The Future of Cognitive Neuroscience? Reverse Inference in Focus

Marco J. Nathan, Guillermo Del Pinal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article presents and discusses one of the most prominent inferential strategies currently employed in cognitive neuropsychology, namely, reverse inference. Simply put, this is the practice of inferring, in the context of experimental tasks, the engagement of cognitive processes from locations or patterns of neural activation. This technique is notoriously controversial because, critics argue, it presupposes the problematic assumption that neural areas are functionally selective. We proceed as follows. We begin by introducing the basic structure of traditional “location-based” reverse inference (§1) and discuss the influential lack of selectivity objection (§2). Next, we rehearse various ways of responding to this challenge and provide some reasons for cautious optimism (§3). The second part of the essay presents a more recent development: “pattern-decoding reverse inference” (§4). This inferential strategy, we maintain, provides an even more convincing response to the lack of selectivity charge. Due to this and other methodological advantages, it is now a prominent component in the toolbox of cognitive neuropsychology (§5). Finally, we conclude by drawing some implications for philosophy of science and philosophy of mind (§6).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12427
JournalPhilosophy Compass
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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