Big behavioral data: psychology, ethology and the foundations of neuroscience

Nat Neurosci. 2014 Nov;17(11):1455-62. doi: 10.1038/nn.3812. Epub 2014 Oct 28.


Behavior is a unifying organismal process where genes, neural function, anatomy and environment converge and interrelate. Here we review the current state and discuss the future effect of accelerating advances in technology for behavioral studies, focusing on rodents as an example. We frame our perspective in three dimensions: the degree of experimental constraint, dimensionality of data and level of description. We argue that 'big behavioral data' presents challenges proportionate to its promise and describe how these challenges might be met through opportunities afforded by the two rival conceptual legacies of twentieth century behavioral science, ethology and psychology. We conclude that, although 'more is not necessarily better', copious, quantitative and open behavioral data has the potential to transform and unify these two disciplines and to solidify the foundations of others, including neuroscience, but only if the development of new theoretical frameworks and improved experimental designs matches the technological progress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior*
  • Data Collection*
  • Ethology*
  • Humans
  • Neurosciences* / methods
  • Psychology
  • Statistics as Topic* / methods