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Varieties of Neural Multi-Functionality

February 7, 2014

Joseph B. McCaffrey

Abstract: Many philosophers and cognitive scientists worry that the prevalence of multi-functional brain areas raises new challenges for the project of structure-function mapping in cognitive neuroscience.  Cathy Price and Karl Friston, on one hand, and Colin Klein, on the other, have recently offered competing accounts of the nature and significance of neural multi-functionality.  Price and Friston argue that brain areas perform many functions at one level of description and a single function at another.  Thus, researchers will need to develop a new ontology of brain functions to obtain robust structure-function mappings.  According to Klein, Price and Friston’s strategy is bound to yield vague or uninformative mappings.  Klein proposes that neuroscientists should restrict structure-function mappings to particular contexts instead of seeking functional descriptions that hold across different contexts.  In this essay, I claim that neither target account is likely to succeed as a general treatment of multi-functionality in cognitive neuroscience.  Using Carl Craver’s distinction between “activities” and “role functions,” I distinguish two ways of interpreting the dispute between Price and Friston and Klein.  Drawing on this distinction, I argue that both accounts rely on unmotivated theoretical commitments or unwarranted assumptions about the functional architecture of the brain. Drawing on examples from neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience, I argue it is plausible that the brain contains different kinds of multi-functional parts.  I conclude that a more nuanced account of neural multi-functionality would need to countenance this possibility.

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