Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Culture: Neuro this and neuro that and neuro go away ....

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science is sponsoring a long overdue project on the trend in modern culture that makes the brain (instead of the whole body) the vessel of our personhood:
Since the Decade of the Brain, several proto-disciplines, such as neurotheology, neuroeducation, neuroesthetics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuromarketing or neuroeconomics have advanced bold plans to reform the human sciences on the basis of knowledge about the brain. Driven by the availability of brain imaging technologies, particulary PET and fMRI, these fields tend to focus on the quest for “neural correlates” of behaviors and mental processes. The media, both popular and specialized, has given much room to these emergent fields; it has also reported on new forms of sociability and identity politics incarnate in the growing “neurodiversity” movement and various sorts of “neurocommunities; ” and it has been decisive in the process of turning brain scans into modern icons of personhood. Parallel to academic discourses and practices, but interacting with them at many levels, there is an expanding galaxy of neurobeliefs and neuropractices that go from learning how to draw or feel with one side of the brain, to various forms of neurohealthism, neuroascetics, neuroesotericism and neuroeschatology.

I’ve described this trend as "neurobullshipping." Of course we can learn a lot about ourselves from studying the human brain. My lead author Mario Bearegard learned a lot about mystical contemplation from his brain studies on Carmelite nuns, which we discuss in The Spiritual Brain.

But our brains do not sit in pickle jars. Our brains, minds, and bodies are a continuous feedback loop. All the information stored in our brains is learned through the exercise of our bodies and the focus of our attention is determined by our minds. Put another way, "neurobeliefs and neuropractices" are just beliefs and practices. I admit that I do not have any idea what "neuroesotericism and neuroeschatology" are, which is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

Hat tip: Alan Yoshioka of Sheepcat fame.

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