Genealogy of the Cerebral Subject

Are we our brains? Have we become “cerebral subjects,” our identities located in nothing more, nor less, than the gray matter in our heads? Why have so many—from scientists and scholars to popular writers and Hollywood producers—signed on to what Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega call “the neuro,” the complex of theories, practices, and institutions that supports cerebral selfhood, thereby sacrificing the messy “phenomenological, embodied, and affective dimension[s] of human experience” (203) for the taut certainties it offers? Ranging over history (from the 17th century to the present), the neuro’s many constitutive disciplines (from cognitive neuroscience to neuroanthropology and neuroaesthetics), and more mainstream sites of successfully realized and sometimes monetized cerebralization (from brain fitness programs to film and fiction), Being Brains addresses these questions as it masterfully charts the contours of a phenomenon that is at once highly visible, as in the much-ballyhooed “Decade of the Brain” (the 1990s), and, as an object of study, slippery and elusive in part because it’s so deeply imbricated into the fabric of our everyday lives.

It is exceptionally difficult to write such an account—not least because the neuro is so protean and, as the authors demonstrate, usefully so. Vidal and Ortega argue the neuro is best conceptualized as a “cultural resource” (20) and, in line with their treating it in the manner of a “keyword” of modernity, they do not condemn its constitutive practices, such as the broad reliance on neuroimaging in both professional and popular venues (though they have been accused of doing so, and are skeptical of many of the claims attached to it) but, rather, attempt to capture the neuro in all its guises and to document its allure. So powerful is this, they show, that simply slapping the prefix “neuro” onto a finding or discipline increases its explanatory power and/or truth value and transforms non-causal “associations” or “correlations” among phenomena into causal claims that find wide acceptance. In their hands, thus, the neuro is productively ambiguous. It purports to settle long-standing questions about human nature and consciousness, grounding them in the materiality of the brain, while in fact providing a capacious conceptual space in which they are reframed and argued over anew—a space thick with actors and interests (among others, academics, entrepreneurs, novelists, and flimflam artists). Being Brains is a model of how to do intellectual history, argued carefully, precisely, and close to the evidence while at the same time making bold claims that decisively upend conventional understandings of relations between science and the contexts in which it is practiced.

That the cerebral subject is a new formation, made possible by recent developments in neuroscience that locate consciousness in the brain, is a central plank in the neuro program. Yet, Vidal and Ortega argue, this subject does not represent a decisive break from earlier conceptualizations of personhood but, rather, is altogether dependent on the rise, in the 17th century, of possessive individualism, the notion that, as put by John Locke, “every Man has a Property in his own Person” (25). Interiority, awareness of self, a capacity for self-reflection, and the ability to stand outside and observe oneself as constitutive of selfhood—in this early modern construal of the human person the brain was made central, the site of memory and consciousness long before the first fMRI was performed. No empirical evidence supported it; it was a metaphysical position—a way of thinking about personhood—not a scientific fact, one that in subordinating the body to the mind laid the groundwork for current understandings of brainhood. The notion that “you are your brain” (34), as enthusiasts of the neuro proclaim, took root not yesterday but centuries ago.

What follows from this bold inversion of the received wisdom that modern science has gradually displaced the philosophers’ authority? First, that the histories of brain science and of the cerebral subject must be prised apart (35); one narrative can’t do justice to both. The various brain fitness programs currently on offer to the credulous, among them the Posit Science Corporation’s “non-invasive tools that engage the brain’s natural plasticity into improving brain health” (53), owe as much to 19th century phrenologically based self-help as they do to current neuroscience; regular and judicious training of the brain figures centrally in both. In 1844, “education of the cerebral fibres” might by accomplished through a program of mathematical exercise (44); individuals today are invited to marshal the will-power to visit the “brain gym” to hone their cognitive capacities (53). It’s not that nothing has changed; Vidal and Ortega show how much the contexts differ, even if some of the practices of neuro self-making have persisted. And second, just as establishing causation—the neuro’s holy grail—has proven stubbornly elusive, it’s unlikely that neuroscience will ever render irrelevant properly psychological issues about consciousness, memory, and self, as a chapter on “cerebralizing distress” makes abundantly clear.

There’s much to provoke, engage, and even entertain the reader in this brilliant, capacious genealogy of the current scientific and cultural landscape of the neuro. Throughout Being Brains, Vidal and Ortega consistently highlight the ambiguities and complexities that characterize this formation without forfeiting clarity. I especially appreciated their alertness to everyday ontologies and to the ways in which individuals seamlessly weave together different understandings of mind, brain, and self—drawn from a range of scientific and popular sites—in fashioning their identities; it’s a rare account as sophisticated as theirs on this issue. And I applaud their sensitivity to paradoxes, for example of the competing pulls of neuroplasticity on the one hand and of the homogeneity of brains necessary to undergird brain-based entities (autism, depression) on the other. Being Brains, with its amply-supported concluding argument that “the cerebral subject is a product of history, not an organization identified in nature thanks to the advancement of science” and its characterization of the neuro as a congeries of “objects, concepts, and practices as well as subjective positions and power relations,” challenges us to resist neuro-reductionism and empowers us to assert the conceptual integrity of the human sciences, broadly conceived. As such, it’s a model of engaged scholarship—and a pleasure to read.


Elizabeth Lunbeck is Professor of the History of Science in Residence at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in the history of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and the psychotherapies. She is the author of a number of books, including most recently The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard, 2014) and editor, with Lorraine Daston, of Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago, 2011), and has written widely on the history of the personality disorders.

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