Beyond cognitive myopia: a patchwork approach to the concept of neural function

Synthese 195 (12):5373-5402 (2018)

Abstract

In this paper, I argue that looking at the concept of neural function through the lens of cognition alone risks cognitive myopia: it leads neuroscientists to focus only on mechanisms with cognitive functions that process behaviorally relevant information when conceptualizing “neural function”. Cognitive myopia tempts researchers to neglect neural mechanisms with noncognitive functions which do not process behaviorally relevant information but maintain and repair neural and other systems of the body. Cognitive myopia similarly affects philosophy of neuroscience because scholars overlook noncognitive functions when analyzing issues surrounding e.g., functional decomposition or the multifunctionality of neural structures. I argue that we can overcome cognitive myopia by adopting a patchwork approach that articulates cognitive and noncognitive “patches” of the concept of neural function. Cognitive patches describe mechanisms with causally specific effects on cognition and behavior which are likely operative in transforming sensory or other inputs into motor outputs. Noncognitive patches describe mechanisms that lack such specific effects; these mechanisms are enabling conditions for cognitive functions to occur. I use these distinctions to characterize two noncognitive functions at the mesoscale of neural circuits: subsistence functions like breathing are implemented by central pattern generators and are necessary to maintain the life of the organism. Infrastructural functions like gain control are implemented by canonical microcircuits and prevent neural system damage while cognitive processing occurs. By adding conceptual patches that describe these functions, a patchwork approach can overcome cognitive myopia and help us explain how the brain’s capacities as an information processing device are constrained by its ability to maintain and repair itself as a physiological apparatus.

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