A new issue of Isis is available online. The March issue 2014 has a focus on “Neurohistory and History of Science” that may interest readers of h-madness. All the articles of this thematic section can be downloaded for free.
Neuroscience, Neurohistory, and the History of Science: A Tale of Two Brain Images by Steve Fuller
This essay introduces a Focus section on “Neurohistory and History of Science” by distinguishing images of the brain as governor and as transducer: the former treat the brain as the executive control center of the body, the latter as an interface between the organism and reality at large. Most of the consternation expressed in the symposium about the advent of neurohistory derives from the brain-as-governor conception, which is rooted in a “biologistic” understanding of humanity that in recent years has become bound up in various nefarious “neoliberal” political and economic agendas. However, given the sophisticated attitude that neurohistory’s leading champion, Daniel Smail, displays toward evolutionary theory’s potential impact on historical practice, he is perhaps better understood as part of the brain-as-transducer tradition. This tradition, largely suppressed in current representations of neuroscience, has a strong theological provenance, ultimately concerned with our becoming attuned to the divine frequency, not least by extending the powers of the human nervous system through technology. This essay sympathetically explores the implications of this perspective for historical practice.
Neurohistory in Action: Hoarding and the Human Past by Daniel Lord Smail
A neurohistorical approach begins with the principle that the human brain is relatively plastic and therefore continuously open to developmental and cultural influences. This does not mean that we should treat the brain as a blank slate. Instead, such influences, as they interact with given brain/body systems, can generate unpredictable forward-acting effects. The phenomenon of compulsive hoarding offers a case study of a historically or culturally situated behavior that can be approached in this way. Hoarding appears to be correlated with cognitive lesions or genetic predispositions. Yet although the behavior is very visible today, there is little evidence for the practice in the human past, suggesting that something has triggered the growing prevalence of the phenomenon. Using the coevolutionary approach intrinsic to environmental history, we can treat the rise of compulsive hoarding as an emergent phenomenon generated by the unpredictable ways in which cognitive and endocrinological systems have interacted with a changing material environment. The results of this inquiry suggest not only why history needs cognitive neuroscience but also why neuroscience needs history.
History and Neuroscience: An Integrative Legacy by Stephen T. Casper
The attitudes that characterize the contemporary “neuro-turn” were strikingly commonplace as part of the self-fashioning of social identity in the biographies and personal papers of past neurologists and neuroscientists. Indeed, one fundamental connection between nineteenth- and twentieth-century neurology and contemporary neuroscience appears to be the value that workers in both domains attach to the idea of integration, a vision of neural science and medicine that connected reductionist science to broader inquiries about the mind, brain, and human nature and in so doing supposedly resolved once and for all questions germane to the human sciences, humanities, and arts. How those attitudes were produced and reproduced first in neurology and then in neuroscience; in what way they were constructed and disciplined, thereby eventuating in the contested sciences and medicines of the mind, brain, and nervous system; and even how they garnered ever-wider contemporary purchase in cultures and societies are thus fascinating problems for historians of science and medicine. Such problems shed light on ethics, practices, controversies, and the uneasy social relations within those scientific and medical domains. But more to the point of this essay: they also account for the apparent epistemological weight now accorded “the neuro” in our contemporary moment. They thus illuminate in a rather different way why historians have suddenly discovered the value of “the neuro.”
Neurohistory Is Bunk?: The Not-So-Deep History of the Postclassical Mind by Max Stadler
The proliferation of late of disciplines beginning in “neuro”—neuroeconomics, neuroaesthetics, neuro–literary criticism, and so on—while welcomed in some quarters, has drawn a great deal of critical commentary as well. It is perhaps natural that scholars in the humanities, especially, tend to find these “neuro”-prefixes irritating. But by no means all of them: there are those humanists (evidently) who discern in this trend a healthy development that has the potential of “revitalizing” the notoriously bookish humanities. Neurohistory (or “deep” history) is a case in point, typically being dismissed (if registered at all) by historians while finding more sympathetic consideration elsewhere. While it sides with the former position, this essay attempts to develop a more complex picture. It will suggest that defiant humanists may underestimate the extent to which they are already participating in a culture profoundly tuned toward a quasi-naturalistic construction of the mind/brain as an embodied, situated, and distributed thing. The roots of this construction will be traced into the popular, academic, and technological discourses that began to surround the “user” in the 1980s, with special emphasis on the concomitant assault on “cognitivism.” What is more, the very same story—insofar as it demonstrates the complicity of the “postclassical” mind with our own man-made and “digital” age—will serve to complicate the neuro-optimists’ vision of human nature exposed by a new kind of science.
Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously by Roger Cooter
Taking the neuro-turn is like becoming the victim of mind parasites. It’s unwilled (although there are those who will it at a superficial level for various strategic reasons). You can’t see mind parasites; they make you think things without allowing you to know why you think them. Indeed, they generate the cognitive inability to be other than delighted with the circumstances of your affected cognition. It’s not as if you can take off your thinking cap and shoo the pests away. You can’t see them—or even know that you could want to. You can’t stand on the outside looking in at your cognitive processes. But historically speaking, you are also inside a (broadly postmodern) culture and (broadly neoliberal) socioeconomic order that places the legitimacy of the neuro beyond critique. And the neuro-turn does more: it delegitimizes critique itself, at least as we have known it since Marx. This essay briefly explores how we got here, what the “here” is, and what its implications are for historical critique.