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H IS T ORY OF T H E H UMA N S C I E N C E S

Vol. 23 No. 1

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pp. 110

[23:1; 110; DOI: 10.1177/0952695109354395]

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Neuroscience, power and


culture: an introduction
SCOTT VRECKO

ABSTRACT
In line with their vast expansion over the last few decades, the brain
sciences including neurobiology, psychopharmacology, biological
psychiatry, and brain imaging are becoming increasingly prominent
in a variety of cultural formations, from self-help guides and the arts
to advertising and public health programmes. This article, which introduces the special issue of History of the Human Science on Neuroscience, Power and Culture, considers the ways that social and
historical research can, through empirical investigations grounded in
the observation of what is actually happening and has already happened
in the sciences of mind and brain, complement speculative discussions
of the possible social implications of neuroscience that now appear
regularly in the media and in philosophical bioethics. It suggests that
the neurosciences are best understood in terms of their lineage within
the psy-disciplines, and that, accordingly, our analyses of them will be
strengthened by drawing on existing literatures on the history and
politics of psychology particularly those that analyze formations of
knowledge, power and subjectivity associated with the discipline and
its practical applications. Additionally, it argues against taking todays
neuroscientific facts and brain-targetting technologies as starting points
for analysis, and for greater recognition of the ways that these are
shaped by historical, cultural and political-economic forces.
Key words biopolitics, brain, culture, neuroethics,
neuroscience, power, psychopharmacology

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If the politics of the present are, to a significant extent, a politics of bodies,


biologies and life a politics in which social, personal and global questions
increasingly come to involve conceptions and explanations of our selves and
our societies in terms of the physiological there can be little doubt that an
increasingly important element of this politics involves the human brain
(Blank, 1999; Connolly, 2002). Over the last few decades, the neurosciences
have expanded dramatically, not only in terms of the resources they command
and the authority they wield, but also in terms of the scope and range of
problems and phenomena they territorialize. Among other things, brain
scientists today offer us neurobiological accounts of:
altruism (Gottschalk, 1995)
borderline personality disorder (Pally, 2002)
criminal behaviour (Glicksohn, 2002)
decision-making (Bechara, 2001)
empathy (Carr et al., 2003)
fear (Kalin, 1993)
gut feelings (Mayer et al., 2000)
hope (Gottschalk et al., 1993)
impulsivity (Stein et al., 1993)
judgment (Greene and Haidt, 2002)
kinship identification (Lundstrom et al., 2009)
love (Marazziti, 2005)
motivation (Bechara et al., 1992)
neuroticism (Fischer et al., 1997)
obesity (Markus, 2005)
problem gambling (Potenza, 2001)
racial bias (Knutson et al., 2007)
suicide (Mann, 1998)
trust (Zak et al., 2004)
unconditional love (Beauregard et al., 2009)
violence (Rutter, 2008)
wisdom (Meeks and Jeste, 2009)
yawning (Schrmann et al., 2005)
(religious) zeal (Inzlicht et al., 2009)
More broadly, beyond specific substantive domains, notions of what it
means to be particular kinds of persons, populations and political subjects
are increasingly bound up with the meanings, explanations and theories of
contemporary neuroscience. In the most extreme and esoteric forms of neuroreductionism (Martin, 2004), philosophers and scientists assert that we are
who we are because of what our brains do; that we act the ways we do, feel
the things we feel, think what we think, and like what we like because of the

NEUROSCIENCE, POWER & CULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION

structures of specific neurons and activities of chemicals inside our heads


(cf. Churchland, 1989). In terms of everyday life and culture, ideas about the
brain, neurochemistry and the biological basis of mental life are far from
hegemonic, but are nevertheless becoming increasingly salient cultural phenomena, particularly as they circulate nationally and globally through a range
of media from TV shows (Campbell, forthcoming), drug advertisements
(Lacasse and Leo, 2005) and self-help books (e.g. Schwartz, 1997), to the arts
(Wingate and Kwint, 2006), popular fiction (e.g. Franzen, 2001), and public
health campaigns (e.g. NIDA, n.d.).
The flourishing of these neurocultural forms lends support to Ian Hackings
(2004) prediction that, for a number of reasons including growing concern
from an ageing population about cognitive decline in old age and the flourishing of new technologies which have made it possible to gain insight on
the brains sub-cellular structures and processes, the brain sciences will be the
most popular science of the early twenty-first century. Certainly, they are
increasingly popular subjects of investigation for scholars in the humanities
and social sciences, and particularly for philosophers. While Hacking has
engaged with the neurosciences from an empirical perspective (particularly
in relation to neurobiological explanations of psychiatric illnesses; see, for
example, Hacking, 1998; Hacking, 1999), a great deal of philosophical and,
most recently, bioethical work that has begun to examine some of the implications of developments in the neurosciences is often more speculative than
concrete. A key focus here has been questions about what new forms of
neuroscience and neurotechnology might develop in the years and decades
to come, and about what possible consequences these potentially emergent
forms of brain technoscience might have for the law, self-understandings,
conceptions of normality, and so on. Although these reflections are important, it is also crucial to note that we do not have to rely on prospective
analysis alone for the brain sciences have long been influencing personal,
social and political life, and a significant amount of empirical work has been
done within the social sciences and humanities that provides a basis for
thinking concretely about the place of neuroscience in contemporary cultures
and politics, as well as the place of culture and politics in contemporary neuroscience (Dumit, 2004; Harrington, 1987; Harrington, 1992; Healy, 1997; Lock,
2002). Moreover, if we assume that the brain sciences particularly those
relating to psychopharmacology and biopsychiatry are best understood in
terms of their psy-lineage (i.e. that understandings of the neuro disciplines
can be informed by an awareness of their relation to the histories of the
psychological arts and sciences), there is a vast range of literature on the
human sciences (Foucault, 1985; Foucault, 1989; Goffman, 1968; Rieff, 1987;
Rose, 1996; Rose, 1999; Shorter, 1997) that has considerable potential for
contributing to such analyses even if the works do not specifically mention
neurotransmitters, fMRI equipment, and other neuroscientific objects.

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The collection of articles in this special issue stems from a workshop that
took place at Harvard University in May 2008, entitled Our Brains, Our
Selves?, which sought to bring together scholars from across the humanities
and social sciences whose work examines what is actually happening, and has
already happened, in brain science and technology (and whose analyses are
informed by the insights of a range of existing theoretical and analytical
perspectives on the human sciences).1 Over two and a half days, about 25
participants from Europe and North America gathered in Cambridge, MA
to present works in progress and to discuss the ways that grounded, culturally contextualized studies of neuroscience might contribute to analyzing
the ethical problems, individual practices and social problematics that have
often (too often, some participants suggested) been the subject of speculative, abstract analyses that are insufficiently informed by social and cultural
research. Certainly, not all philosophical and bioethical work is completely
abstract; and indeed, few if any participants considered purely conceptual
analysis to be without value. But the general feeling was that empirically
grounded studies could offer valuable, complementary and sometimes unique
insights into the neuroscience-related issues that are increasingly grabbing
popular and academic imaginations (for example, those relating to neuroscience insights into the nature of free will and consciousness, and the possibility of using brain-scanning technology to detect lies and terrorists).
Participants also expressed hopes that this sort of social research might
help to expand the scope of analyses beyond a consideration of the social
implications of neuroscience, to a broader and more complex investigation
of the ways that the brain sciences are, and have always been, inextricably
embedded in historical, cultural, political and economic formations. Indeed,
if there is a key theme that draws together the workshop presentations, and
the following articles, it is that the facts, theories and practices that emerge
from brain research are always cultural and historical products, with particular political and economic trajectories and should be analyzed as such. This
is not to suggest that the articles collected here attempt to stake or verify
general philosophical claims about the nature of, and relations between,
neuroscience knowledge, power and culture. As the reader will see, a recognition of the socio-cultural embeddedness of neuroscience is only a starting
point for analyses. From there, the investigations move on to demonstrate,
through the use of a range of methods, case studies and analytic perspectives, the concrete ways that neuroscience and knowledge politics play out
in specific spheres, and in relation to particular issues, understandings and
social forms.
The opening article, by Joelle Abi-Rached and Nikolas Rose, takes a broad
historical and comparative approach, offering a genealogical investigation of
contemporary forms of neuroscience by examining how neuroscience itself
came into being as a distinct field of inquiry over the course of the second

NEUROSCIENCE, POWER & CULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION

half of the 20th century and how, along with it, there emerged a distinct new
style of thought that they term the neuromolecular gaze. Rather than offer
a traditional historical account that provides a linear and progressive story
and that is implicitly or explicitly based on the assumption that scientific
work simply uncovers the unchanging truths of the brain the analysis
provided by Abi-Rached and Rose demonstrates that the emergence of the
neurosciences was far from inevitable, and was closely tied to a range of interpersonal, institutional and professional conditions. Insofar as they develop a
comparative analysis of some of the similarities and differences in neuroscientific genealogies in three national contexts (the UK, the USA and France),
they also bring into question the assumption that we might tell a single, neat
story about the emergence of a discipline that they suggest is a hybrid of
hybrids.
In a sharp but complementary contrast to Abi-Rached and Roses broad
historical and comparative study, the paper by anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz
offers insights into the socially contingent nature of neuroscientific knowledge through a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of a Swiss laboratory that
investigates the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on human subjects. Langlitz
challenges the objectivist faade he attributes to contemporary psychopharmacology by demonstrating how, in a range of mundane and practical ways
from the design and refinement of experimental studies, to the measurement of drug effects the subjectivity of both researchers and their subjects
persistently enters into the observed phenomena and the hard facts and
understandings produced in research laboratories.
Langlitz also alludes, briefly, to broader socio-political issues that have
influenced hallucinogen research in his and other research sites most notably,
the politicization of the hallucinogens in the 1960s and the reconstruction
of the field of hallucinogen research since the Decade of the Brain (see also
Langlitz, forthcoming). Such intersections, between cultural politics and the
social production of neuroscientific knowledge, come to the fore in Linsey
McGoeys exploration of controversies surrounding the efficacy of antidepressant drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft. While McGoey, like Langlitz,
offers an account of the contingency of the facts we have about drug effects
(in McGoeys case, legal pharmaceuticals rather than illicit hallucinogens),
she focuses on how such issues relate to professional and regulatory matters
that arise as scientists and government agencies attempt to negotiate the
always incomplete and uncertain knowledge they have of psychopharmacological interventions. Her article not only offers insights into the politics of
method and interpretation associated with a class of brain-targetting drugs
that millions of individuals take worldwide, but also helps deepen our understandings of the epistemological foundations of the system of evidence-based
medicine (EBM) that is dominant in the USA, the UK, and many other
countries. Moreover, at the same time that McGoey calls into question the

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widely held assumption that randomized controlled clinical trials (the gold
standard for producing knowledge in EBM) are capable of generating valuefree information about pharmaceuticals, she also illuminates the cultural and
political factors that allow for EBM and clinical trials to retain their dominance despite and possibly because of their profitable failures.
The article by Nikolas Rose shifts emphasis from the ways that politics and
culture influence knowledge production, toward a consideration of the way
that neuroscience and behavioural genetics are involved in changing the
contemporary politics of madness and ways of governing risky psychiatric
and legal subjects. Rose undertakes the important task of considering the
impact that emerging forms of neuroscience may have on reshaping formations of legal justice and social control. But, in contrast with many reflections on the legal implications of neuroscience (such as those associated with
the fields of neuroethics and neurolaw) that focus on abstract and philosophical questions (e.g. about what would happen to criminal law if neuroscientific findings were able to eliminate our ideas about free will), he begins
by examining developments and issues that have already arisen, in the real
world. This allows him to select, from among the virtually infinite set of
possibilities that might arise from advances in neuroscience, those that
actually seem likely to arise and are thus arguably the most important to
take seriously. Moreover, Rose avoids the temptation to examine new forms
of knowledge and technology as if they can be understood apart from how
they are practically put to work. As he notes in relation to endeavours to
improve the identification and pre-emptive management of dangerous individuals, the social implications of advances in biopsychiatry depend as much
on social and cultural contexts (his case highlights the culture of precaution
and media-fed fears of victimization by particular psychiatric kinds) as on
the technical and substantive properties of its interventions.
The final article, by Jonna Brenninkmeijer, also addresses a topic that has
received considerable attention in the media and in bioethical analyses
namely, that of brain enhancement. Like that of Rose, her article avoids
free-floating speculation by grounding its analysis firmly in the actualities of
social life. Thus, while bioethicists (and so-called transhumanists) spend
considerable time wondering about the implications of new and developing
neurotechnologies, and often focus on the abstract and arguably mythical
notion of becoming posthuman, Brenninkmeijer examines the rather
mundane ways that individuals relate to brain-targetting interventions as
they attempt to improve themselves and/or manage the problems they face
in everyday life. At the same time that Brenninkmeijer provides a wealth of
ethnographic material that illuminates the everyday perspectives of those
who use different kinds of brain-targeting interventions (not to mention those
who profit from their consumption), she also deploys this material as a basis
for revisiting, from a concrete standpoint, conceptual ideas about the inter-

NEUROSCIENCE, POWER & CULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION

connectedness of human bodies, minds and subjectivities that have been of


central philosophical concern for thinkers from Descartes through to
Foucault, up to contemporary neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio.
One of the main reasons for organizing the workshop that gave rise to this
collection was the goal of bringing together researchers who are empirically
investigating the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of the neurosciences. Taken as a whole, the articles in this collection (along with other
workshop papers that do not appear here) demonstrate that, when considering the relationship between the neurosciences and society, we need not rely
on tentative speculation alone, but can draw upon a significant and growing
body of work that demonstrates what is actually happening in concrete
contexts, in relation to particular social and scientific problems.

NOTES
For making possible the Our Brains, Our Selves workshop, and hence this collection, I would like to thank Rebecca Lemov, my workshop co-organizer; Harvards
Department of the History of Science, and in particular Anne Harrington; and
members of the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE) who helped
with organization and planning, including Caitlin Connors, Giovanni Frazzetto,
Linsey McGoey and Nikolas Rose. The workshop was generously funded by the
European Science Foundation through its support of the European Neuroscience and
Society Network, by Harvards Department of the History of Science, and by the
ESRC Brain, Self and Society programme based in the LSEs BIOS Centre.
1

The article co-authored by Abi-Rached and Rose, and the article by Brenninkmeijer, were not presented at the workshop.

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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
SCOTT VRECKO is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Philosophy
at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the relationship between
science, knowledge and power, particularly in relation to processes of social
change and the governance of social problems. He is currently writing a book
on these themes for New York University Press.

Address: Department of Sociology & Philosophy, University of Exeter,


Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter, Devon EX4 4RJ, UK. [email:
s.vrecko@exeter.ac.uk]