Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Neuroscience and Subjectivity - John Crombya, Tim Newton, Simon J Williams

"Neuroscience and Subjectivity" is the editorial by John Crombya, Tim Newton, and Simon J Williams for the August issue of Subjectivity (2011) - it's also the subject of the special issue of that journal.

The analysis here on the ways neuroscience is threatening to subsume some other disciplines - especially psychology - is useful and informative. They highlight some of the issues that arise when people (notably the government, as in the example of brain scans as lie detection) try to make brain imaging and neuroscience into a "hard science." For example,
neuroscience cannot necessarily provide ‘hard’, context-free ‘objective’ or universal analysis: a point of particular salience and significance in terms of current debates about the effects of so-called ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs among the healthy, which all too frequently and unproblematically extrapolate from test results found in the controlled settings of laboratory or clinic to the complex layers and relays of everyday life. As with existing psychophysiological research, neurological assessment is continuously influenced by the physical, social and psychological context in which it is undertaken (Newton, 2003, 2007; Littlefield, 2009) – an irreducible complexity that involves the neural, the cardiovascular and the neuroendocrinal, all of these simultaneously both enabling and interpenetrated by the massively fluctuating and interwoven diversities of our psychosocial processes and socio-cultural contexts (Elias, 1994).
This is as close to an integral statement about brain science as I have seen in the academic world - we are never simply brains having an experience. We are physically embodied and socially embedded, as well as environmentally situated, and to disregard any of those conditions leaves the equation of subjectivity only partially addressed.

Cromby, J., Newto, T., & Williams, S.J. (2011). Neuroscience and subjectivity. Subjectivity, 4:215–226. doi:10.1057/sub.2011.13

Neuroscience and subjectivity

John Crombya, Tim Newton, and Simon J Williamsb
  1. aLoughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. E-mail: J.Cromby@lboro.ac.uk
  2. bDepartment of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK
As we write there are spectacular uprisings all across the Middle East, and angry responses to public spending cuts and attacks on worker's pensions, pay and conditions in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, the United Kingdom and France. So this might seem like a strange time to be focusing attention ‘inward’, on the workings of the brain: at such a moment, interest may be drawn to wider social, economic and cultural forces and the ways that their shifting contingencies intersect to produce radical – or indeed, conservative – subjectivities. Nevertheless, as the papers in this special issue show, such considerations remain vital. On the one hand they might enliven social science, giving it a robust, intimate grasp upon some of the embodied, material processes by which all subjectivities – both conservative and radical – are inculcated and enabled. And on the other, they demonstrate the continuing importance of the social sciences and humanities at a time when – in the United Kingdom, at least – their existence appears threatened as never before.

The contemporary neurosciences form an influential and complex matrix of interdependent practices, technologies, methods and theories, whose efforts are jointly directed towards a better understanding of one of the most extraordinary objects in the known universe: the human brain. In recent years they have benefitted from a powerful infusion of funding, and initiatives such as the 1990's ‘Decade of the Brain’ have generated a massive boom in knowledge and practice. As it has expanded, the field has divided into primary regions of cognitive, social and affective neuroscience, with numerous smaller (and frequently applied) sub-disciplines cross-cutting these. Simultaneously, the various brain imaging technologies (MRI, fMRI, PET, MEG, fNIRS), with their seeming ability to visualise living thought itself, have done much to capture the public imagination. As the following examples illustrate, a cultural climate has emerged within which neural tropes, brain imaginaries and (more rarely) established facts are mobilised to inform social policy, legitimate clinical interventions and refashion existing bodies of thought and practice for a new era of supposed ‘brainhood’ (see, for example, Vidal, 2009; Ortega and Vidal, 2010; Royal Society, 2011).

Example one: in 2007, the best-selling author, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge publishes, to critical acclaim, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Doidge, 2007). Drawing upon the recent science of ‘neuroplasticity’, Doidge offers stories of the plasticity of our senses, of how stroke victims learn to move and speak again and so on – and other arguments and insights pertaining inter alia to the ‘culturally modified brain’, the notion of ‘plasticity as progress’, even the suggestion of ‘psychoanalysis as a neuroplastic therapy’. Here we are invited not simply to consider the manner in which these findings are challenging or overturning old ways of thinking about the brain, but to celebrate the awesome ‘self-healing power that lies within all of us’. Part and parcel of wider socio-cultural tropes and trends towards complexity, flexibility, enterprise and enhancement in all spheres of life, the book in this respect is very much a product of its times, reflecting and reinforcing both neoliberal and neurocultural themes and imperatives.

Example two: another popular book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Lehrer, 2011), argues that many neuroscientific discoveries are in fact re-discoveries of insights already achieved by great artists: by Proust with regard to the fallible, reconstructive character of memory, by Cézanne with regard to vision, by Whitman with regard to the biological substrates of consciousness, and so on. Here, neuroscience and art continuously rebound such that each affirms the other, and the historic divide between the ‘two cultures’ is optimistically disregarded: neuroscience is playing ‘catch up’ with art, art is being enriched by neuroscience. In largely ignoring the profound differences between these disparate communities of practice, Lehrer's relatively thin work has the potential to alienate them all, and its advocacy of art as a distinct mode of cognition merely echoes Langer's (1967) earlier important work. Its popularity, nevertheless, illustrates the ‘seductive allure’ (Fine, 2010) of contemporary neuroscience.

Example three: in 2009, Professor David Nutt was fired as Chief Scientific Adviser on UK government drugs policy after publicly claiming that this advice was being disregarded by politicians. Early in 2011, he attracted further media attention for his claims that the spending cuts and funding changes being implemented by the current UK government are the ‘last nail in the coffin’ of UK basic neuroscientific research (BBC, 2011). Almost simultaneously, UK news excitedly reported research that supposedly identified a brain region (the medial prefrontal cortex) where heroin ‘relapse’ occurs (Bossert et al, 2011) – albeit that the study participants were rats. A few months earlier, the journal Biosocieties presented an excellent special issue on neuroscience and drug dependency that served to situate all such claims with respect to the historical, cultural and material contexts within which drug dependency actually arises (Dunbar et al, 2010). Marred only by a sometimes uncritical acceptance of the concept of addiction (as though this were an observable brain state or objective social fact, rather than a loose term linking disparate activities to negative moral judgements), the contributors gave a thorough account of the neuroscience of drug dependency that was constantly referred back to its own genealogy and institutional history and located within social and political economies of (for example) ethnicity and class.

These examples begin to illustrate how the cultural uptake of neuroscience is contingent and variable, both impeded and progressed by the intersecting tensions generated by material, institutional and intellectual forces. Doidge and Lehrer show that neuroscience is explicating how the malleable processes of experience are enabled, neurally, by the plasticity of dendrite and synapse, the fluctuations of peptide, hormone and neurotransmitter. Conversely, neuroscientific accounts of drug dependency suggest that processes of ‘addiction’ are locked into place by neuroanatomies so stable that they can be characterised as a chronic brain disorder (Kuhar, 2010). Doidge uses neuroscience to celebrate a view of subjectivity that fundamentally accords with neoliberal precepts of choice, flexibility, self-care and personal responsibility (Maasen and Sutter, 2007; Pitts-Taylor, 2010). Conversely, Nutt uses neuroscience to critique other aspects of this same neoliberal agenda, legitimating arguments for more generous state funding of research and against the criminalisation of (some) recreational drugs.

Similar contradictions appear when we consider the relations between neuroscience and other disciplines. Lehrer – and indeed other more serious writers – show how neuroscience is rejuvenating aspects of the humanities and the social sciences, lending new credibility to ideas and practices from the arts and psychotherapy, informing conceptual development in relation to selfhood, agency and morality, and providing rich material for studies in history, STS, political economy and other disciplines. Conversely, neuroscience also threatens to colonise or even engulf some disciplines. This threat is perhaps clearest in psychology, where those sub-disciplines most able to surf the neural wave are growing in prestige and size (Marshall, 2004). But developments such as social neuroscience also raise important questions for sociology, particularly in the context of a more general ‘re-biologisation of the social world’, both within and beyond the neurosciences (Fuller, 2006). Consequently, neuroscience provides challenges that might de-stabilise existing regimes of power by demonstrating and elucidating the thoroughly socio-neural character of experience: but it also provides both armour and ammunition for retrograde tendencies seeking to further marginalise progressive thought and practice.

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