Hayek in Today’s Cognitive Neuroscience

Check out Joaquín Fuster’s recent paper:

Only now, more than half a century after the publication of his theoretical book (Hayek, 1952), is the reaction to Hayek’s argument beginning to be heard. And it’s a positive reaction, now supported by facts. He used to say that without a theory the facts are silent. Now, belatedly reacting to his book, we can confidently say that modern facts speak eloquently for his theory. In order to understand how modern facts meet Hayek, it is necessary to understand where his thinking came from and where cognitive neuroscience has been going in the past 50 years. Only in this manner can we fully appreciate the happy convergence of two trends of cognitive neuroscience that for most of the 20th century have developed far apart from each other. One is the ‘‘modular’’ trend (one cerebral module for each cognitive function), the other the ‘‘distributed’’ or reticular trend (brain networks of distributed knowledge participating in all the cognitive functions that adapt the individual to his environment). In his The Sensory Order, Hayek was the first to theoretically adopt the latter trend, which has lately developed greatly. Yet, astonishingly, to this day, most of the main actors in the field of cognitive neuroscience don’t even know of Hayek. In my opinion, the chief reason for this lingering neglect of his ideas is the language he used in his book. For example, he used terms that are unusual in physiological psychology, such as ‘‘following’’ and ‘‘map,’’ to characterize what in modern translation corresponds to synaptic association and neural network, respectively. Three powerful intellectual currents shaped Hayek’s psychology: Vienna’s logical positivism, Gestalt psychology, and psychophysics. Curiously, he tried to disown all three, yet ended up modifying them and incorporating them in his thinking.Afourth current, the dynamic systems theory of Von Bertalanffy (1950), came natural to him to theorize about the brain after having accepted the relational code of Gestalt (Koffka, 1935). After all, Hayek had been applying general complex systems theory to economics. With his application of that theory to psychology came the acceptance of a cortical dynamics in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts and irreducible to them: a cortical dynamics in which relationships were established by cell connections. Yet, in his time, little was known about the connectivity or physiology of the brain to support the relational anatomical code or the dynamics of the perceptual system that he devised. Now we know much more about them. Like the positivists of the ‘‘Vienna Circle,’’ Hayek advocated the use of the scientific method devoid of metaphysics as the only valid approach to human knowledge. In dealing with perception, however, he rejected the purely empiricist tenets of the positivists (like his friend Karl Popper, another quasi-renegade among them). According to Hayek, no perception was reducible to raw sensation. The concept of the brain as tabula rasa or passive recipient of sensations was to him unacceptable. The ‘‘elementary sensations’’ (e.g., a pure color) proposed by Ernst Mach (1885), the famous psychophysicist, were literally meaningless as a foundation for perception. Even the simplest of sensations is based on prior experience, either by the self or by the species – thus, in the latter case, inherited.