DOI: 10.1177/17456916231191744 ISSN:

A Critical Perspective on Neural Mechanisms in Cognitive Neuroscience: Towards Unification

Sander van Bree
  • General Psychology

A central pursuit of cognitive neuroscience is to find neural mechanisms of cognition, with research programs favoring different strategies to look for them. But what is a neural mechanism, and how do we know we have captured them? Here I answer these questions through a framework that integrates Marr’s levels with philosophical work on mechanism. From this, the following goal emerges: What needs to be explained are the computations of cognition, with explanation itself given by mechanism—composed of algorithms and parts of the brain that realize them. This reveals a delineation within cognitive neuroscience research. In the premechanism stage, the computations of cognition are linked to phenomena in the brain, narrowing down where and when mechanisms are situated in space and time. In the mechanism stage, it is established how computation emerges from organized interactions between parts—filling the premechanistic mold. I explain why a shift toward mechanistic modeling helps us meet our aims while outlining a road map for doing so. Finally, I argue that the explanatory scope of neural mechanisms can be approximated by effect sizes collected across studies, not just conceptual analysis. Together, these points synthesize a mechanistic agenda that allows subfields to connect at the level of theory.

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