Being Brains offers a critical exploration of one of the most influential and pervasive contemporary beliefs: “We are our brains.” Starting in the “Decade of the Brain” of the 1990s, “neurocentrism” became widespread in most Western and many non-Western societies. Formidable advances, especially in neuroimaging, have bolstered this “neurocentrism” in the eyes of the public and political authorities, helping to justify increased funding for the brain sciences. The human sciences have also taken the “neural turn,” and subspecialties in fields such as anthropology, aesthetics, education, history, law, sociology, and theology have grown and professionalized at record speed. At the same time, the development of dubious but successful commercial enterprises such as “neuromarketing and “neurobics” have emerged to take advantage of the heightened sensitivity to all things neuro. Skeptics have only recently begun to react to the hype, invoking warnings of neuromythology, neurotrash, neuromania, and neuromadness. While this neurocentric view of human subjectivity is neither hegemonic nor monolithic, it embodies a powerful ideology that is at the heart of some of today’s most important philosophical, ethical, scientific, and political debates. Being Brains critically explores the internal logic of such ideology, its genealogy, and its main contemporary incarnations.
Professor Fernando Vidal (Centre for the History of Science, Autonomous University of Barcelona)
Are we our brains? Starting in the “Decade of the Brain” of the 1990s, “neurocentrism” became widespread in most Western and many non-Western societies. Formidable advances, especially in neuroimaging, have bolstered this “neurocentrism” in the eyes of the public and political authorities, helping to justify increased funding for the brain sciences. The human sciences have also taken the “neural turn,” and subspecialties in fields such as anthropology, aesthetics, education, history, law, sociology, and theology have grown and professionalized at record speed. At the same time, the development of dubious but successful commercial enterprises such as “neuromarketing and “neurobics” have emerged to take advantage of the heightened sensitivity to all things neuro. Skeptics have only recently begun to react to the hype, invoking warnings of neuromythology, neurotrash, neuromania, and neuromadness. While this neurocentric view of human subjectivity is neither hegemonic nor monolithic, it embodies a powerful ideology that is at the heart of some of today’s most important philosophical, ethical, scientific, and political debates. Being Brains critically explores the internal logic of such ideology, its genealogy, and its main contemporary incarnations.
Since the late Stone Age, approximately 10 percent of humans have been left-handed, yet for most of human history left-handedness has been stigmatized. In On the Other Hand, Howard I. Kushner traces the impact of left-handedness on human cognition, behavior, culture, and health.
A left-hander himself, Kushner has long been interested in the meanings associated with left-handedness, and ultimately with whether hand preference can even be defined in a significant way. As he explores the medical and cultural history of left-handedness, Kushner describes the associated taboos, rituals, and stigma from around the globe. The words “left” and “left hand” have negative connotations in all languages, and left-handers have even historically been viewed as disabled.
In this comprehensive history of left-handedness, Kushner asks why left-handedness exists. He examines the relationship—if any—between handedness, linguistics, and learning disabilities, reveals how toleration of left-handedness serves as a barometer of wider cultural toleration and permissiveness, and wonders why the reported number of left-handers is significantly lower in Asia and Africa than in the West. Written in a lively style that mixes personal biography with scholarly research, On the Other Hand tells a comprehensive story about the science, traditions, and prejudices surrounding left-handedness.
The New York Times‘s Retro Report has produced a new video on the history of lobotomy, First, Do No Harm. As Retro Report describes,
For centuries scientists have studied the brain and still our understanding, particularly when it comes to the treatment for those suffering with severe, often untreatable mental illness, remains elusive. As scientists around the world are beginning ambitious programs to study the human brain in unprecedented ways, Retro Report explores the evolution of the surgical and biological treatments over the decades. From the brutal, but once considered mainstream treatment of lobotomy to biological cocktails, to the beginnings of what many hope will be a more elegant understanding of the brain through technology.
Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.
The 2016 edition of Osiris, the annual thematic journal of the History of Science Society, is now available. This year’s volume explores the “History of Science and the Emotions.” A number of articles may be of interest to AHP readers, including pieces on mother love and mental illness, panic disorder and psychopharmacological, and Emil Kraepelin’s work on affective disorders. The full titles, authors, and abstracts are provided below.
“An Introduction to History of Science and the Emotions,” by Otniel E. Dror, Bettina Hitzer, Anja Laukötter, Pilar León-Sanz. The abstract reads,
This essay introduces our call for an intertwined history-of-emotions/history-of-science perspective. We argue that the history of science can greatly extend the history of emotions by proffering science qua science as a new resource for the study of emotions. We present and read science, in its multiple diversities and locations, and in its variegated activities, products, theories, and emotions, as constitutive of the norms, experiences, expressions, and regimes of emotions. Reciprocally, we call for a new reading of science in terms of emotions as an analytical category. Assuming emotions are intelligible and culturally learned, we extend the notion of emotion to include a nonintentional and noncausal “emotional style,” which is inscribed into (and can reciprocally be generated by) technologies, disease entities, laboratory models, and scientific texts. Ultimately, we argue that emotional styles interrelate with broader emotional cultures and thus can contribute to and/or challenge grand historical narratives.
A special issue of Medical History devoted to “Soul Catchers – A Material History of the Mind Sciences” is now available. The issue includes a number of articles – on drawing as an instrument, soul photography, and more – that may interest AHP readers.
Editorial: “Soul Catchers: The Material Culture of the Mind Sciences,” by Katja Guenther and Volker Hess.
“Brain Ways: Meynert, Bachelard and the Material Imagination of the Inner Life,” by Scott Phelps. The abstract reads,
The Austrian psychiatrist Theodor Meynert’s anatomical theories of the brain and nerves are laden with metaphorical imagery, ranging from the colonies of empire to the tentacles of jellyfish. This paper analyses among Meynert’s earliest works a different set of less obvious metaphors, namely, the fibres, threads, branches and paths used to elaborate the brain’s interior. I argue that these metaphors of material, or what the philosopher Gaston Bachelard called ‘material images’, helped Meynert not only to imaginatively extend the tracts of fibrous tissue inside the brain but to insinuate their function as pathways co-extensive with the mind. Above all, with reference to Bachelard’s study of the material imagination, I argue that Meynert helped entrench the historical intuition that the mind, whatever it was, consisted of some interiority – one which came to be increasingly articulated through the fibrous confines of the brain.
In the March 2016 issue of The Psychological Record includes an article by Roger K. Thomas exploring the priority dispute between Shepherd Ivory Franz and Otto Kalischer over who first combined animal training with brain extirpation. Full details follow below.
“Priority Disputes in the History of Psychology with Special Attention to the Franz–Kalischer Dispute About Who First Combined Animal Training with Brain Extirpation to Investigate Brain Functions,” by Roger K. Thomas. The abstract reads,
Shepherd Ivory Franz (American) and Otto Kalischer (German) each claimed to have been the first to combine animal training and brain extirpation to study brain function, a methodological approach that historians assert fundamentally changed subsequent neuropsychological research. Each defended his claim in 1907 in back-to-back commentaries in the journal Zentralblatt für Physiologie. Before considering details of the Franz versus Kalischer dispute, it was deemed useful to consider priority disputes in general and to revisit the priority claims for who discovered the “conditioned reflex” and whether Pierre Flourens was the “father” of brain extirpation as examples of this type of research. Consideration of the Franz–Kalischer dispute began with a brief history of the study of brain function to provide background and context for the Franz–Kalischer dispute. For additional context, biographic sketches of Franz and Kalischer are presented. Then, details of the dispute are presented and discussed followed by conclusions that include that Franz (The American Journal of Physiology, 8, 1–22, 1902) preceded Kalischer (1907a) and that it is highly unlikely that anyone before Franz had used his combination of innovative methods. Finally, the perceived importance of being first to combine animal training with brain extirpation is represented by quotations from several authors of history or psychology textbooks and one author of a history of neuroscience textbook.
Using a 2013 PNAS article titled Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain as case study, the authors “tracked the journey of the PNAS research from its initial scientific publication, through a university-issued press release, into its reception in the traditional news media, online reader comments and blog entries.” Acccording to the abstract, their analysese “suggested that scientific research on sex difference offers an opportunity to rehearse abiding cultural understandings of gender. In both scientific and popular contexts, traditional gender stereotypes were projected onto the novel scientific information, which was harnessed to demonstrate the factual truth and normative legitimacy of these beliefs.”
The March 2015 issue of Science in Contextis now online. Guest edited by Stephen T. Casper (left), the articles in this special issue explore the roles played by context in the brain and mind sciences. To quote the epilogue written by Roderick Buchanan, the included essays “illustrate the changing cultural form and function of the biopsyche disciplines – disciplines that are both sciences and technologies of selfhood. To varying degrees, each essay actively engages Paul Forman’s  thesis on modern and postmodern cultural valuations of science and technology.” Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow.
“Of Means and Ends: Mind and Brain Science in the Twentieth Century,” by Stephen T. Casper. The abstract reads:
What role does context play in the mind and brain sciences? This introductory article, “Of Means and Ends,” explores that question through its focus on the ways scientists and physicians engaged with and constructed technology in the mind and brain sciences in the twentieth century. This topical issue addresses how scientists, physicians, and psychologists came to see the ends of technology as important in-and-of themselves. In so doing, the authors of these essays offer an interpretation of historian Paul Forman’s revisionist and highly contextualist chronology of the twentieth century, which presents the comparatively recent tendency to aggrandize the ends of technology as evidence of a major, epochal transformation in the epistemic culture of twentieth-century American science. This collection of papers suggests that it was in the vanguard of such fields as psychology, psychiatry, and neurophysiology in North America and Europe that the ends and applications of technology became important in-and-of themselves.