Neural Mechanisms in Behavior

“Among the systems and points of view which comprise our efforts to formulate a science of psychology, the proposition upon which there seems to be most nearly a general agreement is that the final explanation of behavior or of mental processes is to be sought in the physiological activity of the body and, in particular, in the properties of the nervous system. The tendency to seek all causal relations of behavior in brain processes is characteristic of the recent development of psychology in America. Most of our text-books begin with an exposition of the structure of the brain and imply that this lays a foundation for a later understanding of behavior. It is rare that a discussion of any psychological problem avoids some reference to the neural substratum, and the development of elaborate neurological theories to “explain” the phenomena in every field of psychology is becoming increasingly fashionable.

In reading this literature I have been impressed chiefly by its futility. The chapter on the nervous system seems to provide an excuse for pictures in an otherwise dry and monotonous text. That it has any other function is not clear; there may be cursory references to it in later chapters on instinct and habit, but where the problems of psychology become complex and interesting, the nervous system is dispensed with. In more technical treatises the neurological explanations are made up mostly of assumptions concerning the properties of the nerve cell which have no counterpart in physiological experiment. (…)

This is a typical case of the neurological explanations to be found in our psychological literature. With such conditions prevailing, it seems time to examine critically the relations between psychology and neurology and to attempt an evaluation of current notions concerning the mechanisms of the brain.


Psychology is today a more fundamental science than neurophysiology. By this I mean that the latter offers few principles from which we may predict or define the normal organization of behavior, whereas the study of psychological processes furnishes a mass of factual material to which the laws of nervous action in behavior must conform.”

Lashley, 1930