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Brain Culture (2011): The metaphor of the brain as frontier

Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media (2011) addresses how the brain is conceptualized in popular neuroscience.

Brain culture (2011)As a blurb explains, this is an accessible book “on the sociology. rhetoric, and culture of cognitive neuroscience.” I especially like the focus on rhetoric as a framework for approaching our understanding of what science has uncovered about the brain.

Brain as rhetorical space

Davi Johnson Thornton views scientific conceptions of the brain as a rhetorical space “where diverse social actors work through fundamental questions about what it means to be human in particular historical and social contexts.”

The author remarks that the brain is both natural and mediated — that is, represented through media. The brain has rhetorical force: it exerts social effects, and does things in the world. The brain’s ontology — what we think that the brain is in essence — is conditioned by the social, political, and economic mileu.

An underlying theme in popular conceptions of the brain, according to the author, is “that the discursive activity of popular neuroscience works through questions of human nature in ways that facilitate neoliberal social and economic arrangements.”

Trope of the frontier

Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the frontier as metaphor. A trope can be defined as a literary or rhetorical device consisting of the figurative use of a word or phrase (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2004). Trope and metaphor are synonymous; they both involve figurative language. Popular neuroscience as a narrative of scientific mastery is often articulated through what Thornton characterizes as the trope of the frontier.

“The brain as frontier narrative,” Thornton asserts, “equates the space of subjectivity with the space of the brain, and insists that scientific knowledge will bring about total control — and, through this control, ultimate fulfilment and peace.” The author posits two assumptions in the narrative of popular neuroscience. The first assumption is that knowledge inevitably leads to control. The second is that human control invariably leads to positive outcomes.

Teleology can be defined as the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2004). The two assumptions, in turn, “constitute a teleological narrative that views humans as progressively increasing their knowledge through scientific discovery, moving closer and closer to total mastery, which is taken as equivalent to total liberation.” It’s a characteristic of a teleological narrative is that it cannot be validated by scientific fact. Such a narrative is, rather, “a broader rhetorical framework through which scientific research is interpreted and made sense of in relation to culture.”

Brain as frontier

Thornton prefers not to view the brain as an object that is increasingly revealed to science. Instead, she views the brain “as the focus of discursive activity that functions to work out significant questions about identity and social relations.” In popular neuroscience, the brain is approached with a colonialist understanding, as a passive territory, where scientists — and citizens who take up scientific knowledge — “are conquerors who civilize this frontier through their willful efforts.” As a discursive activity, she adds, the brain can be read as a different sort of a frontier — not as a territory to be conquered.

The author turns to the work of Frederick Jackson Turner “to suggest how the frontier can be conceptualized as a zone of rhetorical activity that resists ultimate conquest and total knowledge.” Turner’s frontier is characterized as mobile — a line or space that is continually advancing. As well, this is a movement that is not just the assimilation of more territory to the colonizer’s way of life. The latter’s way of life is being constantly reconfigured.

Kees van der Pijl similarly speaks of the frontier as a space in which imperialism works to absorb the barbarian counterpart into the dominant culture, producing hybrid identities and split loyalities. Pijl adds that civilization in the sense given to it by Norbert Elias of a domestication of the instincts, presupposes and creates the barbarian opposite. In Frederick Jackson Turner’s formulation, notes Thornton,”the frontier itself can be thought of as possessing an agency or force that transforms and articulates both territory and pioneer.” There is merit, I believe, in such more nuanced conceptualizations of the brain as frontier.

Updates

This December 2012 New Yorker article adds to the discussion about what neuroscience means.

This January 2013 Globe and Mail article is entitled A big brainstorm is on the horizon in neuroscience.

As well, the CBC website has featured a number of articles focusing on updates relate to neuroscience research.

An April 5, 2013 New Yorker article, meanwhile, refers to recently published evidence suggesting that brain-training games don’t actually make you smarter. The article is entitled “Brain games are bogus.”

A skeptic’s guide to the mind (2013) is also a useful reference. I learned of the book through an April 6, 2013 Salon article which I accessed on Twitter.

A Jan. 17, 2014 CBC article, which I found of value and interest, is entitled: “Neuroscience journal edited by kids, for kids.” The introductory paragraphs read:

  • Caleb is a 14-year-old who enjoys playing video games and reading any book he can get his hands on – and in his spare time, he edits neuroscience papers for a scientific journal.
  • Frontiers for Young Minds is the first journal to bring kids into the middle of the scientific process by making them editors – and it’s free for everyone.
  • The idea came “from the depths of my mind, in a moment when I was bored at a scientific meeting,” says Bob Knight, editor in chief of Frontiers for Young Minds and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • This is one of many science outreach efforts that are trying to get youth excited about science, technology, engineering and math courses.

[End of excerpt]

Update: I’ve discussed brain scans in a March 26, 2014 post:

Documentary outlines tremendous benefits of early intervention programs addressing behaviour problems in young children

An April 6, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “Electrified: Adventures in transcranial direct-current stimulation.”

How neuroscience reinforces racist drug policy

By way of a further update, a June 12, 2014 Atlantic article is entitled: “How neuroscience reinforces racist drug policy.

The subhead for the article reads: “Brain scans do not speak for themselves. The seemingly objective science of neuroimaging can be used to justify a moral argument for or against legal marijuana – to show it as a legitimate medicine, or as a danger to your health.”

A Feb. 21, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Neuroscience and the premature death [of] the soul: Twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe made predictions about how advances in neuroscience would transform our understanding of human behaviour. So, how much did he get right?”

 

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