Critical Neuroscience: Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience

Critical Neuroscience: Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience

Critical Neuroscience: Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience

Multi-disciplinary scholars from around the world explore key social, historical and philosophical studies of neuroscience.

Increasingly, many societies around the world are witnessing, or will soon be witnessing, the effects of a sustained emphasis on brain-centred approaches to theories of the person in medicine and in popular culture, more generally. The neurosciences are about to make a profound and broad-scale impact on society, or so one is certainly led to expect, from the rhetoric of neuroscientists, the media, cultural critics and neuro-ethicists, alike. Certainly, the neurosciences are increasingly amassing resources and attention, the academic and popular literature replete with the conviction that within a few years, the brain sciences will supersede social, cultural, philosophical, political, literary or other 'folk' explanations of behavioral phenomena. Besides promising novel insights into the workings of core human capacities - whether shopping behaviour or moral reasoning and consciousness - the neurosciences have brought on the horizon new technologies that are being mobilized in the name of educational improvement, illness prevention and security: an array of new pharmaceutical drugs, brain-based methods to boost intelligence, fitness and happiness as well as screening devices with potentially wide-ranging medical, civil and military uses.

This discourse has become familiar. In the meantime, these developments in neuroscience, though captivating in their promissory appeal, and arguably having the real potential to impact deeply on society, have failed to elicit adequately complex responses on the part of the scholarly community; all too often, discourse and state-of-the-art are conflated, and non-reflexive futurism goes hand-in-hand with a lack of regard for a long history of dramatic promise of impending societal transformation brought about by the sciences and technologies of the brain and mind. Rather than critically engaging with developments in the neurosciences, and their social and cultural ramifications in their diversity, such responses often result in reifying both the neuroscientfic 'threat' as well as the conception of human nature supposedly under siege.

The project of Critical Neuroscience differs significantly in its ambitions and agenda. It is, first, aspiring to seriously bridge the social and anthropological study of the neurosciences to the neuroscience laboratory by engaging neuroscientists and non-neuroscientists - philosophers, historians of science, anthropologists - in concrete collaborations focused on specific themes of cultural relevance. Examples include pathologies of individual development (mental illnesses such as depression), social pathologies (such as alienation in work and life environments, violence, ADHD, aggression, fear), ideas and popular conceptions of well-being and suggested ways of their implementation, to name just a few. What these themes have in common is a call for approaches spanning various disciplines to develop explanations on multiple levels, from the brain to bodies, dynamic relationships, communities, societies and politics. These phenomena no doubt involve the brain and neuroscientific approaches, but cannot be investigated from a neuroscience perspective alone.

In line with this approach, Critical Neuroscience aims to provide joint education opportunities for junior researchers including interdisciplinary courses, themed summer/winter schools, and collaborative workshops in order to enable and sustain joint work on a number of topics. One aim is for collaborative work to lead to creative experimental paradigms that yield multiple types of data and make room for interpretations on many levels.

The project is therefore, on the one hand, an attempt to approach behavioural phenomena with broader perspectives and more complicated experimental frameworks, and on the other hand, an attempt to take seriously the diverse implications developments in the neurosciences unquestionably will have on society, without taking for granted either the transformative power of neurosciences nor any particular conception of what it means to be human. Our conceptions of our selves, our societies and our ways of life happen, it is our belief, in spite of the mostly promissory character of the neurosciences; they happen because of many complex economic, political and other factors, few of which in fact are determined by scientific research, per se. Neuroscience itself, it is worth emphasizing, is nothing that could simply have an 'impact', but is itself a historically grown enterprise, always already enmeshed in a broader realm of the social and cultural. To remain alert to these wider factors that shape social life, individual development and not least the practices and theories of science while holding on to the potentials of neuroscience is a central aim of Critical Neuroscience












Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience brings together multi-disciplinary scholars from around the world to explore key social, historical and philosophical studies of neuroscience, and to analyze the socio-cultural implications of recent advances in the field.

  • Original, interdisciplinary approach explores the creative potential for engaging experimental neuroscience with social studies of neuroscience
  • Furthers the dialogue between neuroscience and the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities
  • Transcends traditional skepticisms, introducing novel ideas about ‘how to be critical’ in and about science
  • Features contributions from eminent scholars including Steven Rose, Joseph Dumit, Laurence Kirmayer, Shaun Gallagher, Fernando Vidal, Allan Young and Joan Chiao

Here is what editors: Jan Slaby and Suparna Choudhury are saying in Chapter 1 Proposal for a Critical Neuroscience

“The label “critical neuroscience” captures an important—and, we believe, productive—tension. This tension represents the need to respond to the impressive and at times troublesome surge of the neurosciences, without either celebrating it uncritically or condemning it wholesale. “Critical” alludes, on the one hand, to the notion of “crisis,” understood—in the classical Greek, predominantly medical sense of the term—as an important juncture and point of intervention, and, relatedly, to a task similar to that proposed by Kant in The Conflict of the Faculties (rather than in his more famous “Critiques”), where he defends a space of unconstrained inquiry into the continual pressures put on scientific knowing by the vagaries of the political sphere. This opens up a space for inquiry that is itself inherently and self-consciously political. On the other hand, the concept of “critique” raises important associations with Frankfurt School critical theory. While critical neuroscience does not directly follow a Frankfurt School program, nor the reduction of science to positivism espoused by early critical theory, it does share with it a spirit of historico-political mission; that is, the persuasion that scientific inquiry into human reality tends to mobilize specific values and often works in the service of interests that can easily shape construals of nature or naturalness. These notions of nature or of what counts as natural, whether referring to constructs of gender, mental disorder, or normal brain development, require unpacking. Without critical reflection, they appear as inevitable givens, universal and below history, and are often seen as a form of “normative facticity,” making specific claims upon us in everyday life”. 

Reviews and recommendations:

"Neurological thinking has extended itself into a great many spheres of life, from "neuroanthropology" to "neurozoology". We have urgently needed to understand this development within a broad historical and cultural context and Critical Neuroscience provides us with the necessary tools to engage with neuroscience and its social impacts in productive and intelligent ways. The book will be an extremely important resource for anyone interested in understanding how and why neuroscientific research has led us to think about social life in new ways." 
Emily Martin, Professor of Anthropology, New York University and author of ‘Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture’

“At a time where neuroscience, whether molecular or social, is expanding so rapidly to nearly all aspects of human societies, way beyond academia, this volume brings a welcome and refreshing perspective. Choudhury and Slaby are to be commended for bringing together various scholars within a framework that constructively criticizes and analyzes potentials and problems, promises and challenges, pitfalls and strengths associated with human neuroscience. This volume is extremely important to all, and is of special benefit to the emerging field of social neuroscience”. Jean Decety, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Co-Director of Brain Research Imaging Centre, University of Chicago

“The neurosciences today are at once the site of genuinely exciting research, of wild claims for the field's “revolutionary” significance for human self-understanding, and of skeptical dismissals of both.   Critical Neuroscience shows instead how to analyze this scientific work with utmost seriousness, through critical reflection on its history and guiding assumptions, its involvement in multiple practical and institutional settings, its scientific prospects, and how it affects and is affected by how we think about ourselves.  The book offers a model for thoughtful engagement with innovative, widely influential scientific research”. Joseph Rouse, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the 'Science in Society' Program, Wesleyan University, USA

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