Are We Living in a Neuro-Culture?

It seems that everywhere I look nowadays, I’m seeing images of, or reading descriptions of, the brain in some shape or form. Sometimes the brain itself is the main focus of a book, movie, advertisement, public health campaign, blog, or news headline. For example, I’ve noticed the brain – or related terms such as ‘neuro’ or ‘mind’ – as the subject of interest in places such as Marco Roth’s piece on The Rise of the Neuronovel, films such as Minority Report and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, covers of popular public interest magazines, the purpose of computer games (‘train your brain!’), and the emergence and convergence of disciplines such as neuro-economics, neuro-ethics, neuro-anthropology, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-law, neuro-philosophy, and those which do not even start with ‘neuro’ (but nonetheless contain the word) such as socio-cognitive-neuroscience and psycho-neuro-endocrinology. Indeed, the field of neuroscience itself could be thought of as a set of disciplines devoted to the study of the mind/brain for years, which converged approximately mid-way through the 20th century.

To be completely transparent concerning the digital elephant in the virtual room, I am indeed cognitively biased on this topic (heck, I just used a brain term, er rather folk neuroscience): I am a graduate student intent on studying the ethics of the brain and the concept of a neuro-culture has been one that has sparked my interest in the last year or so. So yes, in many ways I am enmeshed in the field (sub-field? discipline? sub-discipline?) of neuroethics that is, perhaps, an effect of this so-called neuro-culture.

In an elegant Perspectives piece in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Giovanni Frazzetto and Suzanne Anker raise this very question. Actually, Frazzetto and Anker have initiated the Neuroculture Project which aims to examine how modern brain science has penetrated popular culture. Although they are specifically interested in studying the interaction of art and neuroscience, Frazzetto and Anker’s claim is that the assimilation of the neurosciences into our every day lives is having an impact on human social values and commercial practices. Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal have called the individual who fashions herself as being reducible to her brain a ‘cerebral subject’. Vidal has argued that personhood today is in fact being re-conceived as a ‘brainhood’ — an anthropological figure of modernity, to be precise. In other words, to quote my adviser Prof. Peter B. Reiner, it is the view that I am my brain. In that case, perhaps the neuroculture is affecting our everyday language concepts of how we describe our inner mental states. Maybe we are witnessing a slow erosion of our folk psychology and replacing our vocabulary with concepts from neuroscience (and somewhere the Churchland’s are smiling).

I won’t expand on the history and genealogy of how the neuroculture developed in this post, but I encourage keen readers to seek out a fantastic paper by Joelle Abi-Rached and Nikolas Rose called The Birth of The Neuromolecular Gaze, and much of Ortega and Vidal’s stimulating work on the cerebral subject and brainhood. These authors articulate this topic much better than I ever could. Now, even though I wasn’t so embedded in the study of applied/bio/medical/neuro ethics when the Human Genome Project was published in 2000, a brief glance at the literature and some of the popular discourse of the “genetic culture” at that time resembles what is being said now of the neuroculture. Declaration of the “molecular blueprint of life” was a major biocultural event, and similarly invaded popular culture, for instance, in movies such as Gattica. The rhetoric appears to be related to notions of individuality, which lead many critics of all stripes to a swift dismissal of genetic essentialism and adopt the party line of “you are not your genes”. We are seeing some of this dismissal occurring in the neuro discourse (e.g., Glannon, Our Brains Are Not Us). And so I wonder: Since the genetic-culture has come and gone, and we’ve entered the neuro-culture, what should we (if at all) expect next?

Hyper-linked References (Note: Some require subscription)

Abi-Rached & Rose (2010): The Birth of the Neuromolecular Gaze

Folk Psychology (theory) entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frazzetto & Anker (2009): Neuroculture

Glannon (2009): Our Brains are Not Us

Image Source: Who You Calling a Skeptic?

Neuroculture Project.

Roth: Rise of the Neuronovel

Vidal (2009): Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity


7 thoughts on “Are We Living in a Neuro-Culture?

  1. I’m quite sure that’s not a human brain in the picture. (No central sulcus, frontal lobes too narrow, temporal lobes too wide, medulla too wide and not tapered). Is it an elephant brain?

    Also, the cerebellum doesn’t look too nice.

    John Kubie
    Downstate Medical School

  2. No one ever mentions the fact that the “molecular blueprint of life” does not identify life, or that “the brain” does not identify personhood.

    Let’s think about it. How do I know that the ‘human’ genome is of a ‘human’? Yet we insist that these objects are sources of knowledge.

    My position is that all the claims and foundations of neurosciences, psychology, and evolutionary biology are so badly crafted as to amount to philosophical fraud. Virtually everything I read about these topics is science kitsch.

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  7. Hi there,

    This is a fascinating topic. I am looking to explore the concept of “folk neuroscience” and am trying to find empirical studies that try, in some way, to quantify it. Is it simply a collection of misconceptions about the brain, or is it a slightly more sophisticated oversimplifications?

    Isn’t it “Gattaca”?

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