Responsible of the Curriculum: Prof. Claudio de’ Sperati

Topics

This Curriculum consists of four research areas:

a. The experimental methods in Psychology (theories, models and techniques)
b. The areas in which experimental methods applied to Psychology can be used
c. Interpretation of the outcome obtained through the use of experimental methods in Psychology
d. The theories and models of the relationship between the measuring of brain functions and that of the behavioral activity

Aims and Objectives

The peculiarity of the psychological component of this Doctoral Course, as stated in the general introduction, seems to lie in the chance to build up methodologically controlled relationships, thanks to the experimental reference to the natural sciences, among some of the conceptual frameworks within which Philosophy and the world of objective reality move.

If, on the one hand, cognitive neuroscience studies the cognitive processes through neuroimaging methods analysing brain activity in vivo under stimulation or while carrying out some cognitive tasks, and if, for instance, Experimental Psychology measures objective variables correlated to or representative of mental activity, on the other hand, we must consider that the relationship between what is conceptualized as mental activity and the measurements of objective variables cannot be understood in a purely reductive way.

A naïve reductionism would lead us to the assumption that the activation of certain brain areas while carrying out some cognitive tasks, such as making calculations, would imply that the activated areas are the site of the activity in question fully tracing (or more precisely, reducing) mental activity of calculating back to neuronal activity of those areas.

Right in the necessity of investigating this passage lies the relationship with the philosophical component of the Doctoral Course, with special regard to the relations between the theories of mental functioning (Philosophy of Mind, Cognition and Language) and what neuroscientists or experimental psychologists record through the use of technologies which allow to measure the biological activity of the brain.

In the absence of a conceptual in-depth study building models of the relationship between mental activity and biological measurements (e.g. one coincides with the other), the risk of giving a reductive interpretation, as previously stated, might come about. Such an interpretation might have in itself some pseudo-psychological cores, such as the idea that inside the areas of the brain there might be “someone” who is actually carrying out the task of calculating.

Such interpretations lead back to the well-known theory of the homunculus, or to that of the ghost in the machine, e.g. that kind of invisible elf who lives inside a brain which is seen as a “psychological machine”. As a matter of facts, very little to almost nothing is known about what our brain does while we are making calculations, and about the relationship between our cerebral activity and our being conscious of the process of making calculations.

To avoid reductionism, it is necessary to build theories and models which might attempt to account for the relationship between mental behaviour and cerebral behaviour, anyhow dodging the hoary and, in some respects, fruitless question of the relationship between the mind and the brain. It is by now widely agreed upon that what we call the mind is the product of a cerebral activity, thus the question might be better put by asking what relationship might exist between the brain, as a physical object, of which we can objectively measure some characteristics and its own products which we usually call the mind.