A place of brain?

It’s often said that metaphors for the brain reflect the technological innovations of the day; from Descartes’ pneumatic system of hydraulic neural plumbing to the mechanical models of the Industrial Revolution, and marching on through signal-processing metaphors to the computer-brain of the late 20th century. More recently, a focus on dynamic networks in the brain has a metaphorical correlate in the ever-expanding complexity and interactivity of the World Wide Web. Although some computer programmers have taken inspiration from research on neural networks, this technological traffic has tended not to go in the other direction. But when it comes to conceptions of human nature, personhood, and responsibility, scientific views of the mind both reflect, and are reflected in, our culture and ‘folk’ thinking.

The grammatically cautious amongst you might notice that I’ve been careful to use ‘correlate’, ‘reflects’, and ‘accompanied’ – as historians often remind us, these kind of narratives are only one, linear thread in a complex weft of circumstance. Where you unpick the fabric affects how it unravels. So for example, recent interest in functional imaging of the adolescent brain to explore behavioural characteristics such as risk-taking, empathising, and impulsiveness has been cited in policy discussion, but also takes place against a background of increasing angst about a supposedly violent, disaffected youth.

This dialogue between different elements of our leaky scientific world and its cultural contexts has been studied in many different ways.  I’m particularly interested in what studying popular culture might reveal about how we’re absorbing, integrating, or challenging ‘neuroconcepts’. In a recent analysis of how functional brain images are represented in the media, I found many examples of a brain map being used as an iconic tool for mapping out different components of a particular domain. For example, a flyer for a book prize had one half of the brain flagged “fiction”, and the other flagged “non-fiction”, and an advert for Shell used a graphic in which different ‘brain regions’ represent different green technologies.

Daniel Buchman at the National Core for Neuroethics recently pointed out the example shown here – an advert for UBC’s Celebrate Research Week that features a simplified line-drawing of a brain, different anatomical regions flagged with various research domains. Entitled “What’s on your mind?”, and featuring the UBC motto “a place of mind” at the bottom, it seems to make a materialist statement: your mind = your brain. As Barthes famously argued, the meaning of an image can be extremely flexible, and words serve as anchors, tying down a string of possible meanings. Without the phrase “What’s on your mind?”, the brain might be seen as an abstract icon of the university, rather than drawing attention to the relation between each individual reader’s brain and mind. Similarly, without the picture, the meaning of “a place of mind” would be more open – I might think that UBC wants to highlight its intellectual prowess, or instead its holistic approach to ‘mental’ wellbeing.

Another useful tool for probing how meaning is produced by a combination of words and images it to change a single element, and observe the impact it has on which meanings are most obvious. So here, we might imagine that the text said “What’s on your brain?” instead of “What’s on your mind?” This would arguably make a stronger materialist statement, as the reader recalls the typical form of the phrase and is forced to explicitly equate brain with mind, rather than being invited to link the mind with a brain where it might in fact just live, supervene, or be reflected. Recent research suggests that even avowed materialists talk as if they were intuitive dualists; this kind of symbolic accommodation of mental stuff with neural landscapes is a comfortable if rather mushy place.

Scholars such as Beaulieu, Dumit, and Cohn have argued that this kind of ‘mind-in-the-brain’ appears to accommodate concepts such as love, religiosity, and empathy, but often at the expense of those features that can’t easily be spoken about in the language of neuroscience. Not only are they worried that the resulting picture will favour deterministic perspectives; from viewing mental illness as due to an irrevocably broken brain to legal cries of “my brain made me do it”, but also that it induces a cultural shift away from other disciplinary ways of understanding human nature. I find this advert particularly interesting because it plays (perhaps inadvertently) on the contested relation between different disciplines and the brain sciences; domains such as ‘artistic interventions’, ‘engineering innovations’, ‘community activism’, and ‘provocative cinema’ all have their own anatomical labels.

So how should we understand this advert? What is it trying to say, and what might people hear? One possibility is simply that the brain is a nice metaphor for a system with lots of different functions; just like a university with a diverse range of research departments. The connotations of being ‘brainy’ and cutting-edge might serve to reinforce the high quality of the research being celebrated, but the obvious mismatch between many of the labelled disciplines and the methods of neuroscience – brain scanning studies of quarks anyone? – removes any sinister undertones. We’d have to be rather paranoid about neuro-essentialism to imagine that UBC really plans to understand all these domains through a neuroscientific lens.

In this discussion I’ve been using some of the tools of semiotics; the formal study of how ‘signs’ make meaning. It’s easy to scoff at the semiotician’s tendency to read too much into a text, and too subjectively. But when approached with an awareness of its limitations, this kind of analysis can be a useful way to interrogate cultural phenomena that might have a subtle effect by themselves, but which over time can contribute to important shifts of perspective. The kind of metaphorical appropriation we see here – and in the flyer and advert I described earlier – could be seen as an ironic play on the brain-map-as-metaphor that simply reflects the ubiquity of brain images in our culture. But it could also be seen as reflecting an implicit assent to the idea that human phenomena can be located, defined, and best explored in this way. It would be interesting to test this kind of hypothesis by designing qualitative research that probes what people see in such images. But ultimately, understanding the flow of meaning requires patience and perspective; a balancing of the tension in different disciplinary warp threads.

To return finally to the two-way traffic between scientific metaphors and the societies that produce them, we might want to ask what UBC’s brain-map says about research priorities – is your department on there?!

And now for some links…

To read more about semiotics, try this introductory text, or go to Barthes’ originals – Mythologies is particularly fun.

For minds-in-brains, you might want to look at Anne Beaulieu’s thesis (and pubmed her other papers too) and this paper by Simon Cohn and Joseph Dumit’s Picturing Personhood are well worth a read.

For an example of how dualistic talk slips into materialists’ speech, look at some of Jesse Bering’s studies – and try avoiding it yourself for a couple of hours!

Finally, check out Daniel Buchman’s post on ‘neuroculture’ for more discussion of the feral movements of brain concepts and images, and the excellent set of links at the bottom.


2 thoughts on “A place of brain?

  1. it is so sad that western scientists refuse to study mystic traditions, where such questions have been looked at with great precision, for centuries ….. soooo much time would be saved, such better questions would be asked, better concepts researched, more precise language would become standardized (for mind, brain, awareness, consciousness, self) … but i know, you’d rather do it yourself. seems childish, frankly.

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