Dec HHS: Special Section on Neuro/psychological knowledge in popular debates and everyday life, the ‘Idiot’, Handedness, and More

The December issue of History of the Human Sciences is now available. The issue includes a special section on “Contested narratives of the mind and the brain: Neuro/psychological knowledge in popular debates and everyday life,” as well as pieces on the history of the ‘idiot’ and the gendered history of handedness. Also included is a review article on recent work on autism. Full details below.

Special Section
“Introduction: Contested narratives of the mind and the brain: Neuro/psychological knowledge in popular debates and everyday life,” Susanne Schregel, Tineke Broer. Abstract:

This special section evolved out of a workshop entitled ‘Minds and Brains in Everyday Life: Embedding and Negotiating Scientific Concepts in Popular Discourses’, held at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. Our discussions at the workshop and for this special section began with the observation that scientific interpretations and everyday explanations regularly meet and come together in debates about aspects of the mind and the brain. Such entanglements between science and the wider public have already been studied from multiple perspectives in history and the social sciences. Recently, however, warnings have intensified that researchers also need to take into account the limitations that certain scientific claims may encounter in everyday life, and to remain methodologically open to alternative explanations that are not derived from forms of (neuro)psychological knowledge. We suggest that focusing on contested narratives of the mind and the brain may be one approach to studying the interaction between science and the larger public, as well as investigating the ignorance, limits, counterforces, and outright rejection that scientific concepts may encounter in everyday life.

“‘The intelligent and the rest’: British Mensa and the contested status of high intelligence,” Susanne Schregel. Abstract:

This article explores the history of British Mensa to examine the contested status of high intelligence in Great Britain between the late 1940s and the late 1980s. Based on journals and leaflets from the association and newspaper articles about it, the article shows how protagonists from the high IQ society campaigned for intelligence and its testing among the British public. Yet scathing reactions to the group in newspapers suggest that journalists considered it socially provocative to stress one’s own brainpower as extraordinarily high. To better understand such disagreements, the article analyses communicative patterns that were used to make judgements about intelligence. This case study sheds light on how aspects of difference and the ascription of social positions are negotiated in public understandings of intelligence.

“Limitless? Imaginaries of cognitive enhancement and the labouring body,” Brian P. Bloomfield, Karen Dale. Abstract:

This article seeks to situate pharmacological cognitive enhancement as part of a broader relationship between cultural understandings of the body-brain and the political economy. It is the body of the worker that forms the intersection of this relationship and through which it comes to be enacted and experienced. In this article, we investigate the imaginaries that both inform and are reproduced by representations of pharmacological cognitive enhancement, drawing on cultural sources such as newspaper articles and films, policy documents, and pharmaceutical marketing material to illustrate our argument. Through analysis of these diverse cultural sources, we argue that the use of pharmaceuticals has come to be seen not only as a way to manage our brains, but through this as a means to manage our productive selves, and thereby to better manage the economy. We develop three analytical themes. First, we consider the cultural representations of the brain in connection with the idea of plasticity – captured most graphically in images of morphing – and the representation of enhancement as a desirable, inevitable, and almost painless process in which the mind-brain realizes its full potential and asserts its will over matter. Following this, we explore the social value accorded to productive employment and the contemporary (biopolitical) ethos of working on or managing oneself, particularly in respect of improving one’s productive performance through cognitive enhancement. Developing this, we elaborate a third theme by looking at the moulding of the worker’s productive body-brain in relation to the demands of the economic system.

“Conversion disorder and/or functional neurological disorder: How neurological explanations affect ideas of self, agency, and accountability,” Jonna Brenninkmeijer. Abstract:

An estimated 15% of patients seen by neurologists have neurological symptoms, such as paralysis, tremors, dystonia, or seizures, that cannot be medically explained. For a long time, such patients were diagnosed as having conversion disorder (CD) and referred to psychiatrists, but for the last two decades or so, neurologists have started to pay more serious attention to this patient group. Instead of maintaining the commonly used label of conversion disorder – which refers to Freud’s idea that traumatic events can be converted into deviant behaviour – these neurologists use the term functional neurological disorder (FND) and explain that the problems are due to abnormal central nervous system functioning. The situation that some patients with medically unexplained neurological symptoms are diagnosed with CD and treated by psychiatrists while others are diagnosed with FND and stay under the control of neurologists provides a unique case for analysing how neurological and psychological explanations affect subjectivity. In this article, I compare patient reports from English-language websites from the past 15 years to find out how minds, bodies, brains, and selves act and interact in the accounts of both patient groups. I conclude that the change in label from CD to FND has not only influenced ideas of medically unexplained disorders, but also affected ideas of the self and the body; of self-control and accountability.

“Neurobiological limits and the somatic significance of love: Caregivers’ engagements with neuroscience in Scottish parenting programmes,” Tineke Broer, Martyn Pickersgill, Sarah Cunningham-Burley. Abstract:

While parents have long received guidance on how to raise children, a relatively new element of this involves explicit references to infant brain development, drawing on brain scans and neuroscientific knowledge. Sometimes called ‘brain-based parenting’, this has been criticised from within sociological and policy circles alike. However, the engagement of parents themselves with neuroscientific concepts is far less researched. Drawing on 22 interviews with parents/carers of children (mostly aged 0–7) living in Scotland, this article examines how they account for their (non-)use of concepts and understandings relating to neuroscience. Three normative tropes were salient: information about children’s processing speed, evidence about deprived Romanian orphans in the 1990s, and ideas relating to whether or not children should ‘self-settle’ when falling asleep. We interrogate how parents reflexively weigh and judge such understandings and ideas. In some cases, neuroscientific knowledge was enrolled by parents in ways that supported biologically reductionist models of childhood agency. This reductionism commonly had generative effects, enjoining new care practices and producing particular parent and infant subjectivities. Notably, parents do not uncritically adopt or accept (sometimes reductionist) neurobiological and/or psychological knowledge; rather, they reflect on whether and when it is applicable to and relevant for raising their children. Thus, our respondents draw on everyday epistemologies of parenting to negotiate brain-based understandings of infant development and behaviour, and invest meaning in these in ways that cannot be fully anticipated (or appreciated) within straightforward celebrations or critiques of the content of parenting programmes drawing on neuropsychological ideas.

“Consciousness reduced: The role of the ‘idiot’ in early evolutionary psychology,” Simon Jarrett. Abstract:

A conception of the idiotic mind was used to substantiate late 19th-century theories of mental evolution. A new school of animal/comparative psychologists attempted from the 1870s to demonstrate that evolution was a mental as well as a physical process. This intellectual enterprise necessitated the closure, or narrowing, of the ‘consciousness gap’ between human and animal species. A concept of a quasi-non-conscious human mind, set against conscious intention and ability in higher animals, provided an explanatory framework for the human–animal continuum and the evolution of consciousness. The article addresses a significant lacuna in the historiographies of intellectual disability, animal science, and evolutionary psychology, where the application of a conception of human idiocy to advance theories of consciousness evolution has not hitherto been explored. These ideas retain contemporary resonance in ethology and cognitive psychology, and in the theory of ‘speciesism’, outlined by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (1975), which claims that equal consideration of interests is not arbitrarily restricted to members of the human species, and advocates euthanasia of intellectually disabled human infants. Speciesism remains at the core of animal rights activism today. The article also explores the influence of the idea of the semi-evolved idiot mind in late-Victorian anthropology and neuroscience. These ideas operated in a separate intellectual sphere to eugenic thought. They were (and remain) deeply influential, and were at the heart of the idea of the moral idiot or imbecile, targeted in the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, as well as in 20th-century animal and human consciousness theory.

“An even-handed debate? The sexed/gendered controversy over laterality genes in British psychology, 1970s–1990s,” Tabea Cornel. Abstract:

This article provides insight into the entwinement of the allegedly neutral category of handedness with questions of sex/gender, reproduction, dis/ability, and scientific authority. In the 1860s, Paul Broca suggested that the speech centre sat in the left brain hemisphere in most humans, and that right-handedness stemmed from this asymmetry. One century later, British psychologists Marian Annett and Chris McManus proposed biologically unconfirmed theories of how handedness and brain asymmetry were passed on in families. Their idea to integrate chance into genetic models of handedness was novel, and so was their use of computerized statistics to parse out the incidence of handedness genotypes and phenotypes. Notwithstanding significant conceptual and methodological overlaps, McManus and Annett did not collaborate and proposed competing theories. I analyse the sexed/gendered dimensions of their controversy by drawing on published literature, unpublished documents, and oral history interviews. I first attend to the epistemological importance of sex/gender. Both psychologists published several iterations of their models, which increasingly relied on questions of sex/gender and reproduction. Annett additionally linked handedness with stereotypically gendered cognitive abilities. Second, I argue that using masculine-coded computer technologies contributed to Annett’s professional marginalization whereas similar methods endowed McManus with surplus authority. Finally, I show that Annett’s complicity in stabilizing sociocultural hierarchies within her theory mirrored her personal experience of marginalization based on sex/gender, age, education, and lack of institutional affiliation. This analysis exemplifies the entanglement of cognitive and social factors in scientific controversies and adds to the literature on 20th-century British women psychologists.

Review Article
“Within a single lifetime: Recent writings on autism,” Gregory Hollin. No Abstract.

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.