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by William R. Uttal
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Vanja Kljajevic on Feb 14th 2002

The New Phrenology

This book is an exhaustive review of arguments for the negative answer to one of the most fundamental questions of psychology: Can psychological processes be localized? The question implicitly asks: Is the mind modular? Are the modules mutually interacting functional units? Are the modules of the mind localizable in the brain? Answers to these questions have sharply divided scientific community, leaving modern cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology with an “a priori assumption” that positive answers to all these questions are plausible. The book is exploring the localizationist hypothesis from different perspectives: definitional, conceptual, methodological and logical, strongly suggesting that localization of cognitive processes is just an example of the much wider debate between representatives of the two distinct paradigms - cognitivists and new behaviorists.

Chapter 1 is a brief history of the localizationist hypothesis. At the same time, it introduces Uttal’s main idea: mental processes are not accessible and analyzable. The whole book is organized around this idea, and each chapter analyzes it from a different angle. In short, introspective reports, behavioral and neuropsychological measures, the imaging techniques – all fail to specify mental processes. At the same time, Uttal argues against the modularity of the mind: decomposition of the mind into modules, components or faculties is “at best a methodological convenience and at worst a seriously misleading intellectual artifice” (p. 148).  Apart from that, the brain’s inherent complexity and the limitations of even the best imaging techniques are only peripheral to the fact that psychological processes for which loci are being sought are ill-defined. Thus Uttal argues for redefinition of psychological processes and reconsideration of the conceptual assumptions underlying localizationist enterprise.

Uttal sees the most recent efforts to localize psychological processes in particular brain areas as a reflection of phrenology. Namely, 19th century phrenologists had vehemently argued for the idea that there is important relation between the skull’s superficial features of a person and his/her personality and abilities. Therefore, the title of the book The New Phrenology is a put-down term, suggesting that the relationship between the brain and cognitive processes is much more complex than cognitive neuroscientists and neuropsychologists are willing to admit.

Phrenologists, once characterized as "conceptually brilliant but hopelessly in error" (Posner), however, are still credited for few important ideas, such as, for example, the idea that the mind consists of independent mental components localizable in the brain.  What are the ways of learning about these components? Much of what is known about the functional systems of the brain has come from the lesion studies and studies on animals, and only recently from the new imaging techniques. However, the degree of uncertainty in reconstruction of the brain’s functions, which almost always marks the lesion and animal studies, seems to be the lowest in the neuroimaging modeling. Since the powerful imaging techniques have enhanced our potential to understand the brain-behavior relationship in its different aspects, and since localization of functions is important not only for purely theoretical, but also for practical reasons (e.g. neurosurgery), Uttal finds it important to address progress and limitations of the neuroimaging modeling. Chapter 2 is an exhaustive review of the modern imaging techniques, presented in a simple way and thus highly recommended to the newcomers in the field.

Uttal’s view, however, is that, in spite of the enormous progress in neuroimaging, there are three categories of difficulties that make localization of cognitive processes a futile effort. Among the neuropsychological and neuroanatomical difficulties are, for example, these: even the simplest form of learning, classical conditioning, involves more than one brain region; extreme localization is challenged by new results obtained through the imaging techniques; the boundaries between the cortical regions are not clear-cut, but rather fuzzy. The technological and instrumentation difficulties are mostly related to the imaging methods: the threshold effect in fMRI, the averaging procedures, distortion of images, the types of tasks that subject are required to perform during scanning. Finally, among conceptual and logical problems Uttal analyzes the modularity hypothesis, claiming that ‘usual’ arguments for modularity built on computational modeling, linguistic theory, neuropsychology and neuroanatomy, and cognitive psychology – actually do not demonstrate that modularity is “a general property of the system underlying human cognition”. This will probably be the subject of many discussions inspired by Uttal’s book.

It is interesting to follow how Uttal’s criticism stratifies into many different layers: it cuts across disciplines (cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, and philosophy), problems (localization, modularity, cognitive modeling), the logic of argumentation behind the ‘modern cognitive mentalism’, and different methodological issues. Thus the new behaviorism, mainly defined through the author’s attacks on his opponents, modern cognitivists, is emerging almost as an alternative paradigm. It assumes that localization of high-level cognitive functions is not possible because the brain is spatially and temporally ‘uncertain’ (e.g. fuzzy borders of its regions in the former, and brain’s constant ongoing activity in the later case). According to this view, brain complexity, on one side, and informational complexity of cognitive processes on the other, are the main reasons for which any version of localizationist hypothesis will fail. However, it will be interesting to see how far the new behaviorism can go in the age of cognitive sciences.

The New Phrenology is a provoking book. What is provoking about it is not only its title, or a neat way in which the five chapters of the book are devoted to different types of arguments on which Uttal has built his view. More than that, the arguments he has presented here, and they are many, keep the constant heat for a possible debate.   

 Finally, the book has a few errors. For example, Sylvian fissure is not the central, but the lateral fissure (p. 30), which is obvious even from the enclosed figure (p. 31); the term ‘aphasia’ is not necessarily speechlessness (p. 22), although the word itself suggests it, but a general disorder of spoken language.

In short, this is an exciting book that can at least make us reconsider some of the assumptions that have very often been taken for granted.      


©2002  Vanja Kljajevic


Vanja Kljajevic is PhD student in cognitive science at Carleton University, Canada. Her interests include linguistics, neuropsychology and philosophy of psychology.