* Mohamed L. Seghier and Cathy J. Price, ‘Interpreting and Utilising Intersubject Variability in Brain Function’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 517-30.
* Daniela J. Palombo, Signy Sheldon, and Brian Levine, ‘Individual Differences in Autobiographical Memory’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (2018), 583-97.
These two essays both pose an interesting challenge to the habits of cognitive science. The first sets it out directly: what do we do with ‘between-subject variance in brain function’. Should it be treated as ‘data’ or as ‘noise’, that is, as something to tune out of your conclusions, which is the usual practice from scientists in pursuit of a generalisable conclusion? Seghier and Price are here to advocate the first course of action, because (for example) it seems that individual brains might differ in the networks of regions they recruit to particular activities. So, it might be interesting that everyone seems to use region A, but it might be a big mistake to omit that person X uses regions BCDE as well to a lesser extent, whereas person Y uses BCEF, person Z uses BCDG, and so on. Palombo et al. focus on the individual differences in autobiographical memory. This is partly a matter of superiority and deficiency, remembering more or less than usual. Do some people encode more, or forget less? They also acknowledge that it’s not just a matter of more or less.
Our experience of literary minds often walks this line between the typical and the unique, I think. Some of their interest comes from things that are convincing because they resemble things we know or suspect of ourselves or others; but some of their interest comes from things that are challenging (and also, in another way, convincing) because they seem to be particular and strange, whether good or bad. I suppose the scientists may tend towards trying to understand the types of individual difference, which could look like a map of complex typicality rather than the full triumph of an interest in the individual (and who could blame them?). But overall this seems like an interesting turn to take.