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William R. Uttal

William R. Uttal is Professor Emeritus (Engineering) at Arizona State University and Professor Emeritus (Psychology) at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including The New Phrenology: On the Localization of Cognitive Processes in the Brain (MIT Press).

Titles by This Author

A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience

Cognitive neuroscience explores the relationship between our minds and our brains, most recently by drawing on brain imaging techniques to align neural mechanisms with psychological processes. In Mind and Brain, William Uttal offers a critical review of cognitive neuroscience, examining both its history and modern developments in the field. He pays particular attention to the role of brain imaging--especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)--in studying the mind-brain relationship. He argues that, despite the explosive growth of this new mode of research, there has been more hyperbole than critical analysis of what experimental outcomes really mean. With Mind and Brain, Uttal attempts a synoptic synthesis of this substantial body of scientific literature.

Uttal considers psychological and behavioral concerns that can help guide the neuroscientific discussion; work done before the advent of imaging systems; and what brain imaging has brought to recent research. Cognitive neuroscience, Uttal argues, is truly both cognitive and neuroscientific. Both approaches are necessary and neither is sufficient to make sense of the greatest scientific issue of all: how the brain makes the mind.

The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain

William Uttal is concerned that in an effort to prove itself a hard science, psychology may have thrown away one of its most important methodological tools—a critical analysis of the fundamental assumptions that underlie day-to-day empirical research. In this book Uttal addresses the question of localization: whether psychological processes can be defined and isolated in a way that permits them to be associated with particular brain regions.

New, noninvasive imaging technologies allow us to observe the brain while it is actively engaged in mental activities. Uttal cautions, however, that the excitement of these new research tools can lead to a neuroreductionist wild goose chase. With more and more cognitive neuroscientific data forthcoming, it becomes critical to question their limitations as well as their potential. Uttal reviews the history of localization theory, presents the difficulties of defining cognitive processes, and examines the conceptual and technical difficulties that should make us cautious about falling victim to what may be a "neo-phrenological" fad.

A Meta-Meta-Analysis

Cognitive neuroscientists increasingly claim that brain images generated by new brain imaging technologies reflect, correlate, or represent cognitive processes. In this book, William Uttal warns against these claims, arguing that, despite its utility in anatomic and physiological applications, brain imaging research has not provided consistent evidence for correlation with cognition. Uttal bases his argument on an extensive review of the empirical literature, pointing to variability in data not only among subjects within individual experiments but also in the new meta-analytical approach that pools data from different experiments. This inconsistency of results, he argues, has profound implications for the field, suggesting that cognitive neuroscientists have not yet proven their interpretations of the relation between brain activity captured by macroscopic imaging techniques and cognitive processes; what may have appeared to be correlations may have only been illusions of association. He supports the view that the true correlates are located at a much more microscopic level of analysis: the networks of neurons that make up the brain.

Uttal carries out comparisons of the empirical data at several levels of data pooling, including the meta-analytical. He argues that although the idea seems straightforward, the task of pooling data from different experiments is extremely complex, leading to uncertain results, and that little is gained by it. Uttal's investigation suggests a need for cognitive neuroscience to reevaluate the entire enterprise of brain imaging-cognition correlational studies.