A Short History of Neuro-Everything

Braaaaaaaaains are everywhere these days. In the wake of the big announcement about the Brain Activity Map (BAM) Project, publicity around the mind sciences has been ramping up. This week is “Brain Awareness Week,” meant to raise public awareness about neuroscience. And today, Scientific American MIND announced a new homepage and blog network.

A Portrait of the Author as a Brain Scan 

All of this attention has produced some reflection. Patrick McCray has contextualized BAM in what he calls “the *-omics of everything.” He and others—including Gary Marcus—have highlighted the technological and methodological challenges such dynamic mapping faces, compared to the “static” maps of the Human Genome or Human Connectome Projects.

What’s interesting about all this is how ubiquitous the brain is already. As I noted recently, it’s all over the academy: neuroaesthetics, neuropolitics, neuroeconomics, neurohistory—the list goes on. Pivoting away from the ubiquitous suffix (“-omics”) McCray noted, I want to pay attention to this prefix. With apologies to Bill Bryson, I think we need a short history of neuro-everything.

Again, apologies to Bill Bryson!

Vaughan Bell recently argued that this “everyday brain talk” is beginning to constitute a “folk neuroscience,” a set of popular misconceptions about the brain. Whereas ongoing research is revealing just how complex the brain is, “we live,” he writes, “in a culture where dull biological platitudes make headlines and irritating scientific cliches win arguments.” We’re not far from Lehrer.

Others have noted the same problem. Roger Scruton, for example, suggests that this “neuro-envy” took hold in the wake of Patricia Churchland’s Neurophilosophy (1986). Following Churchland’s lead, various humanistic disciplines were rebranded as “infant sciences,” complete with the “neuro-” prefix and ready to have longstanding questions answered with brain imaging technologies. 
Source: http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/pschurchland/images/neurophilosophy.jpg
Scruton calls this “Brain Drain,” and there’s a certain truth (and tangibility) to the title. The names he and others have heaped on the trend are telling: “neurononsense,” “neurobabble,” “neurobollocks,” “neurocrackpottery“—like the list of “neuro-disciplines,” the list goes on. The degree of derision has risen right along with with the attention and money paid to such efforts. “Brain drain” indeed.
As the Neurocritic recently asked: “What’s in a name?” Well, some—including Vaughan Bell—have pegged the birth of “neuroculture” to around the same time as “neuroscience” was coined (the 1960s). While neither blogger claims to care much about the term’s origins, they both see its emergence as symptomatic of a new era, in which, as Bell puts it, “everyday brain concepts have bubbled up from their scientific roots and integrated themselves into popular consciousness.” 
Here’s where historians of science might come in handy. For example: is “bubbling up” (from science to society) the best way to describe what’s going on? That is, how do terms and concepts cut between fields and across boundaries? How and when do such efforts get described as “pseudoscience,” and what do such charges have to say about the norms we attach to science and its authority?
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let me just focus on two lessons or approaches that historians might take with respect to the “neuro-everything” moment.
The first has to do with this question of “bubbling up” into popular consciousness. How does “brain talk” travel? One place to look might be the law: as a New York Times piece called “The Brain on the Stand” makes clear, the field has had a big impact on everything from evidence to jury selection. Some see neuroscience’s contributions as fundamentally new; others think its old concepts with new names. 
Source: http://www.lawneuro.org/images/photoNeuronsVibrant.jpg
But the courts can’t be the primary site for transmission. What about marketing? Remember that controversial op-ed on how people literally love their iPhones? The science took a beating (here’s a summary), but this is the sort of research marketing firms are willing to pay for (in fact, the author commissioned one such firm to do it!). 
We’re still not quite there. And, while the primary locus has got to be the media outlets and bestselling authors who splash neuro-answers on covers and above the fold, that still doesn’t explain why audiences (and academics!) are willing and eager to pay for those sorts of answers. Nor can it just be the growth of neuro-imaging data and technology (though that, too, plays a part). 
Bell’s idea of “folk neuroscience” is too blunt—it seems to assume the sort of one-way transmission most historians and sociologists of science deny. What we need is a better account of the shifting values that attach to these questions and answers, one no doubt rooted in the stories people were already telling (or will to tell) about themselves before “fMRI” was even a twinkle in neuro-everyone’s collective eye.
Part of an answer might come from the second approach historians might take, which has to do with the notion of “pseudoscience.” As Michael Gordin has recently shown, the charge of “pseudoscience” tells us more about the scientists using it than about those they’re using it against. Thus, we might see current fights over the “neuro-” prefix as part of an ongoing fight within the cognitive sciences about proper methods and objects of study. 
Which makes sense. But what about the humanists, who object no less strenuously?  Sure, they might see fMRI of Austen readers as (possibly) pseudoscientific—but they’re actually more likely to react to its failures with respect to disciplinary norms and methods within the humanities. So-called “neuro lit crit” is perilous not because it’s bad science but because it’s bad humanities—”pseudohumanities,” if you will. 
Source: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2010/04/05/opinion/05rfd-debate/05rfd-debate-blogSpan.jpg
These neuro-fields seem like a special case of the “boundary-work” historians like Gordin—following sociologists like Thomas Gieryn—have done such a careful job unpacking. I say special because, unlike mere “pseudosciences,” something like “neurohistory” brings contestation over the norms and methods of both the sciences and the humanities into the frame. What a mess!
But the payoff could be big: a short history of neuro-everything—or at least a conversation about it—might be just the sort of bridge between “the two cultures” we’ve been waiting for. 

3 thoughts on “A Short History of Neuro-Everything

  1. Evan Hepler-Smith


    This is great. I've been thinking a lot lately about your neuro-s and especially the -omes that Patrick McCray discusses in his post on BAM. You're right, I think, to pick out the “bubbling up” of these disciplines into public science discourse as the site where historians of science need to go to work. (The pseudoscience angle is certainly there as well, but when the object of abuse is getting $3 billion in federal funding, I'd say that boundary work is of secondary significance.)

    I suspect that the answer will involve (among other things) interdisciplinarity, novelty, Big Data, scientific celebrity. A few as-yet unsubstantiated suspicions about how this has worked: each neuro- and -omics tends to carve up the world into a novel set of atomic units and then aggregate those units into its object of study (if that aggregate allows rhetorically and conceptually useful slippage between the physical individual human and the abstract ideal type – like the “connectome” and, canonically, the “genome” – even better!).

    These new sets of atomic units tend to be accessible via the research methods of established disciplines but not to seem especially significant in a traditional frame (n-grams). They tend to be the objects about which lots of data is already accessible or can easily be cobbled together or obtained through extensive testing. Finally, the neuro- and -omics fields, like Nate Silver, have proven especially adept at presenting interpretations of Big Data using familiar and broadly accessible vocabularies and concepts.

    So: increased faith in and familiarity with Big Data, the populism of interdisciplinarity, and the appeal of new world-pictures made out of atoms invested with significance on a human scale. Do these go at the beginning of the history of neuro-everything, or do they enter only after the phenomenon is well established?


  2. Hank

    Thanks Evan.

    It's important to remember that the $3 billion isn't for any of these neuro-humanities fields. As far as I can tell, the pseudohumanities only benefit indirectly from all this new money floating in for dynamic brain mapping.

    I like this framework of atomic units and their aggregation by these new fields. Do you think the process (breaking down and putting back together) is *different*in the neuro- and -omics fields? It's gotta be, right?

    The thing I asked McCray and the issue I'm most interested in here is whether it's neuro-, -omics, or whatever, is the object in common a method or an object (or both)? “Neuro-” as a mere prefix implies it's an object—the brain—but in practice it usually means only one method—fMRI.

    As far as whether this combination dates to before, during, or after the emerging history of neuro-everything – I don't know. In some ways it seems like a special case, but if we change the terms slightly I don't see why this is so different from the stuff I write about a hundred years ago with (new) scientific psychology being brought to bear on philosophical questions..


  3. Evan Hepler-Smith

    Ah, but one thing that's interesting about neuro-humanities (and digital humanities) projects is that, unlike the pseudoscience that Gordin discusses, they come from the heart of institutions with high standing in both the sciences and the humanities (Stanford, Harvard). The prestige of the sciences in general and neuroscience in particular – and the big funding cheese with plenty of room for nibbling around the edges – are part of that.

    The pseudoscience analogy does works well regarding the popular appeal of neuro-humanities. Readers, editors, and publishers love neuro-humanities (and digital humanities – can we paint these with the same brush?), and this (presumably?) frustrates scientists and especially humanists. Neurohumanists (if this is a meaningful label; I suspect it may not be) get pushed away from the kinds of questions that academics in their disciplines are dealing with and pulled toward the kinds of questions that get clicks and sell books.

    Regarding objects and methods, like most modern fields of science, both neuros- and -omics are pretty good at eliding that distinction, no? To study the brain is to do fMRIs and measure neurotransmitters (and to do other things, but these seem to be the exportable methods). To study the body as a system is to find an existing collection of big data or to use high throughput techniques to generate it, then to make an informational map using computationally intensive statistics. Both share a focus on mapping, aligning them with the neo-natural history that Bruno Strasser has been writing about. Both are interdisciplinary in the sense that they take up experimental methods and instruments from a variety of disciplines, but each nevertheless has a very consistent higher-level methodology.



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