepted concept of mind?

    I’m a medical student intercalating in psychology this year, and one of the things that has struck me is the disagreement on what the relationship of the mind and brain actually is. (Obviously this is a classic philosophically unsolved issue but nevertheless, neuroscience must still take it seriously and must surely have its own perspective?)

    For example, does the mind’s computational processing consist symbol based manipulation or is it better viewed from a connectionist perspective. Is the mind a ‘noun’ – something that resides in the brain? Or is it better conceptualised as a verb, a dynamic process that we do? Should we view the mind as embodied and extended throughout the brain, body and environment?

    Considering that any theory of cognition must be based on an underlying assumption defining the mind, this seems a pretty important issue to at least guide further research.

    • Micah, these are some amazing questions. I hadn’t realized a lot of the negativity towards neuroscience might come from our reticence about what’s fascinating and solid in our field, but that makes a lot of sense.

      Chris, as far as I can tell, there’s no consensus on any of these topics in neuroscience because you can find people with pretty much every imaginable position on all of these questions, in every possible combination. One reason might be that it’s very hard to determine what evidence would constitute proof or disproof for most of these philosophical standpoints. But the debate seems to motivate a lot of good research, so maybe it’s a good thing?

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