On the role of theory and modeling in neuroscience

Daniel Levenstein, Veronica A. Alvarez, Asohan Amarasingham, Habiba Azab, Richard C. Gerkin, Andrea Hasenstaub, Ramakrishnan Iyer, Renaud B. Jolivet, Sarah Marzen, Joseph D. Monaco, Astrid A. Prinz, Salma Quraishi, Fidel Santamaria, Sabyasachi Shivkumar, Matthew F. Singh, David B. Stockton, Roger Traub, Horacio G. Rotstein, Farzan Nadim, A. David Redish

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent years, the field of neuroscience has gone through rapid experimental advances and extensive use of quantitative and computational methods. This accelerating growth has created a need for methodological analysis of the role of theory and the modeling approaches currently used in this field. Toward that end, we start from the general view that the primary role of science is to solve empirical problems, and that it does so by developing theories that can account for phenomena within their domain of application. We propose a commonly-used set of terms — descriptive, mechanistic, and normative — as methodological designations that refer to the kind of problem a theory is intended to solve. Further, we find that models of each kind play distinct roles in defining and bridging the multiple levels of abstraction necessary to account for any neuroscientific phenomenon. We then discuss how models play an important role to connect theory and experiment, and note the importance of well-defined translation functions between them. Furthermore, we describe how models themselves can be used as a form of experiment to test and develop theories. This report is the summary of a discussion initiated at the conference Present and Future Theoretical Frameworks in Neuroscience, which we hope will contribute to a much-needed discussion in the neuroscientific community.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Mar 30 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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