The brain: the new weather?

What’s with the brain these days? This was the question Steve Woolgar started off a conference on Neurosociety, held at the Saïd Business School late last term (see also my post on STS and the Bernalian nightmare).

Why do we increasingly seem to feel the need to explain, plan and sell with reference to research to neuroscience, or at least with allusions to such research? Why do we ask questions of what we can know, what we must do and what we may hope couched in terms of various transcriptions of the brain? Are we living in a neurosociety, or at least moving towards one?

Drinks for sale at my local corner shop

It seems that neuro is the prefix of the day, perhaps interchangeable with ‘e’ or ‘information’, or similar hype over the idea we are living in ‘the era of the gene’. Or perhaps, neurosociety could be a development of such previous technoscientific epochs: arguably, much discussion of the brain stems from worries about digital culture, and is couched in genetic terms. Whether we see ourselves through the brain, our genes, or the technology we use, the central object we take as a figure of human behaviour seems to have changed slightly over time. Is the heart next?

(Perhaps illuminatingly, no one seemed to reflect on the prefixes of ‘big’ or ‘no such thing as’ for the word society. We largely stuck to science and technology framings)

Jonathan Rownson of the RSA was one of the many speakers to argue that the brain has become an object that brings people together, it functions as a social device to get people together to talk. In STS terms we might, very loosely, call it a ‘boundary object’. As Rownson put it: you ask people about their psychology, their behaviour, and they feel defensive but ‘the brain animates people, the brain interests people’. Is the brain, Rownson asked, the new weather?

Rownson also mentioned what I felt was the most interesting theme of the conference: that of social reflexivity. We are aware of our own condition more than ever before, and use this understanding to self-analyse. As Umberto Eco might put it, we are ‘non-innocent’ about culture, including neuro-themed culture. We no longer see the brain naively. We know we cannot simply say ‘as neuroscientists would say’. We know it is not so simple. We are not so unquestioning of science these days (if we ever were).

Who this ‘we’ might be exactly is ambiguous though, there was a fair amount of talk at the conference about the pervasiveness of ‘neuromyths’ and the need for some active mythbusting around neuroscience.

There was some connected discussion of what STS scholars can offer our understanding of neurosociety, and whether they should retain some ethnographic distance from neuroscientists. This debate included the idea that scientists themselves are insufficiently sceptical of their own work. This is an arguably unfair prejudice of many STS schoars which I suspect has its roots in a loose application of Kuhn’s idea of normal science. In contrast, Nikolas Rose argued that from his perspective of someone who has been studying the field very closely for several years, neuroscientists are incredibly critical of their own work, as well as the ways in which aspects or images of neuroscience are applied/ alluded to commercially or in popular culture. As Rose put it, ‘if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get’.

It’s all to easy to assume some other people blindly believe what they are told, be these people ‘the public’, ‘scientists’, ‘humanities graduates’, ‘the media’, ‘politicians’, women, children, the working class or another social group. But, as Dorothy Nelkin and Celeste Condit argued over the reality of ‘the DNA Mystique’ in the mid ’90s, we should be careful of assuming a lack of critical faculties in others (just as we should be careful of assuming too many in ourselves).

Thinking broadly about this non-innocence view of the brain, if and wherever such non-innocence might exist: perhaps it is simply the moment in late modernity our move to neurosociety has occurred within. Maybe we live in non-innocent times no matter what we are looking at. Or perhaps the brain is a topic which invites reflexivity: we cannot help thinking about what makes us think. More pragmatically, I wonder if the historical associations between some areas of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience are worth noting. Perhaps this frames knowledge and debate on the issue in more questioning ways that discussion of genetics or computing ever did.

Or maybe it really isn’t all that more reflexive than other issues. We might argue that there has always been a mix of credulity and criticism about science and technology, in various places, in a variety of ways. No one ever really took a gene’s eye view? Technological determinism was always a strawman argument?

The conference website should be updated with audio with some of the keynotes soon.

For my part in aiming to learn more about conversations surrounding neurosociety, I have started a small research project on bloggers (details of how you can help).

4 thoughts on “The brain: the new weather?

  1. Nick Hewling

    Much of the preoccupation seems to start with neuroscience pushing the boundaries of commonsense understanding, followed by a public reaction which is really quite uncomfortable with the findings – hard science having something to assert about issues which were once confined to philosophy. Just today Derren Brown’s blog has signposted the appearance on youtube of a full video of last year’s Horizon, The Secret You A programme which of course ends with a demonstration of the lack of free will, or perhaps better stated as the dominance of unconscious decision making. The final scene being a piece to camera in which the presenter says how unreal or counter intuitive the experiment feels compared with taken-for-granted experience.

  2. Pingback: Thank you, Neurosociety! « Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Oxford

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