The Life of Behavior

Neuron. 2019 Oct 9;104(1):25-36. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2019.09.017.


Neuroscience needs behavior. However, it is daunting to render the behavior of organisms intelligible without suppressing most, if not all, references to life. When animals are treated as passive stimulus-response, disembodied and identical machines, the life of behavior perishes. Here, we distill three biological principles (materiality, agency, and historicity), spell out their consequences for the study of animal behavior, and illustrate them with various examples from the literature. We propose to put behavior back into context, with the brain in a species-typical body and with the animal's body situated in the world; stamp Newtonian time with nested ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes that give rise to individuals with their own histories; and supplement linear cause-and-effect chains and information processing with circular loops of purpose and meaning. We believe that conceiving behavior in these ways is imperative for neuroscience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Brain*
  • Cognition
  • Life