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The Brain, the Person, and the Social.

How Can STS Deal with Neuroscience Objects and Practices?


ReportonTrack19:STSApproachestoNeuroscienceObjectsandPractices.EASST010,Trento,14September2010
JohannesBruder(eikonesNCCRIconicCriticism,UniversityofBaselGraduateSchoolofSocialSciences,UniversityofLucerne)
Incorporatingthegeneralthemeofthe2010EASSTConferenceinTrento,thepanelonSTSApproachestoNeuroscienceObjectsandPracticeswasprimarily
concernedwiththesocialdimensionsofneuroscience.Focussingonthespecifichistoryandsociologyofneurologictermsandconceptsaswellasthe
instantiationsandpracticesthathavegivenrisetoandareenabledbythesesociotechnicalobjects,thepanelwasdesignedtoaccommodatetheentanglements
ofmatterandmeaningintheexistenceandconstantevolvingofthedisciplineanditsincreasingprominenceinbothscienceandsociety.
Acentralpointbothinpresentationsandgeneraldiscussionwasthemushroomingofneuroscientificapproachestosociality.Neuroeconomics,neuromarketing,
neuropedagogymanynewdisciplinesarecreatedthroughinterdisciplinaryresearchprojectstryingtoopentheultimateblackboxbyexplaininghumanand/or
socialbehaviourbiologically.Regardlessofwhetherthefunctioningofneuronalnetworks,neurochemicalsorbloodflowsisusedtodefinebrainactivity
biologicalsubstratesmakepsychicprocessesanalyzableandvisual.
Theemergenceofnewformsofknowledgedoesnot,however,automaticallyprivilegeonlytheneuroscientificside.Rather,theacquiredknowledgeisa
challengetoallinvolveddisciplines.Therebiologisationofthesocialworldinbioliberalismisaccompaniedbyasocialisationofneuroscience.While
neuroscientistsentertherealmofthesocial,computerscientistsredefinebrainactivitybyinscribingtheirengineeringknowledgeintechnicaldevicesusedto
researchthebrain.ForSTSscholarsthequestionariseswhethertocriticize,cooperateortocollaborate?
Obviously,thisquestioncanonlybeansweredstudyingindividualconstellationsinwhichtheboundariesamongsocialityandthenaturalornormalareblurred.
Whendoesmattermatter?
Oneofthosefieldsissocialneuroscience,focussingontheexplanatorypowerofneuronalprocessesinrespectofsocialinteraction.Byaskingwhathappens
inpeoplesbrainsinsocialsituationssocialbehaviourisnaturalizedandreducedtoempathy.Thedescriptionofhumansashomoempathicusisbasedon
evidenceinevolutionaryhistory:thesizeoftheneocortex,apparentlyresponsiblefortheinternalisationandfoundonlyinmammalsbrains,relatestothesize
ofasocialgroup.Sociality,therewith,isdefinedasnormalstate.Psychopathyasthelackofempathyisdefinedastheflipsideofsocialityaccordingly.
Comparably,manysocialmannersordisordersaredefinedinrecoursetoneuralsubstratesorneurochemicals.
Anotherexampleistheneuroeconomicsoftrust,affirmingthattrustisabasicfeatureofsocialitywhileassumingabiologicalbasisthatistobelocalizedat
themolecularlevel.But,iftrustisanormalstate,howcanoneconceivethattheneurotransmitteroxytocincausesasubstantialincreaseintrustamong
humans?Andwhatistherelationbetweenorgasms,trustandmaternalbehaviourlikeifoxytocinisassignedtoplayaveryimportantroleinallofthesebodily
mechanisms?
Whatisatstakehereisthedefinitionofthesocial.Distinctionsbetweenemotionality,socialityandrationalityareblurredbiologicallyinvolvingmanifold
technicaldevicesandprocedures.Especiallyinbrainimaging,sociotechnicalconstellationsareinvolvedinthereconstituitionofthesubjectasacerebral
subject.Or,evenbetter,thebiotechnicalcerebralsubject.
Consideringthebiotechnicalcerebralsubjectitisobviousthatnotonlythedefinitionofsocialityisatstakebutalsothedefinitionofthebrainandits
functioning.Bothdefinitionsheavilyrelyontechnicalassistance,especiallybrainimagingdevices.
(Functional)brainimagingandBrainComputerInterfaces(BCI)relyontheadjustmentofimagingdevices,software,researchersandsubjectstoproduce
workingimages.Workingimagesareimageswithoutartefacts,easytointerpretandprovidingasmuchinformationaspossible.Theuseofmodelsisnot
restrictedtosoftwarebutpresentinanyimagingsituation:standardizedbrainscanonlybeproducedbystandardizingprocedures.Thebiotechnicalcerebral
subject,therefore,isnotonlyaconceptualproblembutaresultofarelayofhumanandnonhumanagentsfollowingalgorithmicprocedures.Theboundaries
amongsubjectandobject,bodyandtechnologyareblurredintheinstanceofproducingimagesofthebrainorusingtheoutputofthebraintomoveacursor
overavirtualkeyboard.Nevertheless,neuroimagingismostlynotameanstodeconstructcategorieslikegenderbutratherusedtoreaffirmthesedistinctions.
Anevenmoreadvancedcaseofthesociotechnicalredefinitionofthesubjectisneurofeedback.ImagesofthebrainproducedwithrealtimefMRIareprojected
ontoadisplayinfrontofthesubjectwhocaninstantlywatchhisbrainworking.Althoughtheseimagesarearesultofadistinctconstellationasdescribed
above,neurofeedbackisconsideredtobeaclosedloopbetweenbrainandcomputerwhichcanhelptheindividualtoinfluencethefunctioningofherbrainon
thebasisofvisualizations.Thefactthatthesechangesarenotonlychangesinfunctionalitybutcanresultinstructuralchanges(brainplasticity)further
elaboratesthenotionofthebiotechnicalcerebralsubjectredefiningandreconstitutingthebrain,itself,andthehumaningeneral.
FollowingkeyresearcherslikeNormanDoidge,brainplasticityisoneofthemostextraordinarydiscoveriesofthetwentiethcentury.(Doidge2007)Ofcourse,
thisdiscoveryhasbeenquicklycapitalisedonintermsoftheneurologicalself,keepingtrackofthedevelopmentofherbrainandinvestingintrainingit.After
all,doallthesefindingsanddevelopmentshaverealrepercussionsinsociety?
Whiletheimpactofreportedfindingsinneuroscienceseemstobehuge,ineverydaylifeitobviouslydoesnotplayamajorroleforsocialrelationsortheself
managementofindividualssofar.FollowingastudyofMartynPickersgill,PaulMartinandSarahCunninghamBurley(forthcoming)teachersforexamplehavea
lackoftimefororinterestintheresearchonbrainplasticityiftheyareawareofit,theyratherignoreitsinceitcontradictssomeoftheirviews.The
neurobiologicalturn,therefore,doesnotseemtohavearrived.Rather,theprominenceofneuroscienceinpopularmediaseemstoberesultingfromavicious

circle:toattractfunding,researcherstendtoproduceeasilypublishableresults,includingeyecatchingvisualizationsandimages.Atthesametime,these
practicesreactuponthelaboratorypractices,encouragingresearchonnotsoneurologicallyrelevantbutpopularissues.
Theneurobiologicalturniscertainlynotacompleteturnaround,arevolution.Nevertheless,neurobiologisationandthecreationofthebiotechnicalcerebral
subjectarepartofacreepingevolution.Thediagnosticequipmentusedinpsychologystillprimarilyconsistsofoldfashionedinstruments(e.g.mooddiaries)
thatusecategorizationsandstatisticalmethodstostandardizeparticularfeelings,moodsandbehavioursintooneuniversaldiagnosis.Comparably,fMRIbased
liedetectionsoftwareisveryrarelyusedincourt.Nevertheless,problemsofneurobiologicalfindingsandtheirapplicationsneedtobetackledbeforetheyare
fullyestablished.Eventheoldfashionedinstrumentschangethesubjectbychangingtheirconductofliving.Furthermore,thediagnosticequipmentof
psychologyisalsousedasabasisforresearchonbraindiseases.Whensubjectsaretobeselectedforabrainimagingstudyonobsessivecompulsivedisorder
(OCD),thecriterionisadiagnosisbasedonthemostfamouspsychologicaltestforOCD,theYBOCS.Ifacourtconsidersusingliedetectionithastoquestion
thenotionthatthetruthishiddenunconsciouslyandbearthefactinmindthatliedetectionworksbestforconfessions.Unfortunately,theroleofmodels,
methods,andtechnicaldevicesisgenerallyunderestimated.Quitethecontrary:inneuromarketingandneuroeconomicstheassumptionofbeingabletoside
stephumansmessysubjectivity(Wells2008)andlettingbrainwavesspeakdirectlyoutweighstheawarenessoftheconstructednessofneuroscientific
knowledge.
Afterallthis,whatshouldSTSperspectivesonNeurosciencebelikecriticism,cooperation,orcollaboration?Consideringthediscussioninthepanelin
Trento,IthinkSTSperspectivesshouldbeveryflexibleandchangetheirrolesstrategically.STSwouldthenadapttothefunctioningofitsobjectwhich
consistsofnetworkswithinwhichtheobjectsofneurosciencearemingling.Thedefinitionofthesocialcannotbelefttoneurosciencealone.Itwouldlikewise
benegligenttoclaimsovereigntyforsocialsciencesintherealmofthesocial.Rather,STSshouldconstantlywatchandanalyzethedevelopmentandevolution
ofneuroscienceobjectsandpracticestobereadytointerveneinneurobiologisation.Whethertocriticise,cooperateorcollaboratehastobeasituational
decision.Staytuned,STS!
PanelOrganizers:
AndyBalmer(Sheffield)
DesFitzgerald(London)
MartynPickersgill(Edinburgh)
Participants:
JohannesBruder(Basel/Lucerne)
ChoonKeyChekar(Cardiff)
LottaHautamki(Helsinki)
TorstenHeinemann(Frankfurt)
PimKlaasen(Amsterdam)
PaulMartin(Nottingham)
SvenjaMatusall(Zrich)
SigridSchmitz(Vienna)
TanjaSchneiderandSteveWoolgar(Oxford)

References
Doidge,Norman.2007.TheBrainthatChangesItself:StoriesofPersonalTriumphfromthefrontiersofbrainscience.NewYork.
Pickersgill,M.D.,CunninghamBurley,S.andMartin,P.(forthcoming2011)ConstitutingNeurologicSubjects:Neuroscience,Subjectivity,andtheMundane
SignificanceoftheBrain,Subjectivity(specialeditiononNeuroscienceandSubjectivity)
Wells,Jennifer.2008.TheBrainGuywantstogetinsideyourhead:Areyoupayingattention?Areyouengaged?Areyourememberingwhatyousee?
http://www.neurofocus.com/pdfs/TorontoGlobe_Bob.pdf.

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