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.
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
“—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.
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.
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.