Science journalist Bhahar Gholipour reports on the history of how Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke’s 1964 bereitschaftspotential research has signified in neuroscience.
The article deftly surveys the eras of interpretation about the results of the study, identifying presumptions that affected decades of seemingly positive replication, and how advancing comprehension of ambient neuronal activity in the brain led to a reframing of the landmark results, creating new directions for inquiry.
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.
Ruth Leys’s just published The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique is sure to interest AHP readers. Leys explores twentieth century efforts to understand emotions, analyzing the work of psychologists like Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman, and Richard Lazarus. The book is described as follows:
In recent years, emotions have become a major, vibrant topic of research not merely in the biological and psychological sciences but throughout a wide swath of the humanities and social sciences as well. Yet, surprisingly, there is still no consensus on their basic nature or workings.
Ruth Leys’s brilliant, much anticipated history, therefore, is a story of controversy and disagreement. The Ascent of Affect focuses on the post–World War II period, when interest in emotions as an object of study began to revive. Leys analyzes the ongoing debate over how to understand emotions, paying particular attention to the continual conflict between camps that argue for the intentionality or meaning of emotions but have trouble explaining their presence in non-human animals and those that argue for the universality of emotions but struggle when the question turns to meaning. Addressing the work of key figures from across the spectrum, considering the potentially misleading appeal of neuroscience for those working in the humanities, and bringing her story fully up to date by taking in the latest debates, Leys presents here the most thorough analysis available of how we have tried to think about how we feel.
The May 2017 issue of History of Psychology is now online. Articles in this issue explore neurohistory, the influence of Titchener’s Oxford years on his thought, and gender and psychoanalysis in 1940s Britain. The issue also features a special section devoted to “Debating the New History of Psychology.” Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“Historiography, affect, and the neurosciences,” by Larry S. McGrath. Abstract:
Recent historiography has put to rest debates over whether to address the neurosciences. The question is how? In this article, I stage a dialogue between neurohistory and the history of the emotions. My primary goal is to survey these two clusters and clarify their conceptual commitments. Both center on the role of affect in embodied subjectivity; but their accounts widely diverge. Whereas neurohistorians tend to treat affects as automatic bodily processes, historians of the emotions generally emphasize that affects are meaningful and volitional activities. This divergence entails contrasting understandings of selfhood, embodiment, and historical change. More importantly, I argue, it reflects a broader realm of disputes within the neurosciences. The divisions among methodologies and commitments testify to the importance of historians’ selection of evidence as well as the critical perspectives they can bring to scientific debates. The neurosciences do not offer readymade theories. Secondarily, I take stock of the shared limitations of neurohistory and the history of the emotions. Both conceptualize the biological bases of affection as a universal ground for historical inquiry. By reexamining this transhistorical approach to neuroscientific evidence, I suggest that historiography might widen the horizon of interdisciplinary scholarship beyond the present options.
“Probing the Limits of Method in the Neurosciences,”by Frank W. Stahnisch.
“Between Clinic and Experiment: Wilder Penfield’s Stimulation Reports and the Search for Mind, 1929–55,” by Katja Guenther. The abstract reads,
In medicine, the realm of the clinic and the realm of experimentation often overlap and conflict, and physicians have to develop practices to negotiate their differences. The work of Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) is a case in point. Engaging closely with the nearly 5,000 pages of unpublished and hitherto unconsidered reports of electrical cortical stimulation that Penfield compiled between 1929 and 1955, I trace how Penfield’s interest shifted from the production of hospital-based records designed to help him navigate the brains of individual patients to the construction of universal brain maps to aid his search for an ever-elusive “mind.” Reading the developments of Penfield’s operation records over time, I examine the particular ways in which Penfield straddled the individual and the universal while attempting to align his clinical and scientific interests, thereby exposing his techniques to standardize and normalize his brain maps.
Souvent en médecine, les domaines de la clinique et de l’expérimentation coïncident et s’opposent simultanément, obligeant les médecins à développer des pratiques pour négocier leurs différences. Le travail du neurochirurgien canadien Wilder Penfield (1891–1976) en est un bon exemple. En analysant soigneusement les quelque 5000 pages de protocoles de stimulations corticales électriques non publiés (et jusqu’ici non considérés) que Penfield a compilés entre 1929 et 1955, j’explique comment son intérêt s’est transformé ; de la production de comptes rendus d’opération et de graphiques l’aidant à naviguer dans les cerveaux des patients individuels, à la construction de cartes cérébrales universelles et à la recherche d’un « esprit » insaisissable. En lisant les développements des comptes rendus d’opération au fils du temps, je montre comment Penfield a conçu les techniques pour standardiser et normaliser ses cartes de cerveau, et j’examine la manière particulière avec laquelle il a réconcilié l’individuel et l’universel tout en essayant de mettre en accord ses intérêts cliniques et scientifiques.
Monday 18th July
Dr Fabio de Sio (Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf): “The title is misleading: J.C. Eccles, the Waynflete Lectures and the dawn of the neurosciences in Britain (1945–1954).”
The history of the neurosciences is usually cast as a cumulative process of discovery and theoretical innovation, leading to a veritable cultural revolution. The latter is accounted for in terms of an unstoppable growth of the brain, at the expense of the mind (or the soul), and as a progressive obliteration of old and fuzzy problems and entities (free will, mind, soul), traditionally associated with the explanation of human action. As a consequence, the neurosciences have been widely marketed not simply as the new model of scientific rationality (incorporating and integrating the bio- and psycho-disciplines), but also as the most suitable candidate to the title of ‘next science of Man’. This is based on the conflation between the growth of specialised knowledge and its interpretation in a wholly materialistic, brain-centric framework. This paper points at a different interpretation of the neurosciences as a cultural programme, based not on scientific revolution, interdisciplinarity and brain-centrism, but rather on tradition, harmonic cooperation between distinct disciplines (physiology, philosophy, introspective psychology) and a strong, reductionistic focus on the neurone as the basic level of interpretation. Through an analysis of the scientific and cultural endeavours of the physiologist and Nobelist J.C. Eccles FRS (1903–1997), his 1952 Lectures, The Neurophysiological Bases of the Mind: the Principles of Neurophysiology, I show how the New Science of the Brain was criticised by Eccles as a materialistic heresy, rooted in cultural prejudices, rather than on sound experimentation and proper scientific method. In parallel, I will show how the special brand of neurosciences heralded by Eccles was almost universally ignored by its critics. Finally, I wish to point at a whole network of neuroscience-related specialists (physiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists) and engaged intellectuals, who took Eccles’ programme seriously, and tried to consolidate, in the following decades, an alternative science of the mind/brain.
Location: Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London
Directions: From the Torrington Place entrance to UCL, enter the campus on Malet Place. After fifty metres, you will find Foser Court on the right hand side. Turn right under the underpass, and enter via the second door on the right. The common room is straight ahead.
Introduction: “Cinema and Neuroscience: Development and Application of Cinematography in the Field of the Neurosciences,” by Geneviève Aubert. No abstract.
“Capturing Motion and Depth Before Cinematography,” by Nicholas J. Wade. The abstract reads,
Visual representations of biological states have traditionally faced two problems: they lacked motion and depth. Attempts were made to supply these wants over many centuries, but the major advances were made in the early-nineteenth century. Motion was synthesized by sequences of slightly different images presented in rapid succession and depth was added by presenting slightly different images to each eye. Apparent motion and depth were combined some years later, but they tended to be applied separately. The major figures in this early period were Wheatstone, Plateau, Horner, Duboscq, Claudet, and Purkinje. Others later in the century, like Marey and Muybridge, were stimulated to extend the uses to which apparent motion and photography could be applied to examining body movements. These developments occurred before the birth of cinematography, and significant insights were derived from attempts to combine motion and depth.
offers a provocative account of interdisciplinary research across the neurosciences, social sciences and humanities. Setting itself against standard accounts of interdisciplinary ‘integration,’ and rooting itself in the authors’ own experiences, the book establishes a radical agenda for collaboration across these disciplines. Rethinking Interdisciplinarity does not merely advocate interdisciplinary research, but attends to the hitherto tacit pragmatics, affects, power dynamics, and spatial logics in which that research is enfolded. Understanding the complex relationships between brains, minds, and environments requires a delicate, playful and genuinely experimental interdisciplinarity, and this book shows us how it can be done.
AHP is pleased to announce the launch of a rich new web resource: the Museu de História das Neurociências Comportamentais [the History Museum of Behavioral Neuroscience]. The site features a digital collection of scientific instruments connected to the history of neuroscience, particularly behavioral neuroscience, in Brazil. It likewise highlights several key researchers who contributed to the development of behavioral neuroscience in Brazil.
The Museu de História das Neurociências Comportamentais will be of particular interest to those interested in scientific instrument collections and will make for a great online resource for both historians of psychology and their students alike. If your Portuguese is on the weak side, do not despair! You can use your browser settings to translate the pages to your language of choice (Google Chrome makes this particularly easy – see instructions here).
The Museu de História das Neurociências Comportamentais has plans to continue growing and contributions to the site are welcomed. To submit a photograph of an instrument, laboratory space, or researcher connected to the history of behavioral neuroscience in Brazil, contact firstname.lastname@example.org with a description of the person or object featured in the image, the name of the institution to which it is connected, and any references or links you would want included with the entry (You can download the contribution form here).