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. Continue reading

Café Neuroéthique is born

On Monday evening researchers from the National Core for Neuroethics decamped to The Railway Club in downtown Vancouver for the inaugural event of our new public engagement venture; ‘Café Neuroéthique’. Amongst the velvet drapes, smell of real ale, gig posters, and wooden carousel horses of one of the city’s oldest bars, a lively audience gathered to watch two short films exploring the experiences of a young man with psychopathy. The films were part of a series called Interior Traces (interiortraces.com), which explores how new ways of looking at the brain might change how we see ourselves – from brain scans that claim to ‘read the mind’, to genetic tests that predict future mental illness. As one of the writers of Interior Traces, and a visiting researcher at the Core, I was very excited to see how these British dramas would be received in Canada, and to hear the discussion that followed.

Café Neuroéthique is a new offshoot (or perhaps an adopted sibling) of the Café Scientifique movement. Café Sci groups exist all over the world, and aim to bring experts into informal discussion with the public; in Cafés, bars, theatres, or any other venue where we might find people putting the world to rights over a drink. In this sense, Café Scientifique can be thought of as part of a growing move to encourage public ‘engagement’ with science and technology, rather than trying simply to improve levels of understanding, or garner support for science funding. So Café Scientifique isn’t a lecture – invited experts sit amongst the audience, and after briefly describing their research or perspective, take a deep breath and wait for the conversation to begin. If all goes to plan, the attendees are able to elicit the information they want, and question its implications – often learning from each other as well as from the speaker.

So why another new Café on the high street of public engagement events? As regular readers will know, ‘Neuroethics’ refers to interdisciplinary research that explores the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience, and also to research on the neuroscience of moral and ethical reasoning. As such, talking to people about brain research – which often touches on fundamental questions about human nature, wellness, and identity – is a crucial part of the endeavour. And as a newly christened discipline with diverse and rowdy relatives, discussing Neuroethics is one way of testing the boundaries of the field, and exploring new branches in the family tree. It’s also a fertile ground for experimenting with different Café formats, such as using dramatic narratives as a stimulus for discussion, and debating the role and remit of experimental research. Continue reading