Levels of description — in the Socialist Worker

The mainstream media is notoriously rubbish at explaining the relationships between brain, feelings, and behaviour. Those of a suspicious disposition might argue that the scientists don’t mind, as often the reports are very flattering — pictures of brains look impressive — and positive public opinion can’t harm grant applications.

The Socialist Worker printed a well chosen and timely antidote: an excerpt of a speech by Steven Rose about levels of description.

… brains are embedded in bodies and bodies are embedded in the social order in which we grow up and live. […]

George Brown and Tirril Harris made an observation when they were working on a south London housing estate decades ago.

They said that the best predictor of depression is being a working class woman with an unstable income and a child, living in a high-rise block. No drug is going to treat that particular problem, is it?

Many of the issues that are so enormously important to us—whether bringing up children or growing old—remain completely hidden in the biological levels.

You can always find a brain “correlate” of behaviour,  and what you’re experiencing, what you’re learning, changes the brain. For instance becoming an expert London taxi driver — a cognitively extremely demanding task — is associated with a bit of your brain getting bigger (Maguire et al, 2000). These kinds of data have important implications for (still laughably immature) theories of cognition, but, as Steven Rose illustrates with his example of depression, the biological level of analysis often suggests misleading interventions.

It’s obvious to all that would-be taxi drivers are unlikely to develop the skills they need by having their skull opened by a brain surgeon or by popping brain pills. The causal story is trickier to untangle when it comes to conditions such as depression. Is it possible that Big Science, with its fMRI and pharma, is pushing research in completely the wrong direction?


Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S. and Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97, 4398-4403