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Combining Neuroscience with Psychology: The Value in Unification

At its most fundamental, science has always aimed to answer some essential questions that have troubled humans for centuries. Even as the pace at which we collect new knowledge, some key issues remain. How did the universe come to exist in the first place? How did life on Earth first come about? Where does identity reside in humans? What is the biological basis of consciousness? The quest to satisfy our curiosity has led to some amazing discoveries. In physics, John Clerk Maxwell was able to show that electricity and magnetism is two sides of the same coin, which he unified into a single force: electromagnetism. Moving a magnet through a coil produced an electric current – a principle used today in all fMRI scanners and without which their very existence would not be possible. This unification was further developed into uniting electromagnetism with the Weak force (known as the electroweak force), The Weak force is responsible for radioactive decay and is one of the four fundamental forces, together with the Strong force, magnetism and gravity. PET scans used in medical and neuromarketing studies use this Weak force effect to enable the tracer chemical to decay into positrons and be annihilated by the billions upon billions of photons in your body. Unification is at the core of everything that underlies the functioning of the universe.


Ultimate Unification

In 1905 and 1915 Albert Einstein devised his special theory and general theory of relativity respectively. At its most fundamental, it says that space and time is a single entity – known as aptly as spacetime. The quicker a person moves through space, the more time dilates and the more length contracts relative to an observer. But this was the world of the ‘very’ large. Zoom into the world of the very small – electrons, protons, neutrons and photons (light particles), and the rules of a scientific field known as quantum mechanics exist. No longer can a fundamental particle’s position and speed be simultaneously be known, nor can a photon be described as either a wave or a particle. Relativity theory simply falls apart at these scales.
And here is the thing: they cannot be both right at the same time. Einstein made it his life mission to unify special relativity theory and quantum mechanics into one, all-encompassing theory known as the Theory of Everything (TOE). We would be able to predict the outcome of any physical experiment in principle, unify the four fundamental forces into one, all-encompassing force and know how all particles acquire their mass.
With much less fanfare, technology is also moving in the direction of integration at a blistering pace. Cell phones have been integrated with Bluetooth, high-resolution cameras, full internet capabilities and social media. Include the tablet and pc that can synchronize seamlessly with your cell phone and you have a network of integrated devices that can leverage your own capabilities far beyond what could have been imagined just a few decades ago.


Unifying a Soft and Hard Science

In 1973, the Nobel-prize psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky identified the Availability heuristic. It is a mental shortcut where people make judgments about the probability of events based on the ease with which examples can be recalled. For example, asking a consumer (in you capacity as, say, a researcher for a company that manufactures airbags) who has recently been in a car accident if there is a real need for airbags in cars given some severe constraint, will likely cause him to overstate the probability. It is as if memories are stored in a line-up to be recalled, each memory taking its place in front of the most recent memory. The most recent memory dictates how subsequent experiences will be shaped. This is consistent with what has recently been discovered about memory: when thinking about our future, we recall what has been stored in our memories as starting point. The scope of the research is beyond this article. What is important, however, is that this psychological phenomenon should be quite easy to test through fMRI studies. As volunteers are asked to image a picture of their future, the hippocampus, where memory resides, should light up like a firework in the night sky; or a similar set-up. An experiment like this would confirm this perceived occurrence that visions of the future is linked to memory, thereby integrating a psychological study with another scientific method – fMRI.
With sufficient knowledge of the inner workings of the brain through neuroscience, I believe that there is real value in integrating it with psychology, and vice versa. Another reason I believe so has to do with what Jonah Lehrer discusses in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works what he calls ‘outsider thinking’. When a person works on the fringes of his/her field of interest, it is there where they are best in solving problems. Taking solutions from one area of interest and applying them to another are where the greatest successes occur. The research Lehrer mentions comes from a professor at Harvard Business School, Karim Lakhani. His research details the results from a website, InnoCentive, by the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly uses for solving some of their most pressing problems that neither they nor their competitors could solve. The problems are solved by people outside of the company that are not an expert in the pharmacology, but still smart enough to understand the problem.

It is my thinking that by unifying two different, but related disciplines (i.e. neuroscience and psychology) to solve marketing problems will be of greater value as opposed to tackling theories of psychology or neuroscience in isolation. The validity of theories in psychology can be evaluated as in the case of the example above. This methodology of using neuroscience to validate what we know of consumers in the buying sphere can also act as a systematic guideline for every subsequent research study.
Maybe one day we might be able to unify neuroscience and psychology into a Grand Theory that explains more than we can, ironically so, cannot even comprehend.


Further Reading and References

Greene, B. 1999. The Elegant Universe. Vintage. Great Britain.

Weinberg, S. 1993. The First Three Minutes. New York. Basic Books.

Lehrer, J. 2012.  Imagine: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. 1973. Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology 5(1): 2017-233.

Herbert, W. Thinking of the future invokes our memory.

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