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Neuron. 2017 Feb 8;93(3):480-490. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2016.12.041.

Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias.

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Departments of Neurology, and Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA. Electronic address:
Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Departments of Psychology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540 USA.
Instituto de Neurociencias, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas & Universidad Miguel Hernández, Sant Joan d'Alacant, 03550 Alicante, Spain.
Neuroscience and Robotics Laboratory, Department of Neurobiology, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.
Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA; Neuroscience Department, Max-Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, 60322 Frankfurt, Germany.


There are ever more compelling tools available for neuroscience research, ranging from selective genetic targeting to optogenetic circuit control to mapping whole connectomes. These approaches are coupled with a deep-seated, often tacit, belief in the reductionist program for understanding the link between the brain and behavior. The aim of this program is causal explanation through neural manipulations that allow testing of necessity and sufficiency claims. We argue, however, that another equally important approach seeks an alternative form of understanding through careful theoretical and experimental decomposition of behavior. Specifically, the detailed analysis of tasks and of the behavior they elicit is best suited for discovering component processes and their underlying algorithms. In most cases, we argue that study of the neural implementation of behavior is best investigated after such behavioral work. Thus, we advocate a more pluralistic notion of neuroscience when it comes to the brain-behavior relationship: behavioral work provides understanding, whereas neural interventions test causality.

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