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If personhood is the quality or condition of being an individual person, "brainhood" could name the quality or condition of being a brain. This ontological quality would define the "cerebral subject" that has, at least in industrialized and highly medicalized societies, gained numerous social inscriptions since the mid-20th century. This article explores the historical development of brainhood. It suggests that the brain is necessarily the location of the "modern self," and that, consequently, the cerebral subject is the anthropological figure inherent to modernity (at least insofar as modernity gives supreme value to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative). It further argues that the ideology of brainhood impelled neuroscientific investigation much more than it resulted from it, and sketches how an expanding constellation of neurocultural discourses and practices embodies and sustains that ideology.
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History of the Human Sciences
DOI: 10.1177/0952695108099133
2009; 22; 5 History of the Human Sciences
Fernando Vidal Brainhood, anthropological figure of modernity
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Brainhood, anthropological
figure of modernity
FERNANDO VIDAL
ABSTRACT
If personhood is the quality or condition of being an individual person,
brainhood could name the quality or condition of being a brain. This
ontological quality would define the ‘cerebral subject’ that has, at least
in industrialized and highly medicalized societies, gained numerous
social inscriptions since the mid-20th century. This article explores the
historical development of brainhood. It suggests that the brain is
necessarily the location of the ‘modern self’, and that, consequently, the
cerebral subject is the anthropological figure inherent to modernity (at
least insofar as modernity gives supreme value to the individual as
autonomous agent of choice and initiative). It further argues that the
ideology of brainhood impelled neuroscientific investigation much more
than it resulted from it, and sketches how an expanding constellation
of neurocultural discourses and practices embodies and sustains that
ideology.
Key words brainhood, brain imaging, cerebral subject,
modernity, neuroculture, self
INTRODUCTION
The hype about neuroscientific results, especially those that come in the form
of brain scans, began in the early 1990s, and shows no signs of relenting. It
is not, however, a purely media event. In addition to the manifold develop-
ments it might be connected to – from the rise of biological psychiatry and
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the interests of pharmaceutical industries to the privatization of health
systems and the interests of insurance companies – the neuroscientific hype
highlights the ascendancy, throughout industrialized and highly medicalized
societies, of a certain view of the human being. This view, which I have called
‘cerebral subject’, has already a quasi-logical definition: ‘Person P is identical
with person P* if and only if P and P* have one and the same functional
brain’ (Ferret, 1993: 79). Although it is not entirely clear whether ‘functional’
here designates simply a brain that works, or its functions and ‘contents’ as
distinguished from its anatomical structure, the formula epitomizes a wide-
spread belief about personal identity: that to have the same brain is to be the
same person, and that the brain is the only part of the body we need in order
to be ourselves.
As a ‘cerebral subject’, the human being is specified by the property of
‘brainhood’, i.e. the property or quality of being, rather than simply having,
a brain.1Reacting to the thought-experiment version of the above-quoted
formula – ‘If the brain of A could be transplanted into the body of B, then
it is not B who would receive a new brain, but A who would gain a new
body’ – leading neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (2005: 31) commented:
‘This simple fact makes it clear that you are your brain.’ Neuroscientists’
writings and interviews for general audiences, media discussions of neuro-
scientific research, and the vast neurocultural constellation we shall deal with
below offer countless variations of such a claim.2How, however, have we
come to the point that the assertion ‘You are your brain’ may sound indis-
putable and self-evident?
The cerebral subject is obviously not the only anthropological figure to be
found in western and westernized societies, nor the only way of under-
standing ourselves with roots in the life sciences. Just to mention two of these,
immunology and genetics have been linked to fundamental selfhood issues.
The former has been defined as the science of self/non-self discrimination
(Howes, 1998; Tauber, 2002); the latter has inspired various forms of organic
essentialism. Judged by its media presence, the genetic self looks like the
strongest competitor of the cerebral subject. The genome might have indeed
become a modern metaphor for the soul (Nelkin and Lindee, 1995; Mauron,
2001). But the ‘neural aspects of human nature’ seem more directly relevant
to many of the philosophical and ethical questions, notably those related to
self, raised by the western philosophical tradition, and by genetics and
genomics as well (Mauron, 2003: 240). Some of the reasons for this prece-
dence are purely empirical (e.g. genomes are replicable, brains are not), others
more philosophical (e.g. since genetic influences on personality and behavior
must be mediated by the brain, brain determinism cannot be refuted by
pointing to other causally contributing factors, such as the environment). In
a longue durée perspective, there is also the very history of the ‘modern self’.
In such a perspective, I will argue, the cerebral subject is the anthropo-
logical figure inherent to modernity. While it would take more than an article
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to support in detail such a thesis, I want to suggest that it makes both histori-
cal and conceptual sense. The history of the notoriously elastic phenomenon
of ‘modernity’ includes the 17th-century rise of a new concept of selfhood.
I refer specifically to the notion of a ‘punctual’, ‘detached’ and autonomous
self, having self-awareness as its only constitutive property, and characterized
by radical reflexivity, self-distancing, a sense of inwardness, a first-person
standpoint, and disengagement from body and world (Taylor, 1989). Related
to the ‘modern self’ thus characterized is the idea of ‘possessive individualism’
– a conception of the individual, according to C. B. Macpherson (1962: 3),
‘as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing
to society for them’. John Locke gave this idea its founding formula when,
in the Second Treatise of Government (1690: § 27), he wrote that ‘every Man
has a Property in his own Person’. But what is ‘person’?
To the extent that Locke himself, in a revolutionary move, redefined ‘person’
as a continuity of memory and consciousness, each individual’s absolutely
inalienable self-ownership could in principle be attached to any substance.
In practice, however, it was necessarily located in the brain as organ respon-
sible for the functions with which the self was identified. By an intellectual
mechanism involving both transitivity and metonymy – from self-functions
to brain, from the part to the whole – the self and the brain became con-
substantial. The individualism characteristic of western and westernized
societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of
choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the
expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brainhood ideology
and reproduced by neurocultural discourses (Ehrenberg, 2008).
Moreover, whether ontological or methodological, the belief in brain-self
consubstantiality seems to have impelled brain research. The idea that ‘we are
our brains’ is not a corollary of neuroscientific advances, but a prerequisite
of neuroscientific investigation. This is not a normative, but a historical,
observation that makes sense of brainhood without justifying it or lending it
support as an ideology of the self. In this article, I wish to remain primarily
at that level, sketching one possible history of the cerebral subject, as well as
its topography in contemporary society.
HOPING FOR THE BREAKTHROUGHS
The 1990s were proclaimed the ‘Decade of the Brain’, and although the
American Psychological Association has launched a ‘Decade of Behavior’,
the 21st century has been heralded as the ‘Century of the Brain’.3As in the
late 1890s, when the eminent German neuroscientist Oskar Vogt declared
that investigating brain anatomy and physiology would be one of the most
important tasks of the approaching century, brain research is today commonly
presented as the chief biomedical frontier. Now as then, it is considered of
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crucial import not only for individual and public health, but more generally
for views of the human being and the future of humanity. Beyond its
promised medical benefits, the ‘revolution in brain science’ is said to chal-
lenge ‘social values concerning personal autonomy and rights, and for some
observers raises the specter of mind control and an Orwellian-type society’
(Blank, 1999: 3).
Knowledge of brain structure and development, the interactions of the
neurosciences with genetics and molecular biology, the possibilities of neuro-
chemical and surgical intervention (including such debated techniques as
neural grafting and fetal tissue transplantation), all give rise to hopes for
major advances in screening, diagnosis and therapy. They also inspire the
futuristic optimism of the tenets of ‘neurotechnology’, and their anticipations
that highly specific ‘neuroceticals’ will, in the name of ‘cognitive liberty’,
eventually allow the citizens of the coming ‘neurosociety’ to further their
individual ‘neuro-competitive advantage’ (Lynch, 2004a, 2004b).
At the same time, the neurosciences are said to renew issues of free will,
authenticity and individual responsibility, to generate value changes in many
areas of public interest, from law to education or from public health to
taxation, and to transform societal attitudes towards phenomena such as
violence, addiction, learning, or sexual differences and orientation. Several
major initiatives reveal a sense of urgency about the ethical, political, legal
and social consequences of the neurosciences at all levels of society. The
extremely rapid professional and institutional consolidation, since the early
2000s, of the energetically self-promoting field of neuroethics may be one of
the strongest signs of brainhood’s dominating presence. The main goal of
neuroethics is ‘to investigate the implications of our mechanistic under-
standing of brain function for society’ (Roskies, 2002: 21), to understand,
anticipate and examine the ethical, social and legal consequences of neuro-
scientific knowledge and its applications (Farah, 2004; Garland, 2004; Illes,
2005; Marcus, 2004). Military research, drug-control policy, technologies of
the self (e.g. the use of neuropharmacological ‘cognitive enhancers’), the limits
of privacy (e.g. the possible usages of ‘brain fingerprinting’), the adminis-
tration of justice (e.g. the admissibility of brain scans in lawcourts), the twin
pressures to perform and to conform – these are among the issues neuroethics
intends to tackle.
Neuroethics, however, has so far thrived on hype, and has, to varying
degrees, tended to support those who benefit from the assumption that we
are cerebral subjects, and claim that the assumption rests on neuroscientific
discoveries. On the one hand, the defense of neuroethical specificity (as against
making the field a branch of bioethics) is said to follow from the ‘intimate
connection’ between brain and behavior, the ‘peculiar relationship between
our brains and our selves’, and ‘the intuition that our ever-increasing under-
standing of the brain mechanisms underlying diverse behaviors has unique
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and potentially dramatic implications for our perspective on ethics and social
justice’ (Roskies, 2002: 21). On the other hand, it is asserted that, as the
neurosciences advance our understanding of the brain and suggest ways for
altering it, they redefine ‘our sense of selfhood and brain–body relations’
(Wolpe, 2002: 8).
But do they? The emerging neuro disciplines (to which we return below)
owe their existence to imaging technologies said to uncover the ‘neural corre-
lates’ of behaviors and mental states. By proclaiming that the application of
such technologies in traditionally ‘human science’ domains gives novel forms
to old philosophical questions and raises unprecedented ethical, social and
legal issues, neuroethics overstates neuroscientific findings, legimitizes the
neuro disciplines, and places itself at the forefront of a research field described
as having led ‘to bold new findings and claims about behavior in health and
disease’ (Illes and Racine, 2005: 6). That such claims are so widely believed
and publicized when there is so little evidence for them is a fascinating testi-
mony to the power of the brainhood ideology. The senses in which they might
be bold and new are not generally specified; and when a sense is suggested,
its ethical or epistemological significance turns out to be tame and antiquated.
That the announcements of unprecedented transformations in the concept
of the human are little more than hot air is nicely illustrated by what neuro-
cultural celebrities report ‘on how learning about their brains changed the way
they live’ (see Bibliography under ‘Brain Lessons’). Thanks to the neuro-
sciences, eliminative neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland now understands
‘how many differences in capacities and temperament and behavior are rooted
in basic brain differences’, and that has made her ‘less judgmental, more
moderate’. New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of
The Emotional Brain and The Synaptic Self, has learned ‘that anxiety and
stress breed anxiety and stress. So, it makes sense that we should do things
to reduce anxiety and stress in our daily lives.’ His MIT colleague Earl K.
Miller, who is at the forefront of research on the neural bases of high-level
cognitive functions, has in turn realized ‘that the brain has a very limited
capacity to attend to multiple things. . . . So’, he reports, ‘on the few occasions
that I drive, I never answer the phone or e-mails.’ The effects of neuro-
scientific insights on the life of star cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, one
of Times 2004 ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’, have been just as
insignificant: ‘When I have to write down a number, I make it a point to say
it to myself, to use the brain’s echo chamber as an auxiliary memory’; ‘When
I listen to music, I attend to the note-by-note transitions and how they help
me segregate the instruments. And when I find myself taking umbrage at a
critical remark, I try to distinguish actual unfairness from my own self-
deception and self-serving biases.’ Could such statements be expressions of
the anthropological sea-change these luminaries expect from contemporary
neurosciences?
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Inflated claims and a revolutionary rhetoric have an obvious self-serving
function, sustaining the cerebral subject ideology, and reinforcing the alliance
between the norms and ideals of individualistic autonomy and self-reliance
on the one hand, and on the other hand the prestige of the advanced tech-
nology supposed to demonstrate that we are our brains.
Neuroethics provides a good example: as has been rightly noted, its
anxieties ‘have become part of the very problem they seek to address’ (Singh
and Rose, 2006: 100; Ortega and Vidal, in press). With their ambivalent
amalgam of confident expectations and alarmist caution, such anxieties also
convey notions about science that justify them. Going entirely along with
the neuroscientists, neuroethicists seem to consider the sciences as having
‘social implications’ or an ‘impact’ on society, rather than as being themselves
intrinsically social activities that prosper largely through strategies embedded
in the social fabric; this view reproduces the belief that humans have a
biological self on which culture and intersubjectivity are somehow tacked.
Neuroethical solicitude nurtures this view, and replicates some of the neuro-
sciences’ academic-public rhetoric, which itself imitates that of such success-
ful scientific areas as molecular biology.
Neurocultural discourses, and neuroethics with them, mask the continu-
ity that exists, since the early 19th century, in the main assumptions, in the
‘big’ questions being asked (about the nature of consciousness or the mind–
brain relation), and in the answers to them as well (e.g. mind as reducible
to brain or mind as an emergent property). The claim that the 1990s were
declared the Decade of the Brain because ‘the success of the scientific method
partially replaced older notions of the soul or mind–body dualism with the
doctrine that mind . . . is the brain’s exclusive output’ (Lepore, 2001) is typical
of the ahistorical triumphalism characteristic of the neuro field.4The ‘Mani-
festo’ published in 2004 by 11 leading neuroscientists on the present state and
future tasks and prospects of brain research is in this regard equally revealing
(see ‘Das Manifest’).
On the one hand, the ‘Manifesto’ celebrates as insights of modern neuro-
science convictions that predate the availability of minimally reliable neuro-
scientific data (e.g. that all psychological phenomena can be in principle
explained through physico-chemical processes, or that mind and conscious-
ness emerged in the course of evolution). On the other hand, it depicts the
middle level of brain activity (the neuronal networks situated between the level
of molecules and single cells, and the level of large brain areas) as the great
lacuna of neuroscientific knowledge – a lacuna which calls for the equivalent
of a quantum physics that would provide a unified theory of the brain. Such
theory, which will have to deal with ‘hard’ questions about knowledge,
consciousness and self-experience, is likely to arise, ‘[f]or in this future
moment, the brain seriously gets ready to know itself’ (‘Das Manifest’, 2004:
37).5Although the ‘Manifesto’ announces an intensive dialogue between the
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human and the brain sciences, and claims that neuroscientific progress will
not end with the triumph of ‘neuronal reductionism’, its personification of
brain functions operates a double reduction of persons to brains, and of social
and psychological knowledge to neuroscientific information.
THE SELF BEFORE BRAINHOOD
Brainhood seems to be an exclusively western phenomenon, albeit now
universally exported through the globalization of originally European forms
of science and medicine. As far as I can tell, no other culture has proposed
the reducibility of self to an organ of the body.6But ‘western culture’ is a
dynamic process that includes the very notion of self, and the emergence of
brainhood is part and parcel of the history of views about selfhood.
The ideas of self and body are in western philosophy inextricably related;
whether positively or negatively conjugated, one does not exist without the
other. The notion of self or Ithat concerns us here crystallized in systems
that distanced self and body in such a way that the body is existentially or
experientially significant, yet ontologically derivative. Correlatively, being an
Ior having a self has been equated with consciousness and self-awareness.
From a phenomenological point of view, our physical makeup certainly
limits the range of possible human experiences of the world. The body may
well be ‘that without which we could not possibly have any experience of
even the least significance’ (Todes, 1993: 263), but its relationship to the self
is nonetheless open to interpretation and historical transformation.
In the Aristotelian frameworks that largely dominated western scholarly
thought from the 13th to the 17th centuries, the soul was a principle of life,
or that which animated potentially live matter. In Aristotle’s analogy (De
Anima, 412a–13a), if the eye was an animal, then sight would be its soul. Soul
was therefore responsible for the basic functions of living beings – faculties
or powers known as nutritive or vegetative, perceptive or sensible, appetitive
or desiderative, motor or locomotive, and rational or intellective (Michael,
2000). Possession of these faculties defined a hierarchy of being: the human
soul had all of them, non-human animals lacked a rational soul, and plants
had only a vegetative soul. Yet all were ‘animals’ or ensouled bodies, and
that is why the word ‘psychology’ (in use by 1590) originally designated the
generic science of living beings (Vidal, 2006b).
When the Aristotelian frameworks disintegrated in the 17th century, the
soul ceased to be responsible for organic functions, and, as in René Descartes’s
philosophy, became equal to the mind. Even though this was a radical trans-
formation of the concept of soul, the interaction of soul and body remained
understood through the humoral theory derived from Galen, a 2nd-century
Greek philosopher and physician (Temkin, 1973). In the Galenic system, the
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four bodily humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm) were made up
of mixtures of the four elements (air, fire, earth, water), and shared in their
basic qualities (warm and humid, warm and dry, cold and dry, cold and
humid). The ‘temperaments’, or proportions and mixtures of the humors,
dictated individual temperaments, in the sense of ‘characters’ (respectively
the sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic). Physiology thus elucidated
someone’s personality and aptitudes; at the same time, it explained soul–body
interactions in general.
According to Galen, as the blood passed through various organs, it was
transformed into ‘spirits’ (pneumata), or increasingly subtile and thin fluids.
It first became a ‘natural spirit’, responsible for nutrition and growth. After
combining with air in the lungs, it passed into the heart, where a portion was
transformed into the ‘vital spirit’ on which motor and vital functions
depended. The final refinement took place in the cerebral ventricles with the
formation of the ‘animal spirits’ necessary for sensitive and intellectual func-
tions. The qualities of these spirits, such as their temperature, humidity or
density, followed those of the humors. For example, if a person’s blood was
too cold, the animal spirits would also be cold, and the dependent mental acts
would be correspondingly weak and slow.
The animal spirits were believed to reside in and move among the brain
ventricles, which thus operated as the seat of mental faculties. From front to
back of the head, these were the ‘common sense’ where sensory information
was collected, the imagination and fantasy, the judgment and intellect, and
memory (Clarke and Dewhurst, 1972; Harvey, 1975; Kemp, 1990). The brain
therefore functioned as a factory and storehouse of the animal spirits, and
Galen considered it the hegemonikon precisely because of the role of the
ventricles in transforming the vital pneuma into those spirits (Rocca, 2003).
Yet it was the qualities of the animal spirits themselves, together with the rest
of the humors, that determined a person’s character; personality and psycho-
logical differences depended on them, not on the mass of tissue that makes
up the brain as an anatomical structure.
ORIGINS OF BRAINHOOD
The breakdown of the Aristotelianisms included the reduction of soul to
mind, and its consequent localization in the brain. The ‘seat of the soul’ was
not the place where the soul was supposed to reside materially, but the organ
where it interacted with the body. Descartes, in several letters as well as in
his Treatise of Man (written before 1637) and The Passions of the Soul (1649),
explained that the soul exerted its functions ‘immediately’ at or through the
pineal gland. In contrast, the English anatomist and physician Thomas Willis
proposed in Cerebri anatome (1664) a distributed localization of the faculties.
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For both, however, the animal spirits retained their functional significance:
they either moved and were moved by the pineal gland, or they circulated
among various brain areas.7At the same time, Willis and Descartes located the
seat of the soul in structures that had more consistency and materiality than
the hollow reservoirs of the humors. Their theories stimulated empirical
research and a lively localization debate that lasted until the late 18th century.
The quest for a seat of the soul did not lead to any reliable anatomical con-
clusion, but reinforced the assumption that self was dependent on the brain
alone, a dependence that extended to the point of quasi-consubstantiality.
This was indeed an assumption because, in spite of Willis’s contributions to
brain and nerve anatomy, the first identifiable formulation of brainhood
derived (as far as I can tell) less from neuroscientific discoveries, than from
a combination of Locke’s theory of personal identity and the corpuscular
theory of matter. Corpuscularianism explained natural phenomena by the
size, local motion, shape and contrivance of microscopic corpuscles of matter
(Eaton, 2005). Differences among physical bodies no longer originated in the
essential nature of their substance, but in the ‘mechanical affections’ (MA) of
a body’s component particles. Consequently, body A at time [1] did not need
to be made of the same matter as body A at time [2] in order to be the same;
rather, A[1] = A[2] MA[1] = MA[2]. Material continuity thus lost its import-
ance as a constitutive element of the identity and sameness of material bodies;
and this, as Locke realized, applied also to persons as well as to the very defi-
nition of personhood.
In a radical philosophical innovation introduced in the second edition of
his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694: book 2, ch. 27), Locke
separated substance and personal identity. The identity of the man, he wrote,
consists in ‘a participation of the same continued life, in succession vitally
united to the same organized body’ (§ 6). The person, in contrast, is ‘a thinking
being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same
thinking thing, in different times and places’ (§ 9). Thus, if the soul of a prince,
containing the consciousness of the prince’s past life, is transferred into a
cobbler’s soulless body, then the being who resembles the cobbler would
in fact be the prince (§ 15). In Locke’s view, personal identity requires the
capacity to recognize one’s actions and accept responsibility for them. This
capacity necessitates the continuity of memory and consciousness, which the
philosopher identified to ‘the sameness of a rational being’. It follows that
‘as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or
thought, so far reaches the identity of that person’ (§ 9). In other words,
personal identity depends exclusively on the ‘same consciousness that makes
a man be himself to himself’, regardless of the substances to which it might
be ‘annexed’ (§ 10).
The desubstantialization and psychologization of personhood is expressed
in yet another one of Locke’s puzzle cases. If my consciousness is located in
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my little finger, and this finger were cut off my hand, then, the philosopher
claimed, ‘it is evident the little finger would be the person, the same person;
and self then would have nothing to do with the rest of the body’ (§ 17).
Bodies become things we have, not things we are; personal identity becomes
purely psychological, and distinct from bodily identity. From the standpoint
of ontological theory, and in comparison with the earlier insistence on the
essential corporality of the self, the Lockean theory implied a loss of body.8
In practice, however, disincarnation could not be complete.
Although Locke thought-experimented with a conscious little finger or a
cobbler’s body with a prince’s soul, he knew it was the nerves that conveyed
sensory informations ‘to their Audience in the Brain, the mind’s Presence-
room’ (Essay: 2.3.1). Some later authors were more explicit as to the brain’s
role, and emphasized the union of soul and brain as requirement for personal
identity. Thus, in his Essai analytique sur les facultés de l’âme [Analytical
Essay on the Faculties of the Soul] (1760: § 771), the Genevan naturalist and
philosopher Charles Bonnet wrote: ‘If a Huron’s soul could have inherited
Montesquieu’s brain, Montesquieu would still create’ [Si l’Ame d’un Huron
eut pu hériter du Cerveau de Montesquieu, Montesquieu créeroit encore]. The
native North American stands here as paradigm of the savage; yet if his soul
were joined to Montesquieu’s brain, then one of the Enlightenment’s greatest
thinkers would still create. It does not matter that the soul and body are a
Huron’s, provided the brain is the philosopher’s own.
TOWARDS MODERN BRAINHOOD
Bonnet’s statement can be read as an early formulation of brainhood, as a
sign of the emergence, in the mid-18th century, of the anthropological belief
that led to Gazzaniga’s and many of his colleagues’ self-confident claim that
we are our brains. A good number of 20th- and 21st-century neuroscientists
seem to think that their convictions about the self are based on neuroscien-
tific data. In fact, things happened the other way around: brainhood predated
reliable neuroscientific discoveries, and constituted a motivating factor of the
research that, in turn, legitimized it. Thus, even though the rise of the cerebral
subject is irreducible to the history of the brain sciences, any attempt to under-
stand how it became a central figure of modernity must give this history a
central role. Here, I can do no more than sketchily mention some relevant
developments.9
A major feature of brain anatomical and physiological research between
the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 19th century was its link to
investigations on the structure and function of the sense organs (Mazzolini,
1991). Sense organs were considered the source of all knowledge about the
external world. Hence the importance of understanding their innervation,
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and identifying the brain areas in which sensory nerves originated. The
nerves linked the external world and the brain as much as they united the
soul and the body; these functions explain their broad cultural significance
during the Enlightenment, and the fact that the nervous system became the
common ontological matrix of the sciences of the body and the sciences of
the mind (Figlio, 1975; Rousseau, 1991; Vidal, 2006b).
At the same time, the 18th century saw the demise of the quest for the seat
of the soul. Because, contrary to matter, the soul was defined as ‘simple’ and
indivisible, many believed the seat of the soul must be a discrete point inside
the brain where the nerves converged. Research, however, was so incon-
clusive, that the Swiss anatomist and physiologist Albrecht von Haller (1771),
a convinced Christian who placed the seat of the soul globally in the white
encephalic matter, observed that, though ‘philosophy favors a single organ’
as seat of the soul, ‘it is certain that anatomy says nothing on the question’.
For him, the obstacle lay chiefly in the difficulty of making brain dissections
and artifically provoked brain lesions. In contrast, the mathematician Jean
d’Alembert, co-editor with Diderot of the French Encyclopédie, considered
the quest for the seat of the soul as ‘one of the chimeras of ancient and
modern philosophy’ (D’Alembert, 1986[1767]: 273).
Nineteenth-century brain research fulfilled both d’Alembert’s and Haller’s
desiderata: on the one hand, it abandoned the concept of soul and the search
for its organ or seat; on the other, it evolved towards increasing technical,
descriptive and argumentative sophistication and precision. The bond of brain
to self and personhood was thereby confirmed and refined. An early and
familiar example is that of phrenology (Clarke and Jacyna, 1987; Renneville,
2000). Based on the theories of the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, the
hugely popular phrenology assumed that the brain is the organ of the mind;
that the mind is composed of innate faculties; that each faculty has its own
brain ‘organ’; that the size of each organ is proportional to the strength of
the corresponding faculty, and that the brain is shaped by their differential
growth; finally, that since the skull owes its form to the underlying brain, its
‘bumps’ reveal psychological aptitudes and tendencies. As in the case of
Montesquieu and the Huron, personal, racial and gender identity are pre-
dicated upon features of the brain.
That the ‘organs’ were also imaginary was not phrenology’s main problem.
Jean Pierre Flourens, who pioneered the use of experimental lesions to study
brain function and whose work held sway for decades, dedicated his often-
reprinted Examen de la phrénologie [Phrenology Examined] (1842) to the
memory of Descartes. For him, Gall’s doctrine boiled down to two propo-
sitions: that the understanding resides only in the brain, and that each of its
faculties has its own brain organ. For Flourens, the first proposition (lately
proclaimed a novel ‘astonishing hypothesis’, Crick, 1994) stated nothing new,
and the second, ‘perhaps nothing true’. By dividing up the mind in a myriad
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localized faculties, Gall, in Flourens’s opinion, destroyed the unity of the
self. Now, Flourens argued, if there is no I, then there is no soul; and the
abolition of the soul implies that of free will, morals, belief in immortality,
and even the idea of God. Moreover, in experiments where he gradually
ablated portions of the brain from living animals, Flourens found no evidence
that specific cortical areas corresponded to different functions; rather, he
observed a correspondingly gradual weakening of all functions simultaneously.
He inferred that the brain operates as a unity, and that each function involves
several areas.
Phrenology was nonetheless the first system to anchor psychological
qualities and behavior in localized regions of the cerebral cortex, and some of
its premisses were confirmed by experimental and anatomo-clinical research
in the second half of the 19th century. The opposition of Gall and Flourens
illustrates the fluctuation between localizationism and holism, a fluctuation
that seems inherent to brain research and especially to thinking about the
relation of brain and self, but which also embodies broader cultural and
societal tensions (Harrington, 1999).
LOCALIZATION AND THE DEMISE OF
PHRENOLOGY
Nineteenth-century experimental psychophysiology and pathological anatomy
simultaneously gave impulse to the localization project, and contributed to
the ruling out of phrenology as a legitimate approach. While phrenology
correlated behavior or dispositions with cranial shape, which it occasionally
checked against cerebral morphology, the anatomo-clinical method searched
for correlations between symptoms and brain lesions. Such methodological
orientation was shared by the partisans of discrete loci of mental faculties,
and those who insisted on the unity of intelligence and the integrated nature
of brain action. The case of ‘Tan’, an aphasic patient studied in the late 1850s
by French anatomist and physical anthropologist Paul Pierre Broca, is para-
digmatic of the anatomo-pathological method and of mid-19th-century local-
ization debates.
‘Tan, tan’ – such was, accompanied by hand gestures, Monsieur Leborgne’s
response to whatever question he was asked. The patient’s clinical history
and the post-mortem study of his brain led Broca to conclude that the faculty
of articulate language was possibly located in the second or third frontal
convolution. It was clear to Broca that the higher ‘brain faculties’, such as
judgment, reflection, comparison and abstraction, had their seat in the frontal
lobes, whereas feelings, inclinations and passions depended on the temporal,
parietal and occipital lobes. Broca (1861: 338) recognized ‘that the major
areas of the mind correspond to major areas of the brain’, but found that
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differences in the localization of lesions inducing loss of articulate language
were incompatible with the phrenological système des bosses, yet consistent
with the ‘system of localizations by convolutions’.
Moreover, Broca’s demonstration of the unilateral localization of language
(in the left hemisphere) opened the way to the formulation of hemispheric
dichotomies (Harrington, 1987, 1991). The left hemisphere ended up associ-
ated with humanness, masculinity and rationality, with their powers of will,
intelligence, consciousness and reason, the right one with ‘animality’, femi-
ninity and the emotions. Research on hemispheric lateralization and domi-
nance has since translated into a vast personal development and self-help
literature for cultivating one side of the brain, and even into neuropolitical
considerations about the catastrophic future of a society that would be tyran-
nized by left-hemisphere values (Harrington and Oepen, 1989).
For 19th-century British and German brain scientists, the method of corre-
lating clinical and pathological phenomena was suspiciously reminiscent of the
craniological approach (Young, 1990: 148). Few, however, would have denied
that the brains of geniuses, criminals and the mentally ill contained, somehow
inscribed in their fleshy substance, the extraordinary positive or negative
qualities of their owners. This brand of localizationism, with its galleries of
exceptional individuals and its collections of preserved brains, matched the
19th-century development of physiognomic, cranial and bodily typologies;
closely related to craniometry, the measurement of differences in brain weight
and size dates back to the early days of physical and racial anthropology, and
was a truly international fad (Gould, 1981; Podgorny, 2005).
Beyond national differences, to know the brain was to know what its parts
did and were responsible for; the localizationist style of thinking was wide-
spread. At the end of a century he celebrated as ‘wonderful’, Alfred Russell
Wallace (1899: ch. 16) still regretted the ‘neglect of phrenology’ – a science, he
said, whose ‘substantial truth and vast importance’ could not be questioned;
a science whose founder was said to have discovered, among other ‘univer-
sally admitted’ facts, ‘that the brain is the organ of the mind’ (ibid.: 160).
FROM CORTICAL MAPS TO NEUROPLASTICITY
By the late 19th century, cerebral localization, differentiation of function, and
the correlation of site and effect, structure and function, had become inves-
tigative principles. They resulted in ever increasingly detailed anatomical and
cyto-architectonic maps of the cerebral cortex that assigned distinct func-
tions to discrete cortical regions.
In the 20th century, clinical and experimental methods came together; the
pioneering work of the Americans Wilder Penfield and Roger Sperry is one of
the best known instances. In the 1950s, as a neurosurgeon treating epileptics,
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Penfield knew that before a seizure, patients experience an ‘aura’. If he could
artificially provoke the aura by electrically stimulating the brain, he could
determine the source of the seizure, and remove the tissue. His ‘Montreal
Procedure’ was an open-skull surgery in which the surgeon probed sections
of the brain, and the patient reported his or her feelings. Penfield thus mapped
areas corresponding to motor and sensory functions, as represented by the
well-known ‘homunculus’, or miniature human being whose features are
drawn proportionally to the associated brain areas (Penfield and Rasmussen,
1950). No introductory psychology textbook fails to reproduce the homun-
culus; and in ‘Spock’s Brain’ (a Star Trek episode of 1968), Spock himself
directs the reattachment of his stolen brain to his body as if he were a Penfield
patient responding to stimulation.
A second area of research that should be foregrounded for its scientific
impact, the spectacular nature of its results, and their subsequent presence
in textbooks and the media, concerns split-brain and complementary hemi-
spheric specialization. Again as a treatment of epilepsy, surgeons separated
patients’ hemispheres by cutting the corpus callosum. Starting in the 1960s,
Sperry and others studied such patients. Since information from each visual
field (i.e. the right or left half of what each eye sees) is sent to the opposite
side of the brain, patients shown an image in the left visual field cannot name
or talk about what they see (the image arrives only on the right side of the
brain, and speech is, in most people, controlled by areas on the left). But they
can pick up the corresponding object with the left hand, which is controlled
by the right side of the brain. The same happens with touch, smell or sound
stimulation. Split-brain research gave support to the idea that the brain is
organized in a modular manner, and inspired both studies reaching into the
areas of consciousness and brain plasticity, and philosophical discussions of
the implications of commisurotomy for personal identity (e.g. Puccetti, 1973).
Starting in the 1950s, cybernetics provided abstract models of brain neuro-
physiology; a decade later, artificial intelligence and cognitive science fostered
the brain-as-computer paradigm. Circuit diagrams and flow charts became
tools for thinking about brain structure and function. Nevertheless, local-
izationist determinism never lost its appeal. Why else, for example, would
the brain of Ulrike Meinhof, a German Red Army Faction leader, have been
removed from her body after she committed suicide in prison in 1976? The
brain itself, however, was examined only in the late 1990s, at a time when
imaging techniques had contributed to revive morphological localization-
ism. A psychiatrist then discovered lesions caused by a 1962 operation, and
concluded: ‘The slide into terror can be explained by the brain illness’
(Anonymous, 2002).
The saga of Albert Einstein’s brain may be extreme, yet emblematic of how
technology may update beliefs without changing them. After the physicist’s
death in 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey cut his brain into 240 cube-shaped
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blocks from which microscopic slides were prepared; like relics of a medieval
saint, some of these pieces and slides were sent over the years to devotees
around the world. Thirty years later, a contested but well publicized histo-
logical analysis claimed that the left inferior parietal area of Einstein’s brain
contained more glial cells per neuron than the average (Diamond et al., 1985).
A 1996 article described Einstein’s cortex as thinner and more densely popu-
lated with neurons than control brains; a few years later, an equally disputed
study stated that in the posterior end of the Sylvian fissure, Einstein’s brain is
15 per cent wider than controls (the parietal lobes were singled out for study
because neuroimaging techniques had allegedly confirmed that these areas
are responsible for mathematical reasoning, as well as for visual and three-
dimensional representation; Witelson et al., 1999). In the meantime (1994),
the BBC produced Kevin Hull’s hilarious documentary Einstein’s Brain,
about Japanese Einstein-worshipper Kenji Sugimoto’s quest for a piece of the
genius’s brain.10
The relic status of ‘elite brains’ was by then nothing new (Hagner, 2004);
after Lenin’s death in 1924, Oskar Vogt had sliced his brain more finely than
Harvey did Einstein’s. Since brain forms are unique and there is no way of
correlating form and function on the basis of a dead person’s preserved brain,
such research must remain inconclusive. Nevertheless, while the remains of
Einstein’s brain can be examined only histologically, some scientists hope that
imaging techniques will confirm their results (basically, that more and bigger
is better), and reveal the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional substrates of
intelligence. The continuity with much earlier localizationist approaches
persists even among relative skeptics. Thus, explains a neuro-ophthalmologist,
while Einstein’s brain by itself might not reveal much, ‘before we consign
Einstein’s intellect to the realm of the unknowable or blindly rever his brain
as a sacred talisman, we must recall that neuroscience is still a young disci-
pline’, and that, ‘[e]ven if we have the right questions, we must have adequate
technology to provide the right answers’ (Lepore, 2001). At work here is the
well-established stratagem of simultaneously appealing to temporary ignor-
ance and disciplinary youth.
In short, from 19th-century phrenologists palpating head bumps, through
EEGs starting in the 1930s and up to today’s brain scans, the hope of being
able to read the mind and the self through brain recordings has not subsided
(Borck, 2005; Uttal, 2001). As Hagner and Borck (2001: 508) observed, the
late 20th-century comeback of the cerebral localization of mental aptitudes
and inclinations ‘is due to a cohabitation of new visualization techniques with
old psychological parameters’.11 At the same time, these techniques confirm
the anatomical, functional and developmental evidence that the brain is neither
a mosaic of punctate sites, nor a hard-wired collection of neuronal circuits,
but an array of interconnected and parallel networks, highly plastic and
capable of developing and repairing itself.
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Cognitive functions, in particular, turn out to be dispersed in various
cortical areas, and the networks that represent them seem highly mobile, both
functionally and anatomically. This does not invalidate complex forms of the
localizationist approach (Zawidzki and Bechtel, 2005), but has come hand
in hand with a new neurocultural keyword: ‘neuroplasticity’. In general
audience works such as The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius or
Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome, both
by prominent neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, neuroplasticity is the basis of
creativity and therapy. For Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge (2007: xv)
in his bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself, it is ‘one of the most extra-
ordinary discoveries of the twentieth century’ – one that seems to demon-
strate that the mind indeed alters the brain.12 In 2003, conceptual artist
Jonathon Keats copyrighted his brain as a sculpture created thought by
thought (Singel, 2003); the following year, a book claiming that ‘humans
make their own brain, but they don’t know it’ repeatedly linked neuro-
plasticity to our ‘sculpting’ our brains (Malabout, 2004); and the ‘neurobics’
industry, with its slogan ‘Change your brain, change your life’, has effectively
incorporated the idea into its marketing strategies for brain fitness (e.g. www.
sharpbrains.com/tag/neuroplasticity or the Brain Fitness Channel, http://bfc.
positscience.com/).13 The point here is not to scorn scientific accomplishments
or deride therapeutic hopes, but rather to highlight the capacity of neuro-
cultures to prey on the most diverse pieces of evidence and the most varied
beliefs in order to feed the ideology of brainhood.
THE SITUATION TODAY
In the 1960s, philosophers of the English-speaking analytical tradition started
discussing personal identity with the help of puzzle-cases, thereby reviving
the Lockean approach. The protagonists of the new philosophical fictions,
however, were no longer Locke’s soulless bodies or an arbitrarily localized
consciousness, but out-of-body brains, generally waiting to be grafted onto
some body. These ‘ectobrain’ thought-experiments were commonplace in
earlier science fiction stories and movies (Vidal, in press). But their appearance
in academia may have signalled the crystallization of brainhood as a biosocial
norm, or at least a point when the idea of the human as cerebral subject came
to function as a spontaneous view across a wide spectrum of social settings,
from popular culture to professional philosophy.
As far as I can tell, the first instance can be found in Cornell University
philosopher Sidney Shoemaker’s Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity (1963).
Shoemaker imagined that a brain can be entirely removed from a person’s
skull to be repaired, and then be put back in the skull. One day, a surgeon’s
assistant interchanges Mr Brown’s brain and Mr Robinson’s brain. One dies
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immediately, but the other survives. Endowed with Robinson’s body and
Brown’s brain, ‘Brownson’ declares that his body is Robinson’s corpse lying
on a nearby bed. Yet as far as his personality, biography and social relations
are concerned, he is just like Brown. So far the thought experiment.
Shoemaker noted that even if we say that Brownson is Brown, brain
identity is not really the criterion of personal identity. Indeed, if Brownson
acted like Robinson, nobody would say that he must be Brown because he
has Brown’s brain. The relationship between brain and personality is not
logically necessary, but only ‘causal and contingent’. Although Brownson’s
having Brown’s brain explains his psychological affinity to Brown, it does
not follow that Brownson is Brown. Or if we say so, then we allow psycho-
logical criteria of personal identity to override ‘the fact of bodily nonidentity’
(Shoemaker, 1963: 24–5). Although Shoemaker here seems to have neglected
the fact that the brain is part of the body, his reasoning anticipated in the realm
of academic philosophy the dichotomy body–brain that has since become the
constitutive trope of neurobics, as well as of many media treatments of the
neurosciences: ‘Brain not Body Makes Athletes Feel Tired’ (Randerson, 2004).
Ostensibly bodily conditions, such as pain or obesity, which can be in part
neuropharmacologically managed, have been the object of similar statements,
and illustrate the personification of the brain which has become one of the
most powerful mechanisms for the perpetuation of the cerebral subject.
Embodied in countless statements declaring that the brain decides, learns and
loves, or even that brains, rather than persons, understand each other, person-
ification relies on an ontological reversal such that ‘You are your brain’
becomes factual, while ‘You are yourself’, figurative. According to Vilayanur
Ramachandran, high-profile neuroscientist at the University of California,
San Diego, and one of the most cited authors of the neurocultural world, ‘We
used to say, metaphorically, that “I can feel another’s pain.” But now we
know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain’ (in Slack, 2007).
Philosophers in the 1960s did not go that far. In the wake of Shoemaker,
and perhaps against the background of Penfield’s findings and the Spanish
Yale University physiologist José Delgado’s spectacular experiments on
electrical stimulation of the brain, surgical brain fictions became analytical
philosophers’ favorite tool for discussing personal identity (on Delgado, see
Horgan, 2005). Philosophers toyed with operations of different sorts, such
as bisection (and the subsequent question of whether two persons can share
a single body), grafting of X’s brain into Y’s brainless body, or transplanta-
tion of each hemisphere into a new body (see, for example, Parfit, 1971;
Puccetti, 1969, 1973; Wiggins, 1967). In this manner, the brain consensually
emerged as the somatic limit of the self, so that I cease to be (myself) if I lose
it by amputation.
The rise of cognitive and computational neuroscience may have reinforced
philosophers’ inclination to spin thought-experiments. In 1981, Douglas
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Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s popular The Mind’s I collected the most
extravagant brain fictional narratives of alleged interest for elucidating the
relations of mind, body, self and personal identity. In Philosophical Expla-
nations, published that same year, Robert Nozick tested his ‘closest contin-
uer theory’ of personal identity through time by applying it to eight particular
cases – all of them brain fiction tropes; these were: duplication; transplanta-
tion into a body eventually cloned from the original; brain pattern transferal
to the blank brain of another body, again eventually cloned from yours; trans-
plantation of half a brain and removal of half a brain, in both cases with ‘full
psychological similarity’; transplantation of brain halves into different bodies
(a combination of the two previous figures); as you are dying, a random
commingling of molecules reproduces your brain and body, in a healthier
state but with ‘complete psychological similarity to you’; half of an ill
person’s brain is transplanted into another body, but the original body plus
half-brain survives for some time (Nozick, 1981: 37–47). Nozick’s choice of
brain fictions highlights the status of self-evidence that brainhood has gained.
At the same time, the fictional nature of the cases is emphasized by the fact
that Nozick did not deal with the link of brain and identity, and that ‘brain’
does not even appear in the index of his book.
Also in 1981, Hilary Putnam (1981: ch. 1; Gere and Gere, 2004) used ‘brains
in a vat’ as a variation of the Cartesian demon that fools you into believing
you have a body and that there is an external world. Putnam imagined that
while you are sleeping, a scientist removes your brain, keeps it in a vat, and
hooks it to a computer that sends the kinds of signals that usually informed
your brain. When you wake up, everything looks the same as usual, only that
you are, in fact, merely a brain in a vat. Putnam argued that if you were in
such a situation, you could not think you were a brain in a vat. Although his
goal was to discuss skepticism rather than personal identity, it is again signifi-
cant that the choice of a brain fiction seemed so natural, as if investigating self-
knowledge necessarily implied (at least for a thought-experiment) equating
personhood and brainhood.
The questions raised in these philosophical texts have merged with the
usages and media presence of brain imaging, the somatization of the self, and
the critique of brainhood. Since the 1990s, the most popular imaging method
has been functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), which records blood flow
in the brain using changes in magnetic properties due to blood oxygenation.
In industrialized nations today, brain-imaging technologies incarnate a cluster
of hopes and challenges about health and performance. Moreover, they have
driven the development of neuro fields whose common purpose is (with
varying degrees of explicit reductionism) to reform the human sciences on
the basis of knowledge about the brain. Neuroesthetics, neuroeconomics,
neuropsychoanalysis, neurotheology, neuroeducation, neurolaw, social neuro-
science and others have all emerged during the Decade of the Brain.14
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Early fMRI research applications focused on sensory and motor functions;
since 1991 there has been a steady increase in studies on topics with potential
ethical legal, social and policy implications, such as attitudes, cooperation and
competition, violence, or religious experience (Illes et al., 2003). Usages of
fMRI have expanded into commercial enterprises, such as neuromarketing
(whose aim is to shape advertising campaigns on the basis of what scans may
reveal about how potential customers respond to publicity), or the already
mentioned neurobics (which, like anti-ageing creams, is said to do no harm,
and perhaps some good; Lawton, 2008).
Like research on consciousness and the brain localization of the self (see
Platek et al., 2004, or Feinberg and Keenan, 2005 for recent examples), the
neuro fields that thrive on the availability of fMRI are mostly about material
foundations and ‘neural correlates’. Neurotheology aims at investigating the
neurological bases of spiritual and mystical experience; the Dalai Lama himself
highly approves of western scientists’ interest in the functional state of eastern
meditators’ brains. Similarly, neuroesthetics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuro-
education or social neuroscience describe themselves as looking for the neuro-
biological ‘underpinnings’ of the processes studied and described by esthetics,
psychoanalysis, education or social psychology. Neuroeconomics, arguably
the most developed of the new fields, has already made it into a major new
reference work, the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (McCabe, 2003).
For all their self-promotion as pioneers of a new view of humankind, authors
in these areas tend to furnish results of uncertain meaning and dubitable value.
In a widely publicized study, for example, two Canadian researchers asked
15 Carmelite nuns to remember their most intense mystical experience since
joining the order; they subjected them to an fMRI brain scan, compared the
results to scans obtained in two other conditions, and detected differences and
various loci of activation (Beauregard and Paquette, 2006). Mystical experi-
ences, they concluded, ‘are mediated by several brain regions and systems’,
instead of there being a ‘God spot’ or ‘module’, as previously hypothesized.
This does little more than confirm that the brain functions when we think (or
remember, or feel, or whatever), while teaching nothing about mystical experi-
ence. Not all studies are as flimsy as this one, but most suffer from ‘brain over-
claim syndrome’ (Morse, 2006), and in any case share basic assumptions,
questions, methods, arguments, and cultural significance. Moreover, though
generally precise about their methodology, they remain notoriously vague in
their use of the interpretative notions, such as ‘role’, ‘mediation’, ‘foundation’
or ‘representation’, that should make sense of their results by suggesting the
connection that behaviors and brain activation patterns may have beyond
statistical correlations. Even Ramachandran recently observed that ‘98% of
brain imaging is just blindly groping in the dark’ (Dingfelder, 2008: 27).
The ‘discoveries’ of the neuro fields are mainly embodied in the kinds of
images that, since the 1990s, have flooded the public domain and rapidly
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acquired iconic value. Those images sustain the legitimacy of the disciplines
that produce them, and affect the way we understand the relation of brain to
personhood. According to anthropologist of science Joseph Dumit (2004:
ch. 5), the media presents them so as to objectify normality, bring about a
cerebral typology, and suggest the existence of natural kinds of persons (e.g.
normal, healthy, depressed, handicapped). In popular accounts, but also in
much of the neuro research mentioned above, images are offered as imme-
diate proof that people are different because their brains are different. Func-
tional neuroimages thus seem to provide visual diagnoses, and tell us why
we are the way we are. Their dynamic pop-art beauty, intuitive appeal and
apparent legibility have contributed to turn them into pictures of the self at
the expense of public awareness that they result from complex processing of
computer data, and could look totally different.
Brain-imaging specialists are in this respect ambivalent (Joyce, 2005). On
the one hand, they criticize popular presentations of fMRI, and treat images
as a byproduct of research, as visualized numbers with no mimetic value;
on the other hand, as in most public discourse about scans, they personify
the technique, and identify the images with transparency, objectivity and
progress. They thus blur the distinction between machine and image, and
implicitly attribute to MRI itself the capacity to speak, reveal, produce and
express knowledge. But by objectifying illness, such reading of brain images
has contributed to the de-stigmatization of illness and to the fashioning of
patients’ identities (Dumit, 2003).
Neuroimaging does not seem to have directly played a crucial role in the
emergence of the ‘neurodiversity’ movement (see www.neurodiversity.com
and the Wikipedia article ‘Neurodiversity’). Nevertheless, fMRI research such
as the program conducted by UCLA developmental neuroscientist Mirella
Dapretto and others (2006), which suggests that a dysfunctional mirror neuron
system underlies the social deficits of autism, is known to advocates of neuro-
diversity and may support their demands for the acceptance of neurological
pluralism. Moreover, to the extent that such pluralism implies a cerebral-
ization of specific difference, the assertion of neurodiversity may bring about
not only ‘minorities’ defined by local personal rights, but even a new form
of ethnicity. Indeed, the quest for neurodiversity recognition has by now
expanded into the new domain of ‘cultural neuroscience’. Thus, Chinese
investigators reported that while their compatriots use the medial prefrontal
cortex to ‘represent’ both the self and the mother, westerners use that brain
area to represent the self alone; in their view, this corresponds to cultural
preferences (for an interdependent vs. an independent self respectively), and
provides ‘neuroimaging evidence that culture shapes the functional anatomy
of self-representation’ (Zhu et al., 2007; for a more complex notion of cultural
neuroscience, see Chiao and Ambady, 2007).
From cells to selves, the neurocultural universe seems capable of assimi-
lating it all. How it manages, under what forms, with what consequences, are
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questions that largely remain to be investigated. But that universe is not a
black hole from which nothing can escape after having fallen past its event
horizon. In addition to a growing body of historical, sociological and anthro-
pological work that has been shedding considerable light on those questions,
critical perspectives on brainhood have emerged within the neurosciences
themselves (Choudhury, Nagel and Slaby, in press). Starting with a critique of
the equation brain–body and of eliminative neuro-reductionism (according
to which there are no mental, only neuronal states), Francisco Varela and
his collaborators developed a ‘neurophenomenology’ aimed at reintegrating
embodiment and the first-person experience into the neurosciences (Petitot
et al., 2000). Varela, it is worth noting, was a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist
meditation, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Mind and Life
Institute that sponsors the above-mentioned fMRI studies of meditators’
brains. In a different vein, the stories beautifully told by clinical neuro-
psychologist Paul Broks (2003: 101) demonstrate ‘that we are not only phys-
ically embodied, but also embedded in the world about us’. The self depends
on the integrity of brain function, but does not exist enclosed within its
biological boundaries.
Among philosophers, Paul Ricoeur noted that the cerebral fictions used to
discuss personal identity neutralize the body and restrict it to the brain at the
expense of the self as flesh (soi comme chair; Ricoeur, 1990: 378). The brain,
he suggested, is different from the rest of the body in that it lacks the ‘phenom-
enological status’ other organs derive from our ‘lived relation’ to them (ibid.:
159). Indeed, people engaged in neurofitness may well try, as advertised, to
make their brains ‘feel younger’ – but whatever result they obtain, it is not a
feeling of brain rejuvenation inside the head; pace Ramachandran, I, and not
my mirror neurons, ‘feel your pain’. An especially important philosophical
discussion is Kathleen Wilkes’s Real People, where she argued for a philoso-
phy of personal identity ‘without thought-experiments’, and demonstrated
that the problem with brain fictions is their theoretical impossibility, their
belonging to a world so different from ours that it precludes philosophically
interesting conclusions (Wilkes, 1988).
THINKING WITH THE ARTS
Contemporary artists have often employed medical technologies to probe
the meaning of personhood and the limits of depicted self-knowledge and
representation. For example, Gary Schneider’s ‘Genetic Self-Portrait’ (1997)
is an installation of 55 photographs that enlarge microscopic pictures of
tissue samples from his body, and other artists have created images from DNA
samples to variously investigate genetic identity; Mona Hatoum submitted
herself to an endoscopy, which she used to create the video installation
‘Corps étranger’ (1994); Justine Cooper’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (1998) is a sculpture
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made of MRI images of different parts of her body, mounted on clear Plexi-
glass sheets, stacked with space in between them and connected with steel
cables. Others have confronted brainhood directly.
Keats, the artist who copyrighted his brain as a sculpture, mocked the
identification of the person with the brain, of personal continuity with brain
continuance. In a more introspective mode, Helen Chadwick’s ‘Self-Portrait’
(1991), a photographic transparency mounted on glass and lit from behind,
shows the artist’s hands holding a brain (Chadwick, 1996; Vidal, 2005).15 By
substituting a brain for the face, the artist seemed to identify self and brain.
But while the depicted organ could not be Chadwick’s own, the hands,
another traditional element of self-portraiture, are indeed hers, and meto-
nymically refer to the rest of her person. Her self-portrait questions brain-
hood, yet at the same time places the brain at the center of her art. Starting
with her experience as a patient, Susan Aldworth used brain scans to create
works, such as her 2002 ‘Crucifix and Two Plinths’, that evoke the Christian
theme of the Incarnation, and explore the relationship between the self and
the physical brain, consciousness and its possible location and visualization
(www.susanaldworth.com). For ‘Magic Forest’, a walk-in slide dissolve
installation tracking neuronal development and largely using images obtained
through a laser confocal microscope, Andrew Carnie collaborated with a
neurologist (www.tram.ndo.co.uk). For ‘Slice’, another installation of the
same type, he was inspired by conversations with Paul Broks, whose book
Into the Silent Land also motivated Susan Aldworth. Finally, Mariko Mori,
in her interactive installation ‘Wave UFO’, wished to give viewers the experi-
ence ‘of travelling through a connected world’ by transforming their brain-
waves into visual imagery that is immediately projected onto the installation’s
inside walls.16 (For further neuro art, see Albano, Arnold and Wallace, 2002;
Anker and Frazzetto, 2006.)
To be sure, these artworks are ‘symptomatic of the rise of a “neurocul-
ture”, in which neuroscientific understanding becomes part of our daily life’
(Frazzetto, 2008, commenting on the art show of the New York City Brain-
wave festival, www.brainwavenyc.org). Nevertheless, like most neuroscien-
tists dealing with ethical or philosophical issues, artists explore questions
that, in their form and content, remain anchored in post-Cartesian mindsets
about the relationship of mind and body, and in even older debates about the
role of the flesh in the making of personal identity. The art in question is at
least as much a display of technical and scientific novelty, as a sign of the
resilience of ways of thinking that the neurosciences imagine themselves to
be eclipsing or liquidating. The arts reflect the extent to which the brain has
become the self’s body, while at the same time incorporating the traditional
qualities of the immaterial soul; they explore this apparently incongruous
situation without making clear-cut explicit choices nor searching for conclu-
sive solutions.
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The open-endedness of the arts, their resistance to saying where ‘progress’
might or should be, their unwillingness to bring closure to questions such as
that of free will, could perhaps be taken as guidelines.17 Their inconclusive-
ness does not betray vacillating or indifferent attitudes, but constitutes a
positive response to the polymorphic nature of personhood and the intrin-
sically polysemous character of the concepts involved. The problem of repre-
sentation is in this respect paradigmatic. Functional neuroimages may be
modern icons, but, like Moriko’s brainwave projections, they result from a
chain of decisions about the processing of numerical data, and are embedded
in local practices of production, reception and communication that add to
their technological complexity. What does that imply for the materialization
of invisible psychological qualities and experiences, and for the transform-
ation of material processes into immateriality? What is the relation of the
digital image to the object of knowledge pursued in the laboratory? In sum –
and the question epitomizes the problem of brainhood – what do we see when
we look at a brain scan? If they are to help us navigate the stormy ‘politics
of life itself’ (Rose, 2007), the answers to these questions will have to avoid
both reducing neuroimages to an arbitrary manipulation of numbers, and
raising them to the status of portraits of the self.
NOTES
This article was written in the framework of a project supported by the PROBRAL
program of the DAAD and CAPES (respectively, the German and Brazilian academic
exchange services) through grants to the Max Planck Institute for the History of
Science, Berlin, and the Institute for Social Medicine of the State University of Rio
de Janeiro. For more information see www.brainhood.net
1 It should be by now clear that the ‘anthropological figure of modernity’ of this
article’s title is the ‘cerebral subject’, rather than its main feature, ‘brainhood’.
The metonymy makes for a crisper title, and is consistent with our main point.
Earlier uses of ‘cerebral subject’ include Vidal (2005, 2006a); for an independent
and related use, see Ehrenberg (2004). ‘Cerebral subject’ is used in the spirit of
Nikolas Rose’s (2007: ch. 7) ‘neurochemical self’, i.e. not to designate an entity
reified and attributed ‘effects’ and ‘embodiments’, but rather kinds of persons or
modes of being that correspond to certain accounts of personhood by virtue not
only of discourses, but also of concrete practices, such as when psychiatry gives
up the distinction between organic and functional disorders, postulates that the
‘mind is what the brain does’ – the mantra of the brainhood ideology – and acts
accordingly (see also Novas and Rose, 2000, on the related rise of ‘somatic indi-
viduality’).
2 For Spanish neuroscientist Francisco Mora (2007), who fully adheres to the
brainhood ideology, ‘neuroculture’ is a new vision of humanity and society
based on knowledge about the brain. I prefer the term in the plural to designate
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constellations of ideas and social forms whose common denominator is the view
of the human as a cerebral subject, and to emphasize the construction of different
norms, values, meanings and identities through neuro discourses and practices.
On similar usages, see Slate (2007) and the still-under-construction www.neuro
culture.org
3 See www.decadeofbehavior.org. As far as I can tell, the Century of the Brain did
not benefit from an official launching from the White House (as was the case for
the Decade), but Google results testify to the spread of the designation, and
several scientific voices announced it, including one in the International Brain
Research Organization’s IBRO News as early as 1994.
4 As Hagner and Borck (2001: 508) have observed, ‘While the discovery of DNA
and its consequences have fundamentally changed our view of life, the neuro-
sciences seem to deal with the same old questions of the type: What is cognition?
What is consciousness? . . . This oscillation between old and new, between inno-
vative new technologies and concepts in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, clinical
neurology, psychiatry, or in the computational sciences, and often surprisingly
conservative opinions about the mindful brain, partly dating back to the nine-
teenth century, seems to be characteristic of the neurosciences in the twentieth
century and, perhaps, the new century.... Since linking the mind to the head,
brain research has frequently operated in an outspokenly futuristic mode.’
5 ‘Denn in diesem zukünftigen Moment schickt sich unser Gehirn ernsthaft an,
sich selbst zu erkenennen.’ ‘Hard’ alludes to what, after David Chalmers (1995),
has come to be known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, i.e. explaining
why we have qualitative phenomenal experiences (the problem is ‘hard’ because
it persists even after the mechanisms involved in the performance of the relevant
functions have been specified).
6 See the Japanese brain-death debate as examined by Lock (1997, 2002). In the
western world, although the consensus around brain death has weakened, it still
makes sense to ask whether a brain state should not define the beginning of a
person’s life (Sass, 1989). In other words, if neuromaturation provides biomed-
ical indicators of personhood, then, as human persons distinct from merely living
organisms, we simply exist from ‘brain life’ to ‘brain death’ (Jones, 1989, 1998).
7 Willis linked the imagination to an ‘undulation’ of the spirits from the center of
the brain towards its circumference, and placed its seat in the corpus callosum; he
made memory depend on the movement of the spirits from the periphery towards
the center of the brain, therefore placing it in the cortex; and he situated sensory
coordination in the corpus striatum, which received the impressions going
towards the brain and was the path by which the animal spirits descended towards
the extremities
8 Such psychologization of personal identity constituted a break with the Christian
view of the person as an intrinsically corporeal entity (Vidal, 2002). This is
something contemporary authors seem to ignore. To take only an extreme
example, the French artist Orlan, most famous for the performances of 1990–93
during which she publicly underwent plastic surgery, denies that her ‘Carnal Art’
inherits anything from Christianity. Now, while Orlan’s explorations of the
status of the body maybe subvert patriarchal paradigms or beauty norms, they
largely rehearse fundamental Christian themes. Similarly, it is naive, or mere
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wishful thinking, to declare that ‘neuroscientific anthropology’ has irreversibly
demolished the Christian view of human beings (Metzinger, 2005: 54), when,
historically, brainhood is firmly rooted in debates integral to the Christian
tradition.
9 I am indebted to excellent historical studies, notably Brazier, 1988; Breidbach,
1997; Clarke and O’Malley, 1968; Clarke and Jacyna, 1987; Corsi, 1991; Elsner
and Lüer, 2000; Finger, 1994; Hagner, 1997, 2001; Harrington, 1987, 1991;
Neuburger, 1981; Spillane, 1981; Young, 1990.
10 See also Paterniti (2000), an account of the author’s trip across the USA with Dr
Thomas Harvey, who had autopsied Einstein and kept the brain pieces, to return
them to the genius’s granddaughter.
11 Such ‘parameters’ need not be ‘old’. As Hatfield (2000) demonstrates, neuro-
science only provides an additional source of data about function and brain local-
ization; knowledge or theories about function guide research on structure. Thus,
as far as the study of mental functions is concerned, psychology leads the way
in brain science.
12 Neuroplasticity, then, supposedly substantiates beliefs about the mind’s power
to bring about illness or cure (on whose history see Harrington, 2008). But since
the mind is said to be what the brain does, all that is being claimed is that brain
activity changes brain activity. The paradox is ignored, or exploited, by neurofit-
ness peddlers, and seems to have escaped the neuroscientists who search to prove
that meditation alters the brain.
13 Change Your Brain, Change Your Life is the title of one of the many books by
Daniel G. Amen (2000); it reached the New York Times bestseller list and has
been steadily reprinted since its first publication in 1999. The author is founder
of the Amen Clinics (www.amenclinic.com/ac/): ‘Our goal is to help as many
people as we can have the best brain possible.’ Amen, who uses SPECT as a diag-
nostic tool, thinks that presidential candidates should be given brain scans, and
purports to be able to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depres-
sion, ADHD, substance abuse, autistic spectrum disorders, aggression and even
marital problems. On all this neuro-quackery, in particular connection with
Alzheimer’s, see Burton (2008).
14 Given the huge amount of printed and online material available for each of these
neuro fields, any reference would be no more than one among many; it therefore
seemed better to omit examples, and encourage interested readers to google for
illustrations.
15 For an online image of Chadwick’s ‘Self-Portrait’, search by artist in the collec-
tion of the National Galleries of Scotland, www.nationalgalleries.org
16 See (on YouTube) Antonella Coppola’s Wave UFO a Venezia: Reazioni (2006),
a short documentary shot during the 2005 Venice Biennale.
17 I single out free will because the question has been revived by some neuroscien-
tists’ and neurophilosophers’ claims about determinism. The present debate is
characterized by a clash of rather predictable viewpoints (basically, compatibil-
ism vs. incompatibilism), as well as by a sort of neuro-solipsism that disregards
considerations about society and the existence of other persons, and seems
incapable of imagining that free will might have something to do with social
norms and practices rather than with individual brain functioning alone. For a
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recent discussion (favorable to compatibilism), see Pauen (2004). For another
recent expression of free will as a brainhood problem, see John Searle’s ‘Free Will
as a Problem in Neurobiology’ (in Searle, 2006).
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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
FERNANDO VIDAL is senior research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for
the History of Science, Berlin. His latest book (2006) is Les Sciences de l’âme,
XVIe–XVIIIesiècle (English edn forthcoming from the University of Chicago
Press). He is currently preparing a cultural history of the ‘cerebral subject’.
Address: Fernando Vidal, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science,
Berlin, Germany. [email: vidal@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de]
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... So the rise of the brain is associated with wide-ranging consequences and is said to give rise to profound questions about our understanding of human behaviour (Choudury & Slaby, 2012;Vidal, 2009). In this article we ask, to what extent and in what ways does the brain supplant the person as the presumed origin of human behaviour as claimed by neuromarketers, who study consumers' preferences? ...
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... Current developments in brain research, with new technological and therapeutic possibilities, have transformed how we understand, manage, and treat people, amounting to an emerging neuro-ontology (Rose & Abi-Rached 2013;Hansson & Idvall 2017). The human condition is primarily understood as a self consisting of brainhood rather than personhood (Vidal 2009): people are cerebral subjects. As such, we have access to neuro scientific vocabulary and techniques, especially the colourful images of brain scans, as well as the common-sense notion that being human is exclusively physical and reliant on the brain (Zivkovic 2015). ...
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Medical knowledge is always in motion. It moves from the lab to the office, from a press release to a patient, from an academic journal to a civil servant’s desk and then on to a policymaker. Knowledge is deconstructed, reconstructed, and transformed as it moves. The dynamic, ever-evolving nature of medical knowledge has given rise to different concepts to explain it: diffusion, translation, circulation, transit, co-production. At the same time, its movements—and the ways in which we conceptualize and describe them—have material consequences. For instance, value judgements on the validity of certain forms of knowledge determine the direction of clinical research. Policy decisions are taken in relation to existing knowledge. The acceptance or rejection of treatment protocols based on medical ‘facts’ impacts on patients, dependents, health providers, and society at large. Simply put, knowledge and the movement of knowledge matter. How do they matter, though? The contributors to this volume examine the complexity of medical knowledge in everyday life. We demonstrate not only the pervasive influence of knowledge in medical and public health settings, but also the range of methodological and theoretical tools to study knowledge. Ours is a multidisciplinary approach to the medical humanities, presenting both contemporary and historical perspectives in order to explore the borderlands between expertise and common knowledge.
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