Review of Victoria Pitts-Taylor, The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Duke University Press, 2016), 192 pages
Reviewed by Jaime D. Wright
In The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics, Victoria Pitts-Taylor provides a review and critique of neuroscience in social theory. Neuroscience is contributing to social theory in two ways: 1) neuroscientists are increasingly becoming social philosophers and; 2) social theorists interested in embodiment and the body are increasingly depending upon neuroscientific studies to validate their theories. Pitts-Taylor creates a robust dialogue between neuroscience, corporeal sociologies, and critical perspectives in order to elucidate a model for complexly embrained embodiment.
neuroscience, cognition, feminism, queer, disability, embodiment, affect
Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s latest book The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics focuses on matters of the brain as defined by neuroscientists in relation to brain development and its capacities for cognition, empathy, and emotion. The primary conceptualization of the brain discussed is the social brain. Unlike its evolutionarily determined and sociobiologically determining predecessor, the social brain depends upon social interaction for development. The primary difference is its plasticity. Brain plasticity allows the brain to change and adapt through one’s experience of the world.
Current research on the social brain is exciting because it provides social theorists with an ontological realism that resonates with social theories of the body and embodiment. However, critical voices are missing in this conversation. This results in a universalization of white, heterosexual, middle-class, and able-bodied adult brains as the norm. It also results in overly positive portrayals of the social brain because the research focuses on its positive potential rather than bother with the empirical realities of interactions that result in miscommunication, misrecognition, and lack of empathy. Pitts-Taylor takes a “material-semiotic” approach in her investigation while acknowledging that “materialism does not absolve the need to critically assess neuroscientific knowledge and practice” (11). She accomplishes much in four, tightly packed chapters using feminist, disability, and queer theories in her analysis.
In the first chapter, Pitts-Taylor disaggregates the different meanings of plasticity in the neuroscientific literature. This helps the reader to separate the neoliberal hype about brain plasticity (which is more about how one can “train” her brain, often with helpful consumer products) from what neuroscientists define as brain plasticity. The former is what Malabou (2012) calls “flexibility,” which is required of people in a rapidly changing, technology rich capitalistic environment. The latter is an “ontological condition generated by the capacities of biology” (19).
However, Pitts-Taylor wants to go beyond these tidy and artificial categories. Building upon Barad (2007), Pitts-Taylor argues that not only do our brains have their own form of “agency” (i.e., their own autonomous reactions to stimuli), but that plasticity is also shaped by our very thinking and interacting in the world – self-consciously and otherwise. Our brains do not just respond to positive relationships or intentional “brain training,” they are shaped by the lived inequalities people experience that arise from race, gender, class, abilities, and sexuality. This is often ignored by neuroscientists and by social theorists utilizing neuroscientific studies.
Pitts-Taylor problematizes the neuroscientific habit of only emphasizing the happy-shiny aspects of brain plasticity. In the process, we see how the background assumptions of non-reflexive neuroscientists distort research. She reviews research from Michael Males (2009) to point out how correlations between age and risky behavior attributed to the “adolescent brain” disappear when socio-economic status is a part of the analysis. She follows with the work of Hackman and Farah (2009) who demonstrate that being poor can lead to increased prenatal exposure to harmful toxins like lead, poor nutrition, and the effects of drug abuse – all of which affect brain development. Hence, plasticity is also vulnerability. Our brains are vulnerable to and are shaped by social inequalities. Pitts-Taylor adds how assumptions about essential male and female qualities shape research and the interpretation of studies of the brain (see Fausto-Sterling, 2000, for a lengthy discussion of this topic). She describes this as “evidence of the entanglement of matter, measure, and meaning” (31). In an attempt to remedy such misrecognition she posits a theory of material performativity: “A materialist-discursive version of performativity can be used to conceptualize the plastic biosocial brain as situated, contextual, and contingent” (35).
Pitts-Taylor uses Chapter 2 to further refine conceptualizations of our bodies and the relationship between our bodies and cognition. Drawing on pragmatist and phenomenological thinkers, Pitts-Taylor provides some historic antecedents for what she terms the “embodied mind theories” of the “naturalized philosophy” of neuroscientists. This type of philosophy is largely a reaction to rationalist ideas about how reason is objective and somehow exists prior to human experience. Naturalized neuro-philosophers and feminists find common ground in their critique of rationalism in favor of an embodied approach to human cognition that is grounded in everyday, bodily experience wherein cognition is contextual. However, this common ground is very narrow.
Feminists, queer theorists, and disability theorists disagree with naturalized neuro-philosophy on a particular foundational matter. Whereas neuro-philosophers generalize about the embodied brain as if we all access and understand the world in a similar manner with similarly structured brains (which is akin to a neo-Kantian reaction to rationalism), feminist, queer, and disability theorists recognize that “Bodily difference yields cognitive difference” (56). When neuro-philosophers ignore this, they erase different kinds of bodies and obfuscate “epistemic multiplicity” (51). To remedy this, Pitts-Taylor relies on work in disability studies to point out that what should be at the center of analysis is bodily variance itself, not a universal ideal. Our bodies are in constant flux, e.g., disability is not a fixed state nor part of the essential character of a subject. There is no essentially normal body or brain (nor is there an essentially disabled body or brain). We all experience such types of change in abilities, capacities, and health over the life course. She uses the concept of assemblage to capture this multiplicity.
In this way she both adopts and challenges the seminal work of Clark and his embodied mind theories. Pitts-Taylor acknowledges the value of Clark’s (2004) assemblage model of the human person – since our brains do not exist in vacuums and are influenced by configurations of bodies, space, society, and technology. However, she rejects Clark’s all-experiential-paths-lead-to-the-same-destination approach to cognition. Building on a non-essentializing and radical interpretation of Varela et al.’s (1992) enactivism, she argues that our different bodies in various circumstances (technological, cultural, and structural) make for novel outcomes in the ways our bodies, brains, and even mental states are formed through the course of development.
Following up on this attention to the multiple ways of being and knowing, Pitts-Taylor examines neuroscientific research on mirror neurons in Chapter 3. Mirror neurons have generated much excitement in theorizing socialization – even though the existence of mirror neurons in humans is not a firmly established fact. They are described as motor neurons that “are thought to fire both when an individual makes a motor action and when she sees another performing the same action” (67). They are central to how we learn from others and feel empathy. Some neuroscientists have gone as far as proposing that they are the “biological foundation for morality” (68). Advocates argue that research on mirror neurons provides evidence for that very biological mechanism through which we literally embody the practices of others. The primary model for these assertions is the “simulation model,” which assumes that such exchanges are uncomplicated imitations and that specific actions carry specific meanings to which all people have access.*
However, Pitts-Taylor makes the case that the social theory superimposed upon these mirror neurons makes for a distorted reflection of what is actually known about them. Another layer of distortion is added by the opacity of assumptions about shared experience. Furthermore, I would add that the simulation model makes for poor social theory, especially for a social perspective that emphasizes agency. This simulation model is simply a simulation of Wrong’s (1961) conception of the cultural dupe.
Pitts-Taylor complexifies the mirror neuron by reviewing studies that reveal a rather isolate and predetermined neuron. These neuroscientific studies demonstrate that mirror neurons do not “inevitably lend” themselves to a “view of the brain as dynamically social, of the body-mind as richly relational, or of embodiment as situated.” Rather, she finds that they are often conceptualized as “insular, atomistic entities shaped by evolution or fixed early in life” (69). Yet these types of studies are not used by social scientists because they do not provide the evidence they are seeking in order to support their favorite theories of embodiment (see Papoulias and Callard, 2010, for a closer look at this selective choosing).
Pitts-Taylor continues by examining prosocial theories that rely on mirror neurons as evidence of empathy. If mirror neurons allow us to precognitively understand and empathize with others, then what about the overwhelming counterevidence of human experience? Unlike the two previous chapters that are tightly packed with information and critique, this chapter breathes and allows the case of Amadou Diallo to effectively communicate the main points of the chapter – as a reader, I believe more of this storytelling could have been used.
In 1999, Diallo, a black West African immigrant, was shot forty-one times by five white police officers in New York City at the doorstep of his residence. The officers had mistaken his wallet for a gun. Pitts-Taylor asks why Diallo’s “series of bodily reactions … equated with one set of intentions rather than another”? (77). She goes on to assert that “Diallo himself appeared to the officers to be someone who was about to use a gun” (71). The gist: he engaged in a series of bodily actions while black (see #blacklivesmatter). This case is “in stark contrast” to the optimistic discussions from neuro-philosophers and cognitive sociologists who only focus on universalizing a benign conception of mirror neurons and the empathy that follows. This case clearly demonstrates that not all mirror neuronal exchanges are successfully empathetic.
Pushing further, she returns to the “success” of empathetic action attributed to mirror neurons in order to demonstrate that not all “successful” exchanges are prosocial moments. She talks about how the concept of “contagious shooting” was used by some experts to explain why the officers shot unarmed Diallo forty-one times. Contagious shooting happens when one officer fires a gun and others follow. It is compared to the way laughter or fear can spread throughout a group. As she sums up at the end of the chapter “The potential for conflict, misunderstanding, and violence should not be set aside, nor acknowledged only as a pathology, but rather understood as part of embodied reality in contexts of persistent inequality” (92).
In the final chapter, Pitts-Taylor calls out neuroscientists for relying upon heteronormativity as a basic framework in studies of kinship. It is reductionistic and universalizes heterosexual relationships as the only real, healthy, and evolutionary necessary relationships in exclusion of other types of relationships, such as queer relationships. This framework shapes research questions and the interpretations of the research results, which often ignore, erase, or pathologize any data that falls outside of the heterosexual frame. This symbolic violence “obscures the complexity of the experience it is trying to explain for all bodies” (115). This erasure of the validity of queer relationships has real world consequences. Such exclusions reinforce the idea that queer relationships are somehow “unnatural” and, in more extreme cases, even against nature.
Pitts-Taylor uses queer theory to re-examine and offer up alternative readings of neuroscientific studies of “felt orientations of bodies toward each other” (117). Ultimately we should re-think how we conceptualize relations in order to expand the scope of neuroscientific insights or for that matter sociological insights. While not mentioned specifically by Pitts-Taylor, this problem of exclusion due to dominant cultural ideals of family and intimate relationships is, unfortunately, part of the fabric of social scientific studies of African American, Latino, and other minority families in the U.S. Hence, illuminating this for queer relationships and family configurations is necessary for furthering knowledge about how people actually “live” family and intimate relationships.
In the conclusion, Pitts-Taylor reiterates her proposal of the “assemblage model of the embodied mind to address” differences of embodiment and the implications for the social brain (125). She uses this effectively throughout the book to deconstruct and critique heteronormative, ableist, racist, and sexist discourses “disguised as biological ontological truths” that are apparent in much of the neuroscientific literature (120). Yet, I am not sure that this model alone adequately conveys the ethic of radical and politically progressive inclusivity that undergirds her critiques. This is a problem more generally for post-humanist ethical arguments. Without an explicit principle of respect for human dignity, even valuable analytical concepts, such as assemblages, remain too morally ambivalent on their own. Only explicitly stated ethical principles or methods provide a consistent position against classic forms of essentialist prejudice and discrimination (see Nussbaum, 2006; Nussbaum posits an argument for human dignity grounded in human capabilities and a noninstrumental conception of the human person).
That aside, Pitts-Taylor is successful in being both critical and inclusive. Pitts-Taylor clarifies that her critical reading of neuroscientific work was not done with the goal to “close down discussions of biosociality.” Rather, she wants “to open them up” (126). I believe that she achieves this. The question is whether or not those aligned with the schools of thought that she criticizes will engage in this discussion.
* In essence, the simulation model is the very antithesis of the symbolic interactionist concept of the “definition of the situation” taught in introductory sociology courses in which two people may define their shared situation in a very different manner.
Jaime D. Wright recently submitted and defended his doctoral dissertation Scars that Matter: Breast Cancer, Religion, and Identity, which examines breast cancer as an embodied experience that shapes the use of religion. He is an adjunct sociology instructor at the Santa Rosa Junior College. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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