The human brain, considered to be one of the most complex objects in the world, is not merely a natural object. Increasingly, the emergent force of neuroscientific claims about our brains – their functions, anatomies, and significance for our lives- have moved the brain not only into the spotlight of science, but onto the main stage of culture. An equation between brain and self – whereby personhood and brainhood are essentially identical- has emerged as both a cultural motif and novel ideology. In short, the brain sits at the epicenter of an emergent set of discourses. Painting pictures of the self as a complex set of brain processes, these discourses not only describe who it is we are, but what we should do to cultivate of minds and harness our brain power. In my research, I want to explore the content, history, and significance of this emergent style of thought through a critical examination of popular and scientific answers to the question: what should we do with our brains? Because this subject area is huge, I want to restrict my research to a subset of a subset of this larger emerging cultural sensibility. The focal point of my research will be a critical evaluation of what is generally considered to be the deepest and most important discovery of recent neuroscience, the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the idea that the brain’s function and structure are not determined, but evolve and change based on the activities and practices are the brain is utilized to perform. In contrast to once dominant localization theories, the plasticity theory emphasizes the malleability and dynamism of the brain by showing the brain’s ability to reorganize itself. Scientific consensus has emerged, slowly but surely, about the purportedly revolutionary discovery that plasticity carries far beyond the critical period of infant development and well into adult life.
Since plasticity as an organizing principle of neuroscience gained its authorization, countless projects and practices of treatment, therapy, and self improvement have emerged around plasticity in the social and medical fields. These projects operationalize plasticity, and put it to work in a wide variety of contexts and for a diverse set of purposes. The breadth of plasticity’s dissemination into innovative programs is impressive, and ranges from self-help programs, ‘brain exercises,’ and neurofeedback training to neuroscientific Buddhist meditation programs, addiction treatment regimes and OCD therapy programs. My research will attempt to hone-in on the ideology that underpins the various practices whereby subjects, understood as brains, seek to improve and discipline their person through conscious attempts to remap, rewire and ‘work out’ their brains. While I will broadly survey the field outlined above, the majority of my research will target a loosely unified discourse I term ‘neuro self-help’: books, newspaper articles, websites, and programs which attempt to provide individuals with the tools to improve their lives through unleashing the plastic potential of their brains.
In the discursive field neuro self-help, the ontological definitions of the subject given (implicit and explicitly) are inextricably linked to what Michel Foucault calls the ‘techniques of subjectification,’ the practices whereby individuals are compelled to improve themselves and stylize their conduct through regimes of self-discipline. This deep mutual relationship between the ontology of the subject and the collection of practices through which the subject is constituted is not coincidental, but rooted in the dynamic picture the plasticity narrative paints of subjectivity: if one’s brain is essentially a malleable machine, than how the subject comes into being through certain empirical patterns of practice, training and action necessarily gains a particular prominence. Accordingly, rather than an atemporal state lying somewhere stagnant in human biology, normality is reconfigured in reference to plasticity as a potentiality waiting to be actualized by proper socialization and conduct. This uniquely contemporary picture of subjectivity significantly mirrors certain neoliberal narratives, which paint the ideal subject as a flexible being endowed with a unique adaptability suitable to the fast pace of late-modern capitalism. On the basis of this research, I will attempt to give an account of: [a] the structure of the novel understanding of subjectivity emerging around plasticity and the brain, [b] a partial account of its cultural and ideological role the context of dominant neoliberal culture, and [c] how these narratives reconfigure what it is to be ‘normal’ in the biomedical age.
did anyone really need science to tell them this?
An interesting blog, surveying some of the same material and general research matter as myself. Some great reads!, so check it out!
Interesting, albeit problematic, popular representation of the brain’s relationship to artistic ability and creativity.
“Gehirn-o-Mat” by Philip Schwinning