I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and an associate member of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario. Prior to moving to Western in 2012, I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and had a secondary appointment in UAB’s Department of Neurobiology. I have a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science (2007) and an MS in Neuroscience (2003) from the University of Pittsburgh.
I work primarily in the areas of philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy of science and empirically informed philosophy of mind. I am broadly interested in the question of how the mind relates to the brain. While I take this to be an empirical question, philosophy has an important role to play in answering it. Part of that role is to understand how neuroscience works. A primary aim of my research is to provide an account of the diverse kinds of practices operative in neuroscience that is rich enough to play a positive role in improving the science and better positioning it for shedding light on the mind-brain relationship.
I am chiefly interested in two areas of neuroscience that investigate cognition: cognitive neuroscience and molecular and cellular cognition. There is widespread agreement that explaining cognition and developing successful interventions to treat cognitive disorders requires input from both areas of neuroscience. It is also generally accepted that discovering the mechanisms of cognition is not something that can be achieved in the context of a single research study. Rather, it requires the integration of results arising from many different research studies within and across both areas of neuroscience. By applying a set of conceptual tools for evaluating scientific practices to several case studies, my research has produced a novel set of findings that bear on the feasibility of integration.
One discovery I made is what I refer to simply as “the multiplicity of experimental protocols” (Sullivan 2009). The basic idea is that investigators in both areas of neuroscience design experiments in ways that reflect differing viewpoints and aims. These differences impact the structure of the procedures used for producing, measuring, detecting and intervening in cognitive processes. Differences in how cognitive processes are produced, however, may lead to differences in the mechanisms involved in their production. Given these differences, we cannot simply assume that results from different experiments identified as investigating the “same” cognitive process will fit neatly into the same explanatory model of a single process.
A second finding arising out of my investigation of specific case studies is that experimental paradigms, which are sets of procedures for producing, measuring and detecting cognitive processes in laboratories, are often not conducive to the detection of single discrete cognitive processes (Sullivan 2010a). Identifying the mechanisms of a cognitive process, however, ultimately requires that the process itself can be identified. By evaluating several case studies, I noted that at least some investigators trained in cognitive psychology regard this “individuation problem” as a bona fide problem that requires a solution (Sullivan 2014a, 2014b). In contrast, some investigators trained exclusively in neuroscience either do not regard it as an obstacle for discovering mechanisms or do not recognize the problem.
In response to these discoveries, I have sought to hone my conceptual tools in ways more appropriate for capturing the diverse kinds of assumptions, practices and goals that may inform, shape, interact with and constrain experimental practices in the mind-brain sciences (e.g., Sullivan 2014a, 2014b, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d). I have also sought to cast a wider net in terms of the case studies I analyze. For example, originally I focused primarily on case studies from molecular and cellular cognition, as it is the area of science with which I am most familiar. Over the past several years, partially as a consequence of collaborative interactions with cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists at Western, I have also turned my attention to case studies in these areas of the mind-brain sciences. In doing so, I found that the two areas of neuroscience share the multiplicity of experimental protocols and individuation problems in common.
In recent work, I have begun to identify a set of strategies designed to cope with “the multiplicity” and “individuation” problems in ways conducive to explanatory integration both within and across these areas of science (Sullivan 2010b, 2014a, 2014b, 2016a). Part of the project has been to understand what this type of integration requires. I contend that it requires construct stabilization (e.g., Sullivan 2016a, 2016b, 2016c) and have suggested that one viable approach for achieving it is “perspectival pluralism” (Sullivan 2014a, 2016a). The basic idea is that investigators hailing from multiple different areas of the mind-brain sciences should be involved when experimental paradigms are being designed and implemented, so that multiple different perspectives can shape the development of those paradigms in ways conducive to construct stabilization.
One limitation of this strategy, however, is that construct stabilization seems to require the standardization of procedures for producing, measuring and detecting cognitive processes across laboratories. While standardization may facilitate explanatory integration, it could potentially impede novel discoveries that are made only when investigators are allowed some freedom in designing their experiments (e.g., Sullivan 2014b). There thus appears to be a tension between the goal of stabilizing constructs and the goal of making novel discoveries. Additionally, bringing investigators from different areas of the mind-brain sciences together to engage in meaningful dialogue to develop experimental paradigms in collaboration poses a practical challenge, although I think philosophers could play an important role in facilitating such dialogue.
These findings taken in combination reveal that a variety of assumptions, practices and goals may inform, shape, interact with and constrain experimental practices in the mind-brain sciences. Also, constructing practices to achieve some goals may make other goals unattainable. Understanding what the best practices are for advancing an understanding of cognition and the mind-brain relation is the on-going overarching aim of my research program. Initiating discussions about these issues with psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers and engaging in collaborative research projects with them have been and will continue to be fundamental components of this project (e.g., Bahtra et al. 2015).
Bahtra, S., Sullivan, J., Williams, B., D. Geldmacher. (2015) “Qualitative Assessment of Self-Identity in Advanced Dementia”, Sadvhi Bahtra, Jacqueline Sullivan, Beverly Williams, David Geldmacher. Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice.
Sullivan, J. (2016a). Construct Stabilization and the Unity of the Mind-Brain Sciences. Philosophy of Science 83: 662-673.
— — —.(2016b) Response to Commentary on Stabilizing constructs through collaboration across different research fields as a way to foster the integrative approach of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Project. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00448/full
— — —.(2016c) Stabilizing constructs through collaboration across different research fields as a way to foster the integrative approach of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Project. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00309/full
— — —. (2016d) Neuroscientific Kinds Through the Lens of Scientific Practice” in Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice, Catherine Kendig (ed.), New York: Routledge, pp. 47-56.
— — —. (2014a) “Is the Next Frontier in Neuroscience a Decade of the Mind?” In Brain Theory: Critical Essays in Neurophilosophy, Charles Wolfe (ed.), London, UK: Palgrave-MacMillan, pp. 45-67.
— — —. (2014b) “Stabilizing Mental Disorders: Prospects and Problems” in Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds, Harold Kincaid and Jacqueline A. Sullivan (eds.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 257-281.
— — —. (2010a) “Reconsidering ‘Spatial Memory’ and the Morris Water Maze”, Synthese, 177(2): 261-283.
— — —. (2010b) “A Role for Representation in Cognitive Neurobiology”, Philosophy of Science 77(5): 875-887.
— — —. (2009) “The Multiplicity of Experimental Protocols: A Challenge to Reductionist and Non-Reductionist Models of the Unity of Neuroscience”, Synthese 167: 511-539.