Special Issue: “Neuroscience, Power, & Culture”

The just released February 2010 issue of the History of the Human Sciences is devoted to the “Neuroscience, Power, and Culture.” This special issue is an outgrowth of a workshop, “Our Brains, Our Selves?”, that was held at Harvard University in the spring of 2008. Speaking of the articles included in this issue, Guest Editor Scott Vrecko (left), asserts that,

a recognition of the socio-cultural embeddedness of neuroscience is only a starting point for analyses. From there, the investigations move on to demonstrate, through the use of a range of methods, case studies and analytic perspectives, the concrete ways that neuroscience and knowledge politics play out in specific spheres, and in relation to particular issues, understandings and social forms.

Titles, authors, and abstracts of the articles that comprise this issue follow below.

“Neuroscience, power, and culture: An introduction,” by Scott Vrecko. The abstract reads:

In line with their vast expansion over the last few decades, the brain sciences – including neurobiology, psychopharmacology, biological psychiatry, and brain imaging – are becoming increasingly prominent in a variety of cultural formations, from self-help guides and the arts to advertising and public health programmes. This article, which introduces the special issue of History of the Human Science on ‘Neuroscience, Power and Culture’, considers the ways that social and historical research can, through empirical investigations grounded in the observation of what is actually happening and has already happened in the sciences of mind and brain, complement speculative discussions of the possible social implications of neuroscience that now appear regularly in the media and in philosophical bioethics. It suggests that the neurosciences are best understood in terms of their lineage within the ‘psy’-disciplines, and that, accordingly, our analyses of them will be strengthened by drawing on existing literatures on the history and politics of psychology – particularly those that analyze formations of knowledge, power and subjectivity associated with the discipline and its practical applications. Additionally, it argues against taking today’s neuroscientific facts and brain-targetting technologies as starting points for analysis, and for greater recognition of the ways that these are shaped by historical, cultural and political-economic forces.

“The birth of the neuromolecular gaze,” by Joelle M. Abi-Rached and Nikolas Rose. The abstract reads:

The aim of this article is (1) to investigate the ‘neurosciences’ as an object of study for historical and genealogical approaches and (2) to characterize what we identify as a particular ‘style of thought’ that consolidated with the birth of this new thought community and that we term the ‘neuromolecular gaze’. This article argues that while there is a long history of research on the brain, the neurosciences formed in the 1960s, in a socio-historical context characterized by political change, faith in scientific and technological progress, and the rise of a molecular gaze in the life sciences. They flourished in part because these epistemological and technological developments were accompanied by multiple projects of institution-building. An array of stakeholders was mobilized around the belief that breakthroughs in understanding the brain were not only crucial, they were possible by means of collaborative efforts, cross-disciplinary approaches and the use of a predominantly reductionist neuromolecular method. The first part of the article considers some of the different approaches that have been adopted to writing the history of the brain sciences. After a brief outline of our own approach, the second part of the article uses this in a preliminary exploration of the birth of the neurosciences in three contexts. We conclude by arguing that the 1960s constitute an important ‘break’ in the long path of the history of the brain sciences that needs further analysis. We believe this epistemological shift we term the ‘neuromolecular gaze’ will shape the future intellectual development and social role of the neurosciences.

“The persistence of the subjective in neuropsychopharmacology: Observations of contemporary hallucinogen research,” by Nicolas Langlitz. The abstract reads:

The elimination of subjectivity through brain research and the replacement of so-called ‘folk psychology’ by a neuroscientifically enlightened worldview and self-conception has been both hoped for and feared. But this cultural revolution is still pending. Based on nine months of fieldwork on the revival of hallucinogen research since the ‘Decade of the Brain,’ this paper examines how subjective experience appears as epistemic object and practical problem in a psychopharmacological laboratory. In the quest for neural correlates of (drug-induced altered states of) consciousness, introspective accounts of test subjects play a crucial role in neuroimaging studies. Firsthand knowledge of the drugs’ flamboyant effects provides researchers with a personal knowledge not communicated in scientific publications, but key to the conduct of their experiments. In many cases, the ‘psychedelic experience’ draws scientists into the field and continues to inspire their self-image and way of life. By exploring these domains the paper points to a persistence of the subjective in contemporary neuropsychopharmacology.

“Profitable failure: antidepressant drugs and the triumph of flawed experiments,” by Linsey McGoey.

Drawing on an analysis of Irving Kirsch and colleagues’ controversial 2008 article in PLoS [Public Library of Science] Medicine on the efficacy of SSRI antidepressant drugs such as Prozac, I examine flaws within the methodologies of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that have made it difficult for regulators, clinicians and patients to determine the therapeutic value of this class of drug. I then argue, drawing analogies to work by Pierre Bourdieu and Michael Power, that it is the very limitations of RCTs — their inadequacies in producing reliable evidence of clinical effects — that help to strengthen assumptions of their superiority as methodological tools. Finally, I suggest that the case of RCTs helps to explore the question of why failure is often useful in consolidating the authority of those who have presided over that failure, and why systems widely recognized to be ineffective tend to assume greater authority at the very moment when people speak of their malfunction.

“‘Screen and intervene’: Governing risky brains,” by Nikolas Rose.

This article argues that a new diagram is emerging in the criminal justice system as it encounters developments in the neurosciences. This does not take the form that concerns many ‘neuroethicists’ — it does not entail a challenge to doctrines of free will and the notion of the autonomous legal subject — but is developing around the themes of susceptibility, risk, pre-emption and precaution. I term this diagram ‘screen and intervene’ and in this article I attempt to trace out this new configuration and consider some of the consequences.

“Taking care of one’s brain: How manipulating the brain changes people’s selves,” by Jonna Brenninkmeijer. The abstract reads:

The increasing attention to the brain in science and the media, and people’s continuing quest for a better life, have resulted in a successful self-help industry for brain enhancement. Apart from brain books, foods and games, there are several devices on the market that people can use to stimulate their brains and become happier, healthier or more successful. People can, for example, switch their brain state into relaxation or concentration with a light-and-sound machine, they can train their brainwaves to cure their Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or solve their sleeping problems with a neurofeedback device, or they can influence the firing of their neurons with electric or magnetic stimulation to overcome their depression and anxieties. Working on your self with a brain device can be seen as a contemporary form of Michel Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’. Foucault described how since antiquity people had used techniques such as reading manuscripts, listening to teachers, or saying prayers to ‘act on their selves’ and control their own thoughts and behaviours. Different techniques, Foucault stated, are based on different precepts and constitute different selves. I follow Foucault by stating that using a brain device for self-improvement indeed constitutes a new self. Drawing on interviews with users of brain devices and observations of the practices in brain clinics, I analyse how a new self takes shape in the use of brain devices; not a monistic (neuroscientific) self, but a ‘layered’ self of all kinds of entities that exchange and control each other continuously.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.