Reviewed by Sibille Merz
Abstract: The new book by Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached describes the rapid rise and success of the new brain sciences and carefully analyses existing critiques from the humanities and social sciences. Rose and Abi-Rached contribute to the daring venture of forging a fruitful dialogue between the neurosciences and the humanities that does not, as with much previous work, rest on reductionist and often ill-informed allegations from either side. The book provides a timely, comprehensive and well-written account of neuroscientific thought and practice that raises hope, even if somewhat limited, for the development of neuroscience as a ‘genuinely human science’.
Keywords: neuroscience; governmentality; social brain; criminology; personhood; somatic ethics; molecular biopolitics
Review of Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 2013), 335 pages, £16.95 (paperback).
Reviewed by Sibille Merz
A rather unusual dimension of the recent boom in neuroscientific research was reflected by the Guardian in November 2013, reporting on the rising numbers of defendants in US criminal courts using questionable brain scans and unproven scientific arguments to blame their brains for the crimes committed. While such arguments are usually formulated from the prosecuting side of the neurocriminological gaze, they nonetheless reflect mainstream neuroscientific practice and thinking that seeks empirical evidence for a neurological basis of what is seen as antisocial or psychopathological behaviour. At the same time, mindfulness trainings, brain gyms and stress management courses equally rest on the assumption that our brains are key to understanding who we really are and, therefore, need to be cared for, trained and developed.
Much of the literature on the recent rise and success of the neurosciences has, legitimately, focused on interrogating such problematic assumptions and the implications of the neuroscientific argument that our brains are the source of all agency, action and decision-making. The neuroscientific hypothesis that our brains, rather than our socio-economic context, history and politics, are to blame for persisting social inequalities and conflicts has led to harsh criticism from many in the humanities and social sciences. Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached’s new book Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, is different not just in this regard. In the ‘spirit of critical friendship’ (3), the authors seek an affirmative rather than confrontational relation with the new brain sciences, arguing that the social and human sciences have ‘nothing to fear’ (24) from, and indeed should be encouraged to play a more positive role in, collaborating with the neurosciences. The authors point to recent research suggesting that, rather than supporting the thesis of the rational and self-interested individual, our brains are actually intrinsically social and made to function in society rather than isolation. Neuro therefore represents an important and much needed intervention into existing, often reductionist, critiques of the neurosciences. It provides a precise account of neuroscience’s emergence as an independent discipline, maps major debates and developments, and critically engages with the increasing intersections of brain labs and governmentality.
The first chapter traces the emergence of the neuromolecular vision of the brain in the 1960s, considered by the authors to be a major shift in the ways in which the brain and the nervous system, and therefore human beings as such, were imagined. Neuroplasticity and new technologies of brain imaging in particular have proved central to the claim that the neurosciences can provide crucial information about the governance of the social world. The second chapter focuses on the neuroscientific culture of visualization from early neuroanatomical staining techniques, enhancing the contrast of particular neural features to illustrate plasticity, to neuroimaging procedures such as fMRI technologies that map neural activity by identifying associated changes in blood flows. Despite their criticism of the misleading photographic illusion of reality these techniques create, the authors abstain from outwardly rejecting the truth effects of brain imaging and suggest instead a recognition of the specific nature of objectivity or facticity that they produce. As they argue against popular critiques, the new brain images should not be understood via the criteria of realism but as tools or instruments of intervention to be judged ‘by criteria of rationality, validity, or efficacy’ (81). Technology alone cannot resolve the question of the relations between molecules and mind, yet the critical evaluation of existing technologies of visualization will help improve the soundness of their claims. Chapter 3 examines existing critiques of animal models such as of the artificiality of the laboratory situation, the model idea in psychiatric research, the claim for human specificity and translational problems of behavioural and neuroscientific work on animals. As Rose and Abi-Rached lay out here, while animal models have been crucial in the development of the neurosciences and their experimental practices, the neurosciences need to seriously rethink their easy extrapolation of data to make claims about human mental life.
While Chapter 4 explores the relations between neuroscience and psychiatry, arguing that neurobiological arguments have limited explanatory value in psychiatric diagnosis as mental disorders must be seen as the problems of persons, not brains, Chapter 5 turns towards the exploration of what serves as the basis for one of the main arguments of the book: the neuroscientific discovery of the ‘social brain’. The ‘social brain’ represents the assumption that the human brain is specialized for collective forms of living and hence disproves the criticism that the neurosciences foster an increasing focus on the individual. It is this way of understanding the brain, Rose and Abi-Rached hope, that will open up further possibilities for a cooperation between neuroscientists and social scientists. The charges of neuroreductionism – or the attribution of all agency and action to the human brain – are, as they state, equally unfounded: humans are not represented as mere puppets of their brains in neuroscientific discourse but are made responsible to care for their own mental capacities and those of others: ‘As responsible subjects obliged to manage ourselves in the name of our own health, it seems now we have the added obligation of fulfilling our responsibilities to others by caring for our mutable, flexible, and valuable social brains’ (163).
Chapter 6 explores the emergence of neurocriminology and the conflicting thesis of the ‘anti-social brain’. Well-written and well-informed, the authors provide a precise account of the studies of the ‘criminal brain’ from early 19th century anthropology to contemporary explanations of ‘anti-social’ behaviours as genetically imbued ‘impaired impulse control’ (181). Their genealogy of crime-control strategies reveals, as they argue, that the criminal justice system itself has so far escaped attention as the most important site for critical intervention.
The last chapter takes up one of the book’s central arguments and refutes the idea that the neuroscientific concept of personhood is merely a matter of internal mental states; personhood, as the authors argue, has by no means become ‘brainhood’ (220). Rather, neuroscientific understandings of the subject ‘add a neurobiological dimension to our self-understanding and practices of self-management’ (223), leading to the new obligation to care also for our neurological selves. The radical break from the enlightenment self to a conceptualisation of the subject as governed by its brain, as often proclaimed by critics, is therefore not so much a break but the continuation of a gradual shift towards a ‘somatic individuality’ and ethics as Rose has previously discussed (Rose 2007).
The arguments laid out in the book are convincing and reflect an original and highly engaged account of the new brain sciences. Rose and Abi-Rached have certainly succeeded in opening up new ways of thinking about the neurosciences, and the natural sciences more generally. The opportunity they claim for the humanities and social sciences to intervene into neuroscientific discourses and practices, however, remains somewhat unclear. While Rose and Abi-Rached repeatedly refer to the need for a ‘critical friendship’, some of the criticisms raised throughout the book actually paint a more pessimistic picture. Neuroscience, as they rightfully observe, remains a rather unlikely ally of progressive social scientific scholarship and has, over the last decades, failed to deliver many of the promises necessary to deepen the trust in its capacity and intent to do so. It remains a hope for the future that an even greater engagement between the two may transform neuroscience into a ‘genuinely human science’ (234). Neuro has certainly made an important step in this direction.
Choudhury S and Slaby J (2012) Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell.
Johnston A and Malabou C (2013) Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience. New York: Columbia University Press.
Martin E (2009) Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rose N (2007) The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sibille Merz is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests include theories of race and racism, materialist feminism and postcolonial science and technology studies.
Readers of this review may also be interested in Nikolas Rose’s article, ‘The Human Sciences in a Biological Age‘, published in Theory, Culture & Society, January 2013; vol. 30, 1: pp. 3-34