Keep it real: rethinking the primacy of experimental control in cognitive neuroscience

Samuel A. Nastase, Ariel Goldstein, Uri Hasson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


Naturalistic experimental paradigms in neuroimaging arose from a pressure to test the validity of models we derive from highly-controlled experiments in real-world contexts. In many cases, however, such efforts led to the realization that models developed under particular experimental manipulations failed to capture much variance outside the context of that manipulation. The critique of non-naturalistic experiments is not a recent development; it echoes a persistent and subversive thread in the history of modern psychology. The brain has evolved to guide behavior in a multidimensional world with many interacting variables. The assumption that artificially decoupling and manipulating these variables will lead to a satisfactory understanding of the brain may be untenable. We develop an argument for the primacy of naturalistic paradigms, and point to recent developments in machine learning as an example of the transformative power of relinquishing control. Naturalistic paradigms should not be deployed as an afterthought if we hope to build models of brain and behavior that extend beyond the laboratory into the real world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117254
StatePublished - Nov 15 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Ecological psychology
  • Ecological validity
  • Experimental design
  • Generalizability
  • Naturalistic stimuli
  • Representative design


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