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Negotiating neuroscience: LeDouxs "dramatic ensemble"

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Abstract

Some argue we now live in a “brain society” in which our subjectivity is increasingly mediated through neurological discourses. Unless we are to surrender neuroscience to neoliberal colonisation, we need to articulate effective forms of engagement with this discipline. One route is to read mainstream neuroscience texts for resistances they offer to the homo economicus. Instead of a terrain that inevitably leads to neoliberal conclusions, we find a materiality in excess of dubious ideological circumscriptions. In this article we engage with Joseph LeDoux’s notion of the self as a “dramatic ensemble,” where the self is a vulnerable, constantly reiterated achievement marked by the partial and passing play of dominances. Simultaneously, however, LeDoux undermines this account by evoking a traditional notion of the self. This play of tensions is articulated and an argument is made to privilege a subjectivity which both resists LeDoux’s flight from his own implications and neoliberal assumptions of subjectivity.
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Negotiating Neuroscience: LeDoux’s ‘dramatic ensemble’
Clifford van Ommen
Centre for Psychology, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
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Vasi van Deventer
Department of Psychology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Abstract
Some argue that we now live in a “brain society” in which our subjectivity is increasingly
mediated through neurological discourses. Unless we are to surrender neuroscience to
neoliberal colonisation, we need to articulate effective forms of engagement with this
discipline. One route is to read mainstream neuroscience texts for resistances they offer to the
homo-economicus. Instead of a terrain that inevitably leads to neoliberal conclusions, we find a
materiality in excess of dubious ideological circumscriptions. In this article we engage with
Joseph LeDoux’s notion of the self as a dramatic ensemble, where the self is a vulnerable,
constantly reiterated achievement marked by the partial and passing play of dominances.
Simultaneously, however, LeDoux undermines this account by evoking a traditional notion of
the self. This play of tensions is articulated and an argument made to privilege a subjectivity
which both resists LeDoux’s flight from his own implications and neoliberal assumptions of
subjectivity.
Key Words: Critical neuroscience, différance, neural subjectivity, neuroculture, neoliberal
subjectivity
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Introduction
One and a half decades after the ‘Decade of the Brain’, the well-known 1990s brain research
initiative by the US’s Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health, we find
ourselves in the midst of a proliferation of neuro-centred disciplines, establishing what some
call a neuroculture (Vidal & Ortega, 2012). This turn to neuroscience constitutes more than a
significant development in the academy since its influence can be traced throughout society
(Bluhm, Jacobson, & Maibom, 2012; Choudhury & Slaby, 2012; Dumit, 2003; Rose, 2007,
2013). Since this neurologic now criss-crosses, especially liberal democratic, societies it can be
claimed that we currently live in a ‘brain society’ (Lux & van Ommen, this edition) and a
‘biological age’ (Rose, 2013). In such a society, subjectivity is increasingly conceptualised in
neurological terms establishing, what Rose (2003, 2007) calls, the neurochemical self. This
generally refers to a somatic individuality where we increasingly understand, speak about, and
act upon ourselves and others as biological beings. For some this makes for a radical departure
from previous self-conceptualisations where work in the neurosciences and genetics have
brought about new forms of personhood in the 21st century (Rose, 2013). More specifically,
the neurochemical self refers to the biological citizen which actively monitors its health and in
unrelenting fashion acts upon itself in a constant process of modification and self-improvement
(Rose, 2003). Notable, however, in this specific form of the homo biologicus is its similarity to
the neoliberal subject, the homo economicus (Read, 2009) - or what others, wanting to
rhetorically distance themselves from the classic rational economic subject inherent in this
latter notion, have called the homo consumeris (Pykett, 2013). This is not surprising, given that
this subject forms part of the larger sociopolitical context within which the biological form is
articulated; in both cases the autonomous individual is called on to engage in a continuous
process of self-monitoring and self-understanding and to then exercise its freedom to choose by
taking responsibility for any revealed limitations (specified by science or the market) in a
process of self-development (Gavey, 2012; Read, 2009; Rose, 2007).
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The response to this biological turn or ‘neurorevolution’ in both the social sciences and
society has been met with a diverse set of responses amongst those with sociopolitical
concerns, namely, rejection, utilisation, collaboration/negotiation, and critique. Aside from
biological determinism, engagement with the biological sciences requires dealing with, what
Cromby (2004, p. 4) refers to, as the ‘troubling spectres’ of reductionism, essentialism,
dualism, and individualism. The risk of possession by living in this house of ghosts is enough
to motivate many to head for the doors. However, given the biological sciences’ ubiquity,
status and its utilisation by exploitative, neoliberal, conservative and sensationalist forces,
outright rejection has been deemed problematic (Rose, 2013; Wilson, 1998). So has simple
utilisation where the conceptual and contextual specificity of neuroscience research has often
not been rigorously understood (Papoulias & Callard, 2010).
Others have argued for a collaborative engagement with neuroscientists so as to
influence the conceptualisation and direction of ongoing research. For example, Choudhury
and Slaby (2012) and Rose (2013, p. 24) have argued for a ‘critical friendship’; one that moves
beyond the alternatives of celebratory embrace and dogmatic rejection but rather strives to
work both inside and outside the parameters of neuroscience. This collaborative strategy has
not been without its criticism: Vidal and Ortega (2012, p. 362) state that neuroscience diverts
‘enormous financial and human resources from action and thought in social and psychological
arenas where they would have a greater chance of making a difference’, whilst Kraus (2012, p.
210) argues that the role of a critical neuroscience is not to act as arbitrating ‘middle men’ or
‘expert spokespersons’ but to encourage political change by undertaking the ‘fundamentally
democratic function’ of intensifying engagements and disagreements.
In the midst of these attempts at and debates about engagement, the work of critique
continues. For example, neurofeminism’s interrogation of neuroscience’s conceptualisations
has identified cases where it not only fails according to its own standards (Grossi & Fine,
2012) but where it reformulates the same old oppressive matrices (Bluhm, 2012). Kirmayer
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and Gold (2012) have also identified neuroscience’s ideological value for concealing the
wrongs of contemporary society. This problematic pursuit of neurological accounts is not
restricted to Western countries but, in a time of globalised neoliberal capitalism, is brought to
bear on populations across the globe including, for example, the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya
(Haushofer & Fehr, 2014). Here researchers attempt to render poverty comprehensible in
cognitive neuroscientific terms. Alas these are terms regressive, futile and conformist, since
they render this profound social problem in individualist and psychological terms, and thus
produce an account both culturally relative and ecologically invalid (Alefaio-Tugia, Carr,
Hodgetts, Mattson & van Ommen, 2015). Thus we are caught in an academic storm which
generates significant amounts of brain research with dubious consequences. In the midst of this
tempest how do we then undertake the unavoidable task of negotiation where we run the risk of
debilitating contamination or pacifying institutionalisation in the form of some new
subdiscipline such as critical neuroscience (van Ommen, 2013)? The notion of generation may
be of some utility here.
The word ‘generation’ can be traced back to the Latin term, ‘generāre’, which means
‘to beget’, that is, to produce, cause, or create (Dictionary.com, 2015). Taking a second
meaning into consideration, that of ‘generation’ as referring to people born and living during
the same period of time, we ask in this article what the possibility is, in this time of the ‘brain
society’, of generating alternative understandings of the neurological body that manage to
sidestep the aforementioned conservative outcomes? Drawing especially on the work of
Elizabeth Wilson (1998, 2004), we demonstrate that one route for making this possible is
through the close reading of mainstream neuroscience. In this process of determining the
claims and contradictions inherent in particular texts, we keep in constant view the question of
what these readings offer in terms of resistances to contemporary oppressions, specifically for
challenging portrayals of subjectivity as autonomous, self-regulating and rational which are
treated as natural by those supporting neoliberal agendas (Gavey, 2012). By navigating the
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world of empirical science and factual statements, where the reality of interpretation is often
minimised or considered elsewhere (Wilson, 1998), the strategy of close reading can reveal the
interpretive moment and ask how the generation of alternatives are both opened up and closed
down in the very same text.
Wilson (2004, p. 27) argues that it is through careful attention to specificities that ‘the
unavoidable, unsettling, difficult to resolve character of neurology is articulated…’ What is
revealed is a materiality with tendencies that are difficult to reconcile with deterministic
models of neural activity. Furthermore, she (2004, p.16) states that ‘close attention to
neurological detail need not be at the expense of critical innovation or political efficacy’.
Referring to feminism’s then tendency to consider neurological theories precarious and
essentially an oppressive discursive regime, Wilson (1998, p. 16) highlights the operation of
the social/biological binary operative in this critical school where ‘the final word… must
always lie in the domain of social and cultural analysis’. Against such a backdrop her claim
that emancipatory and theoretical advances may well be found in the typically reductionist
hinterland of neuroscience remains provocative.
Given this faith in the utility of close examinations, we follow suit by paying attention
to the intricate concern with the micro-particulars of neural processes articulated by Joseph
LeDoux in his book, Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are (2002). LeDoux, a
prominent neuroscientist, directly engages with neurochemistry and the micro-details of
various neural circuits. This concern with specificities is not a directionless obsession, for it is
through such attention that LeDoux (2002, p. ix) builds his justification for his ‘bottom-line
point’: ‘“You are your synapses”’. His ambition is then to provide ‘a synaptic explanation of
the self’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. ix). In this article we explore one avenue of possibility close
attention to LeDoux’s micro-attention opens up for understandings of the (neural) body that
resist current dominant claims about the nature of the subject.
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Why LeDoux?
In a burgeoning discipline such a neuroscience which includes many respected academic
‘personalities’, we need to justify our choice of focussing on a particular work by a particular
neuroscientist. In terms of research focus, Joseph LeDoux indicates on the Centre of Neural
Science website that his laboratory’s research is ‘aimed at understanding the biological
mechanisms of emotional memory’ with a particular interest in ‘how the brain learns and stores
information about danger’. Central to this is the mapping of neural pathways (circuits),
specifically those involving the amygdala, the central neural structure in LeDoux’s research
and his theoretical work.
LeDoux became known beyond the confines of this area with the 1996 publication of
The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Along with Damasio’s
Descartes’ error (1994) and Panksepp’s Affective neuroscience (1998) this book contributed to
the sedimentation of the so-called ‘turn to affect’ in cognitive neuroscience. Papoulias and
Callard (2010) identify LeDoux as one of the neuroscientists most often cited by cultural
theorists. In philosophy, it is The emotional brain, which is referred to in Bennett and Hacker’s
(2003) critical analysis of logic in the neurosciences, the Philosophical foundations of
neuroscience, where LeDoux’s work is considered alongside that of Damasio, Edelman,
Gazzaniga and other prominent neuroscientists
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. This text has also been referred to by those in
the social sciences, specifically those concerned with embodiment, such as Cromby (2007) and
Wilson (2004). Wilson (2004, p. 94) in particular engages with LeDoux’s ideas as expressed in
The emotional brain in terms of the promise they hold for ‘feminists to work much more
productively with neurological and evolutionary data’.
Less overtly celebrated than its predecessor, Synaptic self is broader in scope. LeDoux
(2002, p. ix) states that with Synaptic self his aim was to write a text that is ‘clear to lay readers
and at the same time not insulting to other scientists…’ He claims success in writing an in-
between text, one addressed at both the academy and brain society, although his discourse is
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notable for its detail and terminology both in terms of neurochemical processes and historical
detail. In a way LeDoux’s text reads like a history book, although it is then a celebratory
historiography which provides an account of his discipline’s progress towards truth, that is, it is
an optimistic progress report (Richards, 2002). In similar celebratory terms, LeDoux and the
book are acknowledged as significant by Damasio, Goleman, and Schacter on the inner sleeve.
Thus, despite now being more than a decade old, this text represents a significant moment by a
salient researcher where an attempt is made to integrate the disciplines of psychology and
neuroscience in conceptualising the subject. The focus here, as with the majority of the
aforementioned analyses, is on a single text by LeDoux. This is because, as indicated, this is an
attempt by LeDoux to integrate his research and provide an account of the self and,
methodologically, that reading closely relies on tracing the claims and contradictions inherent
within the confines of this particular attempt to provide a coherent account.
LeDoux’s Synaptic Self
In Synaptic self, LeDoux summarises his position on the self through the delineation of seven
principles which are briefly discussed here so as to allow a deeper appreciation of the argument
in the latter part of this article. The first principle describes the intimate relationship between
the brain and the extra-neural: The brain, consisting of a multiplicity of functionally and
physically distinct neural structures, by being embedded in the same environment and acting
synchronously and in parallel, learns and stores ‘different aspects of a single experience’
(LeDoux, 2002, p. 308)
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. As a result of being implanted in this common and enduring
environment, ‘a shared culture develops and persists among the systems, even if they never
communicate directly’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 310, emphases added).
Synaptic plasticity (malleability) and the co-ordination and integration of activity
across the multiplicity of neural cells, circuits and systems are core concerns for LeDoux. He
accentuates Hebbian plasticity (where, according to Hebb’s rule, concurrent activity in pre- and
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postsynaptic cells results in the strengthening of the connection between such cells) where
simultaneously active cells are subsequently bound together in the event of the same or a
comparable stimulus. LeDoux also emphasises the monoamines; chemicals produced in a
variety of brainstem groups that mediate the effects of the primary neurotransmitters. One
effect of these molecules is to facilitate synaptic plasticity ‘allowing the whole experience to be
stored at once, albeit across multiple systems’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 315).
More spatially specific than the aforementioned general processes, LeDoux (2002)
identifies convergence zones in the brain (e.g., the prefrontal cortices) where information from
the various systems are integrated. Activity in zones feeding into convergence zones facilitates
plasticity (and thus the integration of information) in the latter. Convergence zones provide a
‘kind of unity of experience’ (integration) in contrast to the ‘bits and pieces’ of other ‘lower
connection’ regions (LeDoux, 2002, p. 318). They are thus core to the establishment (‘self-
assembly’) of ‘the coherent personality of the human being’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 315).
Significantly, the relationship between the convergent and other zones is reciprocal in
that the former have an efferent action on the sites providing afferent connections.
Consequently, the ‘more or less’ automatic bottom-up assembling processes described above
are distinguished from top-down processes which can direct, enhance and suppress activity via
‘downward causation’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 319). Referring expressly to working memory, which
LeDoux (2002, p. 319) equates to consciousness, thought is understood as a ‘pattern of
synaptic transmission within a network of brain cells…’ For us, this formulation stresses a
material-functional intimacy; thought emerges from neural activity and there is thus no radical
distinction between mind and materiality. In a way consciousness is the experience, or the
‘being inside’ of material process. Thought is capable of enhancing the plasticity of other
networks and, since it is related to consciousness, this indicates the agency of the organism:
‘the way we think about ourselves can have powerful influences on the way we are, and who
we become’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 320).
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Core to LeDoux’s (2002, p. 320) conceptualisation in Synaptic self are emotion
systems: ‘Emotional states monopolise brain resources’ and therefore play a key role in the
organisation of brain activity. The routes of this influence are diverse: These systems can
activate brainstem modulatory systems and, in particular, the amygdala can influence
cognition, specifically perception (the cortical sensory areas), thought (associated with the
prefrontal cortices) and the formation of explicit memories (associated with the hippocampus
and surroundings areas). In addition, there are more indirect routes, such as the feeling of
bodily sensations and the impact of hormones on neural activity. The activation of emotional
systems implies generally greater arousal which increases the possibility of coordinated
learning across systems. Thus integration features here: ‘By coordinating parallel plasticity
throughout the brain, emotional states promote the development and unification of the self’
(LeDoux, 2002, p. 322).
Finally, LeDoux also draws a distinction between implicit (unconscious) and explicit
(conscious) systems. For LeDoux (2002, p. 26), the ‘self’ should not be equated with
consciousness but rather refers to the ‘totality of the living organism’, which ‘subsumes the
idea of personality’ which is aligned with consciousness. This totality would therefore include
both implicit and explicit aspects. This distinction then allows for the existence of schisms:
‘Sometimes the things learned explicitly are not the things that were focussed on by the
implicit systems…’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 322). Implicit and explicit systems are not necessarily
aligned and can therefore potentially stand in a relation of contradiction to each other.
Furthermore, for LeDoux, the dominance or influence of any system is always partial,
temporary, and incomplete. Significantly, for the argument provided in this article, the nature
of these relationships between various systems creates a tension with LeDoux’s concern with
integration and coherence.
LeDoux is especially concerned with temporal consistency and spatial integration
because, for him, these lie at the heart of the ‘self’. He asks: ‘How does a person with a
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coherent personality a fairly stable set of thoughts, emotions, and motivations ever
emerge?’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 304). ‘What makes them work together, rather than as an unruly
mob?’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 304). The notion of a coherent personality that is a central concern
for LeDoux has been critiqued, in part due to it being a concept that finds its ascendancy and
dominance within a Western cultural history (Burr, 1995; Cromby, 2007). Here we, however,
would like to sustain our close reading and stay within the logic of LeDoux’s answer.
For LeDoux (2002) the solution lies in two constants; the stability of the external
environment and the universality of synaptic processes. With the former, as noted earlier,
internal identity emerges due to exposure to external consistency; an internal ‘culture’ develops
and is shared by various systems due to these being exposed to the same external
circumstances. With the latter, synaptic processes are seen to establish a universal form of
communication, meaning that human brains all operate in the same rudimentary way. These
synapses, varying in ‘strength’ based on their histories of activity, establish ‘communities of
cells that work together to achieve a particular goal’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 40). The intimacy
between this synaptic network and the self cannot be overemphasised for ‘when connections
change, personality too, can change’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 307). This however means that the
coherence of this structure is based on the delicacy and fickleness of the synaptic connection:
That the self is so fragile an entity is disconcerting. At the same time, if the self
can be disassembled by experiences that alter connections, presumably it also
can be reassembled by experiences that establish, change or renew connections
(LeDoux, 2002, p. 307).
We can note here then that the vulnerability and plasticity of the synaptic connection
are (literally) cast together; disassembly and reassembly can be read as entwined processes, as
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two sides of the same coin; each resulting in the alteration of what emerges, each involved in
the process of destruction/construction.
Following from the above, LeDoux’s (2002, p. 31) self is a ‘totality of what an
organism is physically, biologically, psychologically, socially, and culturally’, and he indicates
that ‘[t]hough it is a unit, it is not unitary’. He however explains the latter reductively at the
level of the brain; ‘different components of the self reflect the operation of different brain
systems, which can be but are not always in sync’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 31). Consequently,
quoting the painter Paul Klee, LeDoux refers to the self as a ‘“dramatic ensemble”’ and, later,
as a ‘complex constellation’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 31).
Klee’s phrase can be found in entry 638 of the 1964 translation of his diaries, where he
asserts that the individual is a living being; an organism comprised of elementary things that
are both distinct and inseparable. This indivisibility is fundamental since, for Klee, separation
not only destroys the unity or organism but the identity of the very components themselves,
that is, identity is not intrinsic to an element or organism but emerges from the relationships
between the components, a notion that is also echoed in Marx’s philosophy of internal relations
(Ollman, 2003) and Derrida’s (1982) notion of différance. In the entry, Klee describes a verbal
and gestural dialogue between various characters, both familial and other. Klee’s attempted
illustration of his previous claim however falls short since it resorts to distinct memories and
thus does not capture the mutual dependence of these ‘voices’ upon each other. Furthermore,
despite a ‘sharpened pencil’, the author seems stunned into inactivity and the “I” of the author
is positioned as somehow outside of this loose congregation, looking on and trying to find
expression through this multitude. LeDoux does not resort to the metaphor of voices but he
does, through using Klee’s “dramatic ensemble”, attempt to express the tension between the
multiple and the singular and (through reciprocity) the mutual constitution of both. However,
despite his emphasis on this reciprocity, his primary concern (as we shall see) is with the
emergence of the unity from the multiple.
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For LeDoux (2002, p. 32) rather than the brain remaining a ‘collection of isolated metal
functions’, it is through this “dramatic ensemble”, this interacting and mutually dependent
multiplicity of systems, that mental integration and coherence is produced. As noted above,
what makes such cooperation and interaction possible are synaptic processes (the interactions
in inter-neuron connections). So for LeDoux (2002, p. 357) a tension is set up between this
multiplicity and the achievement of a coherence (or singularity) of alarming vulnerability; his
question then being ‘how the diversity is coped with in the process of keepings one’s self
together’. In the next section we discuss LeDoux’s distinction between the conscious and
unconscious; a division that undermines any simplistic claim to a static or rational subject.
The play of dominations across a divided brain
Early on in Synaptic self, LeDoux (2002) considers several conceptualisations of the person
and self and concludes that what is left out in all of these are the unconscious facets. He points
out how Descartes equated the mental to consciousness resulting in an impoverished notion of
mind which has since infiltrated both psychology and neuroscience. Instead, LeDoux argues,
the self is a living totality which includes the personality, which is equated to consciousness.
Not only does this definition of the self then include unconscious processes but LeDoux (2002,
p. 23, emphasis in original) also grants this multiplicity primacy: ‘consciousness depends on
unconscious cognitive processes’.
Unconscious operation of the brain is… the rule rather than the exception
throughout the evolutionary history of the animal kingdom. It’s a linguistic
quirk, or a revealing cultural assumption, that the older (unconscious) processes
are defined as negations of the newer one (consciousness). Language isn’t
perfect. (LeDoux, 2002, p. 11)
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Thus the unconscious cannot simply be considered the other (the negation) of
consciousness. Instead consciousness can be thought of as a ‘product of underlying cognitive
processes’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 191), where consciousness is equated with the contents of
working memory, associated with the cortex (specifically, the prefrontal lobes). Experience is
then comprised of the products of the processing zones that are linked to the prefrontal cortex.
LeDoux thus aligns with a tradition, which includes Nietzsche and Freud, which
decentres consciousness and locates the unconscious as the grounds for its emergence,
although LeDoux (2002, p. 28) explicitly distances himself from Freud’s ‘theoretical baggage’.
Ignoring here Young’s (2012) propensity for language laden with mereological fallacy, he
argues that neuroscience’s renewed interest in the unconscious differs from earlier versions by
being based methodologically on functional neuro-imaging which is located in the new
conceptual object of the social brain; that is, an object based in evolutionary theory, that
enables the detection of others’ intentions and feelings, and which makes decisions without us
being consciousness of these.
For LeDoux the self is a unit which is not static but typified by constant change, and is
the product of both genetic and learning processes. At its core, lies the conscious/unconscious
binary, referred to as the explicit and implicit:
The implicit aspects of the self… are all the aspects of who we are that are not
immediately available to consciousness, either because they are by nature
inaccessible, or because they are accessible but not being accessed at the
moment. (pp. 27-28)
Although the latter phrase bears a resemblance to Freud’s notion of the preconscious,
LeDoux distances himself from Freud’s notion of the unconscious as the domain of the
repressed. Instead the physicality of the brain is divided into ‘systems that are able to store
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specific kinds of information implicitly’ and systems that constitute the ‘explicit aspects of the
self’ (p. 28). It is through these two types of systems that the self is maintained.
For LeDoux, the subcortical constitutes the ‘low road’, the path that does not include
the neocortex (the ‘high road’) and therefore consciousness. The ‘low road’ is differentiated
from the ‘high road’ in that the former is quicker allowing it to initiate a reaction based on a
crude analysis of a stimulus, whilst the latter, acting more slowly and consciously, can provide
a more detailed analysis of a situation confirming or altering the initial interpretation made
implicitly.
As mentioned earlier, LeDoux (2002, p. 323, emphases added) indicates that there is a
schism that further divides the various systems of the brain, which he characterises as a play of
dominances which are always partial and temporary:
Through explicit systems, we try to wilfully dictate who we are, and how we
will behave. But we are only partially effective in doing so, since we have
imperfect conscious access to emotional systems. In spite of their importance,
though, emotion systems are not always active and have only episodic influence
on what other brain systems learn and store. Furthermore, because there are
multiple independent emotion systems, the episodic influence of any one system
is itself but a component of the total impact of emotions on self-development.
We would here like to pick up on two points in the above quote; the first is the
emphasis on emotion and the other is the description of conscious access as ‘imperfect’.
LeDoux’s elucidation of the first carefully establishes the episodic dominance of the implicit,
whilst his use of ‘imperfect’, we will argue, attempts a simplistic inversion of such a dynamic
reading of the brain. The next section will detail the first point, which will be followed in the
next section by a discussion of the second point, which presents the core of our argument.
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The architecture created by emotion
Amongst the various subcortical systems are those associated with emotional functions.
Countering the hypothesis of one general emotional system, the so-called limbic system theory,
LeDoux (2002) provides evidence for the existence of multiple emotional neural systems, such
as the fear and sex circuits. As noted earlier, for LeDoux the influence of these emotional
systems should not be underestimated since activation of these systems significantly affects
cognitive processing to the point that such arousal significantly coordinates or structures brain
activity. Since LeDoux draws on a tripartite model of the mind (cognition, emotion and
motivation), motivation is also then subservient to the rule of emotion. However, as with
cognition, its position is never one of simple subjugation since for LeDoux it occupies a
betwixt role, a positioning captured by the comment that the nucleus accumbens, a central
neural structure in motivation, ‘sits at the crossroads of emotion and movement’ (LeDoux,
2002, p. 247). The motive circuit as described by LeDoux has the appearance of a conduit, a
tool of emotion, described as the neural route by means of which emotional stimuli guide
behaviour towards goals. It is the emotional systems, through innate and learned associations,
which coordinate the information processing within and between the various brain systems so
that a particular behaviour becomes probable.
The hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala are core structures in LeDoux’s
(2002) neural landscape which he considers as critical to understanding human nature and
behaviour. Given this broader context, LeDoux’s primary research interest is fear and the
structure most centrally associated with it; the subcortically located amygdala. Across Synaptic
self LeDoux describes the intricacies of various circuits and, in the process, presents the reader
with a complex diagram of interconnections and excitatory and inhibitory influences. Amongst
these it is the amygdala’s structure that is most thoroughly excavated. LeDoux describes,
through reference to various experiments and observations, how the amygdala was identified as
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the vital link in the learning of fear reactions. For example, the amygdala accentuates the
consolidation of explicit memories during emotional arousal so that these recollections tend to
be detailed and durable. Significantly, however, one could undergo implicit learning to stimuli
that have not been explicitly (consciously) experienced. Thus, through the amygdala, ‘emotion
comes to monopolise consciousness, at least in the domain of fear, when the amygdala comes
to dominate working memory’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 226). This domination takes many forms
which LeDoux describes in detail, in this way bolstering his point that the influence of the
amygdala, as emblem of the subcortical and implicit, is ubiquitous though not necessarily
omnipresent. The important point we would like to retain here for our argument is that it also
reveals a neural landscape which is always biased, always under the influence, where there is
no pure (non-emotional) perception in that only translation (transformation, emotional
colouration) exists.
To further demonstrate this point; the notion of ‘stress’ is salient in LeDoux’s (2002)
schema. The term is not directly defined in the text, its ubiquity in common parlance probably
assumed to make this unnecessary. In terms of the physiological description provided in
LeDoux’s text it refers to a particular chain of biochemical reactions in response to the
experience of events, such as feeling overwhelmed by environmental demands. We would
argue that in neuroscience the term functions as a general description for a plethora of
distressing, traumatic and oppressive environmental and socio-cultural events, practices, and
contexts, reducing the sociopolitical nature of these ‘stressors’ to the fairly amorphous
‘stimulus’. This allows neuroscience to unproblematically explore related corporeal responses,
as well as to identify individualised resiliencies, without the project being sullied by socio-
political contaminants and alliances. However, of critical interest and as will now be made
clear, the detail revealed by LeDoux’s acontextual (reductionist) investigation into this generic
responsiveness indicates a soma prone to patterns that decentre consciousness and agency.
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As indicated previously, the amygdala’s central nucleus can trigger a complicated chain
of responses. In the case of emotional arousal it can stimulate the hypothalamus which then
releases corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) which affects the pituitary gland which
discharges adrenocorticotrophin hormone which travels to the adrenal gland that in turn
releases cortisol hormone. Ideally this then causes the hippocampus to stop the release of CRF
by the hypothalamus thus regulating the amygdala’s response. Chronic exposure to cortisol,
due to chronic stress, may however impair the functioning of the hippocampus (via glucose
depletion and subsequent glutamate sensitivity), and so severely compromise the formation of
explicit memories. Also negatively affected are the prefrontal cortices, this impairing working
memory and the various executive functions facilitated by this structure, such as decision
making. In fact, prolonged exposure can cause hippocampal cells to degenerate and die and
discontinues neurogenesis. In the stress situation the amygdala’s function is however
accentuated and the fear response is amplified. As a consequence information concerning the
stressful situation is mostly stored implicitly:
The bad news is that if we don’t know what it is we are learning about, those
stimuli might on later occasions trigger fear responses that will be difficult to
understand and control, and can lead to pathological rather than adaptive
consequences (LeDoux, 2002, p. 225).
Here the split between the implicit and explicit and the significant influence of emotion
is made vividly manifest. To state it in different terms, consciousness, as agency (‘downward
causation’) and as explicit recollection (episodic and declarative memory), is actively
excluded, leaving it alienated from the implicit systems whose learning may only be made
mysteriously and anonymously visible to our consciousness on some later occasion, in
18
hindsight. In this example the materiality and implications of the effects of environmental
trauma and oppression is demonstrated.
LeDoux provides further empirical evidence of both the dynamic nature of the brain
and the subcortex’s significant role in the structuring of the neocortex: In a process referred to
as interleaved learning, explicit memories are initially stored via synaptic changes in the
hippocampus. Each reoccurrence of the situation however results in a hippocampal
‘reinstatement’ where each such ‘reinstatement changes cortical synapses a little’ (LeDoux,
2002, p. 107). The slow rate of consolidation of the cortex is seen as necessary since it prevents
interference with previously consolidated memories. Eventually, however, the cortical
representation becomes autonomous of the hippocampus. This process is referred to as the
‘nomadic memory hypothesis’ and involves the ‘slow interleaving of information into cortical
networks’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 107). In line with this, multiple learning trials spread over time
(‘spaced training’) is found to be more effective than several trials in quick succession
(‘massed training’) (LeDoux, 2002, p. 171). Thus, as the political scientist, William Connolly
(2002), in his analysis of the implications of neuroscience for understanding society, notes; the
neural lies spread across different temporalities as different structures work at dissimilar rates
allowing diverse strengths and limitations (e.g., fast hippocampal coarse fickleness versus slow
cortical detailed permanence). We will pick up on this again later as it provides a point of
resistance to neoliberal claims of the versatile subject.
Furthermore, responses not only migrate across the brain but the circuits involved
change over time. That is, once an emotional response has become cortically entrenched, the
neural circuits involved in the enabling of such a response become simplified as previously
involved subcortical structures ‘drop out’ of circuits (LeDoux, 2002). LeDoux provides several
empirically grounded subcortical examples of this process, including the amygdala, the nucleus
accumbens and the hippocampus. For us, what is interesting about this discourse describing the
relationship between the subcortical and cortical is that it positions the former as the teacher of
19
the latter; a mentoring structure that supports the cortex until, through numerous repetitions
and across time, the slower structure has fully integrated the response. Important though is that
this mentorship is not unique to the subcortex; the cortically-located working memory (site of
consciousness) may be involved in the learning of new habits which ‘only later, once
routinised, [are] sent to the depths of the mind’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 257). The distinction
between the subcortex and cortex is thus undermined by a mentorship process that cuts across
this implicit/explicit model of the brain.
In summary, we have multiple systems which instantiate response patterns that
undermine rigid subcortical/cortical and unconscious/conscious distinctions, response patterns
that migrate across neural space with repeated exposure to specific external stimuli, systems
that proceed at different temporal rates, and systems in dynamic relationships of domination
and subjugation where if one system is active, the other systems tend to be inhibited (LeDoux,
2002). LeDoux (2002, p. 322) points out that this has consequences for the self that develops;
for example, the domination of fear systems instead of ‘positive systems’ in early development
will result in a personality ‘characterised by negativity and hopelessness rather than affection
and optimism’. Here we would like to emphasise that this points to the instrumentality of the
surrounding context in the sculpting of the general propensities of the embodied subject and, as
propensities, these are response patterns that are not subsequently instantly modifiable.
The ‘En Route’ Brain
LeDoux repeatedly illustrates the dominance of the subcortical, specifically the emotional
systems, in learning processes. Bearing in mind the aforementioned point that binary
distinctions are simplistic readings of spatially and temporally complex neural processes, these
examples generally indicate the domination of emotion over cognition, the subcortical over the
cortical, and of unconscious processes over consciousness. For the purpose of our argument we
20
would like to focus on another particular instance where this clear depiction of a split body-
subject comes undone:
Our brain has not evolved to the point where the new systems that make
complex thinking possible can easily control the old systems that give rise to our
base needs and motives, and emotional reactions. It does not mean that we are
simply victims of our brains and should give in to our urges. It means that
downward causation is sometimes hard work. Doing the right thing doesn’t
always flow naturally from knowing what the right thing to do is. (LeDoux,
2002, p. 323, emphases added)
As will become clear, we read the above passage as an indication of LeDoux’s dis-ease
with his research’s decentring of conscious agency and a subsequent attempt to reassert the
conscious subject marginalised across the majority of his text. The limits of agency repeatedly
described in LeDoux’s text, where ‘knowing’ does not ‘translate’ into ‘doing’, are indicated
here as being due to, what we call, the ontological reality of an en route brain, one where the
‘new’ has yet to ‘evolve’ to the point where it can more comprehensively dominate the ‘old’.
We would argue that this indicates that, despite all the evidence he provides, the ideal for
LeDoux is still that of the rational subject where the subject claims complete consciousness
and agency; transparency to and control by reason over the ‘base’ and ‘emotional’.
Importantly, this is not coached in terms of a moral project where, despite this being an ideal,
we still endeavour to always be mindful of what motivates our actions, but rather a biological
process where evolutionary process will eventually give rise to full agency. In the meanwhile
for LeDoux we need to undertake the moral project and work hard so as to reach down and
surmount potential victimhood. This is an odd claim within the logic of the text since the
evolutionary and individual utility (in terms of survival and general functioning) of implicit
21
systems which undermine, repeatedly dominate and influence conscious agency is well
demonstrated through the various examples he details. For us, this indicates the struggle of
utilising binary logic to account for the complexity at hand. To further understand this tension
between the ‘current’ unsettling influence of the unconscious and the ‘yet to come’ of
conscious enlightenment and mastery, we will now consider the closely associated nostalgia
for ‘coherency’ that LeDoux expresses.
To reiterate; LeDoux’s describes, what we call, an en route brain, where the new in
evolutionary time (the cortical, the cognitive, consciousness) must still ‘evolve’ further so as to
more ‘easily control’ the evolutionary ‘old’ (‘base needs’, the subcortical, emotions, the
implicit). He notes how we are currently only ‘partially effective’, as ‘explicit systems’, at
‘wilfully dictat[ing] who we are, and how we will behave’. The reason for this is that ‘we have
imperfect conscious access to emotional systems’ (LeDoux, 2002, p. 323). It is interesting to
note how the self (‘we’) is equated to the explicit, to consciousness, an equation which is
strongly criticised by LeDoux, rather than the ‘totality’ of his expansive definition of the self.
For us, this contradiction along with LeDoux’s reference to evolution and imperfection
indicates nostalgia for a rather traditional ideality; that of a cognitive consciousness, a rational
self, that has full access to emotional systems and that of an agency that has full command of
behaviour. It is an image of full presence (immediacy) and mastery (control) of the self. This
indicates that LeDoux as still operating well within the fundamental binary of Western
metaphysics; that of presence and absence (Johnson, 1981). Presence, both spatially and
temporally, may be aligned with a number of terms including being, form, entity, essence,
identity, immediacy, life, and, important in this context, unity, whilst absence may be
associated with terms such as the accidental, the indefinite, death, deferral, difference,
dissimulation, distance, and formlessness. The Western philosophical tradition desires
presence, which then, since it is a desire, indicates that what is encountered (empirically and
conceptually) is the lack of such presence (Johnson, 1981). This encounter results in practices
22
that seek the ‘reduction and domestication of otherness’ (that is, the mastery of that which lies
outside of consciousness and agency) by reducing plurality to unity and alterity to sameness
(Critchley & Mooney, 1994, p. 448). As Nietzsche pointed out, Western philosophy is the
‘active indifference to difference’ (Derrida, 1982, p. 17).
Within the confines of this tradition, it is ironic that, in the absence of this ‘yet to
evolve’ ideal, it is the multiplicity of the subterranean world of emotions, characterised by
limited periods of activity and influence that bring LeDoux some consolation. Complete
subjugation to emotion is avoided by the multiplicity and autonomy of these emotion systems
and how they are not consistently active and thus only have temporary influence on other brain
systems. It is this partial and temporary dominance of the emotions, this emotional in-fighting,
which consoles LeDoux as he waits for evolutionary time to deliver us the omnipotent explicit;
the (singular) consciousness associated with frontal lobe function. We argue that it contradicts
LeDoux’s carefully articulated and grounded image of the self, divided and enabled across the
un/conscious, for there to be such a concern with the expansion of consciousness, the
colonisation of the implicit by the explicit. As indicated above, this an agenda functioning
within the constraints of Western enlightenment individualism; it is also an ideality that shows
its strained status as its realisation is cast indefinitely into the future by LeDoux as he grasps
for a teleological reading of evolution. Instead, we argue, it seems more ‘coherent’ with
LeDoux’s expansive notion of self to acknowledge both the brain’s fundamental openness to
change due to its synaptic architecture, as well as its intimate embeddedness in and structuring
by the extra-neural, and thus to take seriously the profoundness of the effect of the socio-
cultural and environmental on this self and its well-being.
LeDoux’s desire for a traditional form of coherency involves an inversion of a more
dynamic form of coherence sketched across Synaptic self; a complete subordination of the
unconscious (the multiplicity of implicit systems and circuits) to consciousness (the explicit
working memory of the prefrontal lobes). This differs from the dynamic coherency sketched
23
across the text; a coherency characterised as vulnerable, constantly made anew, prone to
imbalance, and marked by the play of partial and passing (implicit and explicit) dominances.
The prominence of the play of dominances when describing the relationship between these
‘elements’ is repeatedly noted: For example, working memory is ‘indirectly influenced’ by the
amygdala, emotion can ‘monopolise’ consciousness, the amygdala may ‘dominate’ working
memory (LeDoux, 2002, p. 226), the accumbens is ‘regulated’ by the hippocampus and
amygdala (LeDoux, 2002, p. 271), a brain on antidepressants is ‘encouraged, even forced’ to
learn, the brain may be ‘duped’ into being plastic (LeDoux, 2002, p. 281), the septum
‘regulates’ some hippocampal activity (p. 286), the amygdala may ‘bias’ thoughts, decisions,
and actions (LeDoux, 2002, p. 289), genes ‘contribute to, rather than solely dictate’ synaptic
connectivity (LeDoux, 2002, p. 296), working memory ‘regulate[s] what we attend to’
(LeDoux, 2002, p. 316), and independent learning systems can be ‘coerced’ into learning
simultaneously (LeDoux, 2002, p. 312). Throughout the text LeDoux describes a play of
dominances and subordinations, enablements and prohibitions, excitations and inhibitions; the
articulation of a “dramatic ensemble”, where all such relationships are dependent on the
vulnerable and plastic physicality of connection. No structure is completely master or servant,
and none are perfectly circumscribed and isolated; none a self-determining identity. In this
complexity of mutual control, we have both the decentring of leadership (agency) and the
emergence of identity (coherence) through the play of difference (ever varying dominances and
subordinations).
For us, LeDoux’s longing for coherence through omniscient consciousness is
particularly odd in a context where consciousness is regarded as emerging due to unconscious
process. It evokes the image of a snake attempting to swallow itself. Here it is useful to draw
on Wilson’s (2004) distinction between two types of relationship: In the first type, the
relationship between elements (be they neurons, circuits, systems, or systems of systems) are
read as ‘an assemblage of self-contained elements arranged in determinable relations of cause
24
and effect’ (p. 19), that is, ‘a complex, yet fundamentally straight relation’ (Wilson, 2004, p.
16). In complexity theory this would be regarded as typical of a complicated, rather than a
complex system; that is, it describes a system which is ultimately circumscribable (Cilliers,
1998). Being able to render everything transparent, as sets of factual statements, is exactly
what LeDoux hopes for with the en route’ brain. The consistent domination of unconscious
processes by the consciousness subject is the same fantasy as that of (neuro)science where that
which is unknown (in darkness) may be rendered known (flooded in light). This is LeDoux’s
nostalgia, his adherence to a traditional metaphysics; a relationship at odds with the alternative
he describes and which Klee describes in his notion of the “dramatic self”.
With regard to the second relationship, Wilson (2004) describes ‘a psychosomatic
economy within which the identity of each element… is constituted as an effect of that
economic structuration’ (p. 19), that is, ‘their relationality [is] somehow integral to their very
identity’ (p. 16). Wilson (1998, 2004) draws from post-structuralism here, specifically
Derrida’s notion of différance. However, as noted earlier, this notion of relationship can also be
found elsewhere. Aside from resonating with Klee’s notion of the self as a “dramatic
ensemble”, it also bears a striking resemblance to Marx’s philosophy of internal relations
(Ollman, 2003, p. 37), which attempts not to simply replace the thing with the relation but,
more extensively, that ‘the conditions of [the things] existence are taken to be part of what it
is’. Furthermore, it can also be recognised, bringing us here closer to the brain, in readings of
connectionism, where there is no ‘representation’ of external information in a simple locatable
manner. Instead of any such positivity, there are only relational effects emerging from
differences between the weights that comprise the neural network; the individual weights of
connections between the structurally identical units having no significance intrinsically
(Cilliers, 1990).
Similarly, as noted, it is LeDoux’s central argument that it is the relationship between
synapses that constitutes a function and, ultimately, mind and self. As noted, against this logic
25
of identity through difference, there runs another type of logic, traceable we suggest to
LeDoux’s utilisation and entrenchment in the information processing model of first generation
cognitive science and, beyond this, to science’s origins in positivism and causal determinism
and, beyond even this, the long tradition of the metaphysics of presence. This is apparent, for
example, in his jarring reference, in a context where ‘neural synchrony’ (simultaneous activity)
creates coherence, to the production line discourse of the ‘transfer’ and ‘storage’ of information
(LeDoux, 2002, pp. 193-194). Against this nostalgia for coherence as presence (the
omniscience and omnipotence of consciousness) and determinist relationships between positive
elements we here read and privilege LeDoux’s other discourse, that of coherence through
difference, a mutable self through the simultaneous plasticity and vulnerability of the synaptic
connection, and identity through an un-circumscribable openness to context extending to the
extra-neural. In complexity theory this would be regarded as a complex system (Cilliers, 1998),
something that puts paid to classic science’s promise of knowledge providing us with complete
control and prediction (Turner, 2006).
Conclusion
Wilson (2004, p. 27) refers to how ‘the unavoidable, unsettling, difficult to resolve character of
neurology is articulated… through close empirical attention to neurology itself’. However,
does our reading of LeDoux’s Synaptic self provide a demonstration of such a disruptive
neurology? Illustrated above is a play of dominances where the explicit (consciousness) is
often temporally subjugated by the implicit (unconscious processes); where, for example, the
effects of ‘stress’ decentres attempts at self-awareness and agency. LeDoux’s effort to invert
this hierarchy by reasserting the ‘yet to come’ cogito in the midst of such a subcortical
usurpation obscures a dynamic and complex set of relationships between structures/functions.
He articulates a primary concern with cohesion; the integration and co-ordination of a
multiplicity so as to produce the singularity of the self. His attempt to achieve this through the
26
aforementioned cogito-centrism obscures the vulnerable yet dynamic cohesion that is achieved
through plasticity, where identity is profoundly embedded in context.
In which ways then does this reading of LeDoux’s neurological self generate
potentially emancipatory alternatives in our contemporary “brain society”? This is a significant
question given the now common recognition that the notion of a pliable brain, one marked by
plasticity, does not provide a form of resistance or counter-narrative within contemporary
global capitalism where individual adaptability to rapid change is seen as the bedrock for
survival of both capitalism and the entrepreneurial neoliberal subject (Hardt & Negri, 2000;
Papadopoulos, 2003; Rose, 2007). Although, as Malabou (2008) points out, mutability as the
only essential feature of our brain resists the grounding of more florid universalist accounts of
human nature, the plastic brain provides no counter to the autonomous individualism that
grounds neoliberal agendas. Aside from this, the spectres of reductionism and dualism also stay
in place; social complexity is reduced to the internal workings of the solitary body’s adaptable
brain this re-instantiating a quite traditional social/individual binary.
The neoliberal co-option of neuroscience to justify its demand that we as workers
become increasingly pliable and accommodating to capital’s needs (Malabou, 2008) would
however be a narrow reading of the neurological body offered by LeDoux. Lost in such a
caricature is both the intimate environmental embeddedness of the brain LeDoux describes
and, as Malabou (2008) argues, the resistance inherent in the notion of plasticity itself. A self
so open to its surroundings cannot sustain the sharp binary distinction of the individual/social
nor can the complexity of such a relationship to the extra-neural be reduced to that of a
complicated relationship. The impossibility of such a reduction troubles the validity of constant
calls for increasing control and surveillance of society where democracy is undermined in
search of security, where an elitist and bureaucratic executive claims to know what best for the
people through its faith in and promotion of technological innovation. A brain so intimately
embedded cannot be reduced to the fantasies of an ideology; an economy imposed to silence,
27
vilify or pathologise a vast play of differences. Any imposition only sets up tensions as the
internal neural culture will always exceed the distortions relentlessly asserted and marketed by
a dominant class. Such a resistance is not only born out of an organ embedded in the fullness of
the here-and-now but one which is essentially temporal and where, accordingly, the traces of
the past cannot be simply erased to accommodate the latest market demand identified by the
ruling class. We remember and act in many ways as our neural architecture is composed of
multiple traces both conscious and unconscious. Furthermore, Malabou (2008) indicates that
capitalism’s reading of plasticity is an impoverished one where it is reduced to the capacity to
receive form, an interpretation that excludes its two other capacities of also being able to give
and overwhelm form.
LeDoux’s self, his “dramatic ensemble”, puts paid to any simple assertion of the self as
endlessly pliable (and thus obstructive or pathological if it resists), rational and free (and thus
fully responsible for its actions), or unconscious (and thus in need of external control).
LeDoux’s self is not the neoliberal subject; autonomous, independent, rational and free; it is
something far more intimate, excessive, and complex, and is hence essentially resistant to the
machinations of neoliberal governmentality.
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Clifford van Ommen is Director of the Centre for Psychology at Massey University’s Albany
campus. He is a Clinical Psychologist and member of the International Society for Theoretical
Psychology and the South African Clinical Neuropsychological Association. One of his areas
of interest is the nexus of neuroscience, body studies and critical psychology. His doctorate
work provided a deconstructive reading of several neuroscience texts so as to investigate this
field’s potential to contribute to the critical agenda.
Vasi van Deventer, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at the
University of South Africa where he teaches research methodology, psychometric assessment
and personology. He is involved in two post graduate programmes, namely research
consultation at master's level and consulting psychology at doctoral level. He also supervises
post graduate students in these fields. His doctorate dissertation was on the nature and
possibility of human science. His professional qualification is in clinical psychology, and in
this capacity he worked with individuals suffering from brain trauma. This experience as well
as his training in mathematics and physics and an interest in post-structuralism inspired his
research into the individual as self-referential system.
i
Corresponding author: Clifford van Ommen, Centre for Psychology, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand,
c.vanommen@massey.ac.nz
32
ii
In terms of institutional credentials, Joseph LeDoux is Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at the Centre
for Neural Science and the Department of Psychology of New York University. He is also Director of the Centre
for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety, a research centre established by the US National Institute of Mental
Health. LeDoux is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the New York
Academy of Science, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2005 received the Fyssen
International Prize in Cognitive Science.
iii
The reader may note in LeDoux’s discourse a tendency to attribute capacities of the person (e.g., the ability to
learn) to an organ (e.g., the brain), the so-called mereological fallacy (Bennett & Hacker, 2003), or what Har
(2010) may refer to a slippage between O, P and M grammars. In this analysis we remain tolerant of such
slippages so as to pursue our argument.
... The assuming away' [41] is based on various factors, contexts and the philosophical underpinnings of the concerned researcher. Assumptions are inevitable and different levels and types such as the ontological assumptions [41 -46], epistemological assumptions [47 -50] [51], methodological assumptions [52 -54], axiological assumptions [55], fundamentalist assumptions [56] [57],observability assumptions [58,59], consilience assumptions [60], depoliticizing assumptions [61], social world homogeneity [41], in-house assumptions [62], atomistic assumptions [56], rationalist assumptions [63], taken for granted assumptions [64,65], and the 'neoliberal assumptions' [66] within which all of the above and few other types of assumptions which the author might have missed exists. Though assumptions are inevitable many assumptions can be illogical, unwarranted, spurious and misleading. ...
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Building from recent attempts in the humanities and social sciences to conceive of creative, entangled ways of doing interdisciplinary work, I turn to Braidotti’s ‘nomadic ontology’ to (re)vision the human body without a brain. Her exploration of the body as a ‘threshold of transformations’ is put into conversation with Deleuze’s comments on neurobiology to consider what a brainless body might do, or undo, in neuroscientific practice. I ground discussion in a case study, detailing the practices of brain decoding or ‘mind reading,’ re-interpreting Rose’s account. Therein, I argue that the technical-social configurations of brain decoding are unlikely to usher in a radically new ontology, as Rose suggests. To better match Rose’s vision and align with new ontologies in cultural theory, I argue that neuroscience must become nomadic and embrace a body without a brain. I then conclude with six recommendations towards a nomadic neuroscience.
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In contemporary society, the image of the “flexible brain” and the notion of neuroplasticity are increasingly replacing that of the static mature brain. Brains and neurons are considered to be constantly generated and regenerated. Age cohort comparisons and longitudinal studies introduce a developmental perspective to the field. However, these articulations and investigations occur within a sociopolitical field marked by vested interests and the celebration of all things neural. Utilizing the notion of “the generational brain,” we propose that it is fruitful to exploit the polysemity of the word “generation,” as well as the historicity of scientific concepts and methods, to interrogate and re/formulate questions currently addressed in developmental neuroscience in particular and neuroscience in general. This special issue’s contributions provide an early impression of what a “critical friendship” with developmental neuroscience, aware of its sociocultural and epistemological implications as well as the historicity of concepts, may look like.
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In contemporary society, the image of the “flexible brain” and the notion of neuroplasticity are increasingly replacing that of the static mature brain. Brains and neurons are considered to be constantly generated and regenerated. Age cohort comparisons and longitudinal studies introduce a developmental perspective to the field. However, these articulations and investigations occur within a sociopolitical field marked by vested interests and the celebration of all things neural. Utilizing the notion of “the generational brain,” we propose that it is fruitful to exploit the polysemity of the word “generation,” as well as the historicity of scientific concepts and methods, to interrogate and re/formulate questions currently addressed in developmental neuroscience in particular and neuroscience in general. This special issue’s contributions provide an early impression of what a “critical friendship” with developmental neuroscience, aware of its sociocultural and epistemological implications as well as the historicity of concepts, may look like.
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About the editors. About the contributors. Preface. Introduction: Critical Neuroscience: Between Lifeworld and Laboratory (Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby). Part I Motivations and Foundations. Chapter 1: Proposal for a Critical Neuroscience(Jan Slaby and Suparna Choudhury). Chapter 2: The Need for a Critical Neuroscience. From Neuroideology to Neurotechnology (Steven Rose). Chapter 3: Against First Nature. Critical Theory and Neuroscience (Martin Hartmann). Chapter 4: Scanning the Lifeworld: Toward a Critical Neuroscience of Action and Interaction (Shaun Gallagher). Part II Histories of the Brain. Chapter 5: Toys are Us. Models and Metaphors in Brain Science (Cornelius Borck). Chapter 6: The Neuromance of Cerebral History(Max Stadler). Chapter 7: Empathic Cruelty and the Origins of the Social Brain(Allan Young). Part III Neuroscience in Context: From Laboratory to Lifeworld. Chapter 8: Disrupting Images: Neuroscientific representations in the lives of psychiatric patients (Simon Cohn). Chapter 9: Critically Producing Brain Images of Mind(Joseph Dumit). Chapter 10: Radical Reductions. Neurophysiology, Politics, and Personhood in Russian Addiction Medicine(Eugene Raikhel). Chapter 11: Delirious Brain Chemistry and Controlled Culture: Exploring the Contextual Mediation of Drug Effects (Nicolas Langlitz). Part IV Situating the brain in context: from lifeworld back to laboratory? Chapter 12: Critical Neuroscience: From Neuroimaging to Tea Leaves in the Bottom of a Cup (Amir Raz). Chapter 13: The Salmon of Doubt: Six Months of Methodological Controversy within Social Neuroscience(Daniel Margulies). Chapter 14: Cultural Neuroscience as Critical Neuroscience in Practice(Joan Y. Chiao and Bobby K. Cheon). Part V Beyond neural correlates: Ecological approaches to psychiatry. Chapter 15: Re-Socializing Psychiatry: Critical Neuroscience and the Limits of Reductionism(Laurence J. Kirmayer and Ian Gold). Chapter 16: Are Mental Illnesses Diseases of the Brain?(Thomas Fuchs). Chapter 17: Are there neural correlates of depression?(Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega). Chapter 18: The Future of Critical Neuroscience (Laurence J. Kirmayer).
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Recent neuroscience, in replacing the old model of the brain as a single centralized source of control, has emphasized "plasticity," the quality by which our brains develop and change throughout the course of our lives. Our brains exist as historical products, developing in interaction with themselves and with their surroundings. Hence there is a thin line between the organization of the nervous system and the political and social organization that both conditions and is conditioned by human experience. Looking carefully at contemporary neuroscience, it is hard not to notice that the new way of talking about the brain mirrors the management discourse of the neo-liberal capitalist world in which we now live, with its talk of decentralization, networks, and flexibility. Consciously or unconsciously, science cannot but echo the world in which it takes place. In the neo-liberal world, "plasticity" can be equated with "flexibility"-a term that has become a buzzword in economics and management theory. The plastic brain would thus represent just another style of power, which, although less centralized, is still a means of control. In this book, Catherine Malabou develops a second, more radical meaning for plasticity. Not only does plasticity allow our brains to adapt to existing circumstances, it opens a margin of freedom to intervene, to change those very circumstances. Such an understanding opens up a newly transformative aspect of the neurosciences. In insisting on this proximity between the neurosciences and the social sciences, Malabou applies to the brain Marx's well-known phrase about history: people make their own brains, but they do not know it. This book is a summons to such knowledge.
Chapter
This chapter outlines a programmatic proposal linking neuroscience, medicine, gender, and society, with consequences for research, training, and action. I suggest we work with what I call a ‘dissensus framework,’ i.e. a critical framework centered on the study of conflicts and controversies, including their absence, unsuccessful controversies, etc. I explore how we could work with a dissensus framework, taking as an illustration the controversial question of which is the most important sex organ for gender identity formation in intersex people: their brain or their genitals? I then consider how to make a controversy and conflict-centered analysis relevant to social scientific interventions in the current debates about best practice issues in the clinical management of intersex conditions. Reflecting on the productive tensions surrounding training and multidisciplinary team-building that we have been working out since 2005 in Lausanne to improve standards of care, I end up proposing a new project that captures my overall argument: organizing the first ‘Dissensus Conference’ to follow up on the controversial 2005 “International Consensus Conference on Intersex,” and the no less controversial “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders” issued in 2006.
Chapter
The Empathizing/Systemizing (E/S) hypothesis developed by BaronCohen and colleagues has two main goals: first, to explain the presence of brain, cognitive, and behavioral differences between the sexes; and second, to explain the pattern of symptoms associated with autistic syndromes. These two goals are connected, since Baron-Cohen argues that autism is the expression of an “extreme male brain” (e.g. Baron-Cohen 2002). Briefly, the E/S hypothesis proposes that levels of fetal testosterone (fT) influence brain development in such a way that lower levels of fT (more common in females) result in a ‘female brain’ that is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy” (Baron-Cohen 2003: 1). Empathizing is defined as “the drive to identify another’s mental states and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion, in order to predict and to respond to the behavior of another person” (BaronCohen, Knickmeyer, and Belmonte 2005: 820). By contrast, higher levels of fT (more common in males) result in a ‘male brain’ that is “predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (Baron-Cohen 2003: 1). Systemizing is defined as “the drive to analyze a system in terms of the rules that govern the system, in order to predict the behavior of the system” (Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer, and Belmonte 2005: 820).
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For centuries, medicine aimed to treat abnormalities. But today normality itself is open to medical modification. Equipped with a new molecular understanding of bodies and minds, and new techniques for manipulating basic life processes at the level of molecules, cells, and genes, medicine now seeks to manage human vital processes. The Politics of Life Itself offers a much-needed examination of recent developments in the life sciences and biomedicine that have led to the widespread politicization of medicine, human life, and biotechnology. Avoiding the hype of popular science and the pessimism of most social science, Nikolas Rose analyzes contemporary molecular biopolitics, examining developments in genomics, neuroscience, pharmacology, and psychopharmacology and the ways they have affected racial politics, crime control, and psychiatry. Rose analyzes the transformation of biomedicine from the practice of healing to the government of life; the new emphasis on treating disease susceptibilities rather than disease; the shift in our understanding of the patient; the emergence of new forms of medical activism; the rise of biocapital; and the mutations in biopower. He concludes that these developments have profound consequences for who we think we are, and who we want to be.