The Brain, the Person, and the Social. How Can STS Deal with Neuroscience Objects and Practices?

The Brain, the Person, and the Social. How Can STS Deal with Neuroscience Objects and Practices?

Report on Track 19: STS Approaches to Neuroscience Objects and Practices. EASST 010, Trento, 1-4 September 2010

Incorporating the general theme of the 2010 EASST Conference in Trento, the panel on STS Approaches to Neuroscience Objects and Practices was primarily concerned with the social dimensions of neuroscience. Focussing on the specific history and sociology of neurologic terms and concepts as well as the instantiations and practices that have given rise to and are enabled by these sociotechnical objects, the panel was designed to accommodate the entanglements of matter and meaning in the existence and constant evolving of the discipline and its increasing prominence in both science and society.

A central point both in presentations and general discussion was the mushrooming of neuroscientific approaches to sociality. Neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuropedagogy – many new disciplines are created through interdisciplinary research projects trying to open the ultimate black box by explaining human and/or social behaviour biologically. Regardless of whether the functioning of neuronal networks, neurochemicals or blood flows is used to define brain activity – biological substrates make psychic processes analyzable and visual.

The emergence of new forms of knowledge does not, however, automatically privilege only the neuroscientific side. Rather, the acquired knowledge is a challenge to all involved disciplines. The re-biologisation of the social world in “bioliberalism” is accompanied by a socialisation of neuroscience. While neuroscientists enter the realm of the social, computer scientists redefine brain activity by inscribing their engineering knowledge in technical devices used to research the brain. For STS scholars the question arises whether to criticize, co-operate or to collaborate?

Obviously, this question can only be answered studying individual constellations in which the boundaries among sociality and the natural or normal are blurred. When does matter matter?

One of those fields is “social neuroscience”, focussing on the explanatory power of neuronal processes in respect of social interaction. By asking what happens in people’s brains in social situations social behaviour is naturalized and reduced to empathy. The description of humans as “homo empathicus” is based on evidence in evolutionary history: the size of the neocortex, apparently responsible for the internalisation and found only in mammals’ brains, relates to the size of a social group. Sociality, therewith, is defined as normal state. Psychopathy as the lack of empathy is defined as the flipside of sociality accordingly. Comparably, many social manners or disorders are defined in recourse to neural substrates or neurochemicals.

Another example is the “neuroeconomics of trust”, affirming that trust is a basic feature of sociality while assuming a biological basis that is to be localized at the molecular level. But, if trust is a normal state, how can one conceive that the neurotransmitter oxytocin causes a substantial increase in trust among humans? And what is the relation between orgasms, trust and maternal behaviour like if oxytocin is assigned to play a very important role in all of these bodily mechanisms?

What is at stake here is the definition of the social. Distinctions between emotionality, sociality and rationality are blurred biologically involving manifold technical devices and procedures. Especially in brain imaging, sociotechnical constellations are involved in the reconstituition of the subject as a cerebral subject. Or, even better, the “biotechnical cerebral subject”.

Considering the “biotechnical cerebral subject” it is obvious that not only the definition of sociality is at stake but also the definition of the brain and it’s functioning. Both definitions heavily rely on technical assistance, especially brain imaging devices.

(Functional) brain imaging and Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) rely on the adjustment of imaging devices, software, researchers and subjects to produce “working images”. “Working images” are images without artefacts, easy to interpret and providing as much information as possible. The use of models is not restricted to software but present in any imaging situation: standardized brains can only be produced by standardizing procedures. The “biotechnical cerebral subject”, therefore, is not only a conceptual problem but a result of a relay of human and non-human agents following algorithmic procedures. The boundaries among subject and object, body and technology are blurred in the instance of producing images of the brain or using the “output” of the brain to move a cursor over a virtual keyboard. Nevertheless, neuroimaging is mostly not a means to deconstruct categories like gender but rather used to reaffirm these distinctions.

An even more advanced case of the sociotechnical redefinition of the subject is neurofeedback. Images of the brain produced with real-time fMRI are projected onto a display in front of the subject who can instantly watch his brain working. Although these images are a result of a distinct constellation as described above, neurofeedback is considered to be a “closed loop” between brain and computer which can help the individual to influence the functioning of her brain on the basis of visualizations. The fact that these changes are not only changes in functionality but can result in structural changes (brain plasticity) further elaborates the notion of the biotechnical cerebral subject redefining and reconstituting the brain, itself, and the human in general.

Following key researchers like Norman Doidge, brain plasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.” (Doidge 2007) Of course, this discovery has been quickly capitalised on in terms of the neurological self, keeping track of the development of her brain and investing in training it. After all, do all these findings and developments have real repercussions in society?

While the impact of reported findings in neuroscience seems to be huge, in everyday life it obviously does not play a major role for social relations or the self-management of individuals so far. Following a study of Martyn Pickersgill, Paul Martin and Sarah Cunningham-Burley (forthcoming) teachers for example have a lack of time for or interest in the research on brain plasticity; if they are aware of it, they rather ignore it since it contradicts some of their views. The neurobiological turn, therefore, does not seem to have arrived. Rather, the prominence of neuroscience in popular media seems to be resulting from a “vicious circle”: to attract funding, researchers tend to produce easily publishable results, including eye-catching visualizations and images. At the same time, these practices react upon the laboratory practices, encouraging research on not so neurologically relevant but popular issues.

The neurobiological turn is certainly not a complete turnaround, a revolution. Nevertheless, “neurobiologisation” and the creation of the “biotechnical cerebral subject” are part of a creeping evolution. The diagnostic equipment used in psychology still primarily consists of “old-fashioned” instruments (e.g. mood diaries) that use categorizations and statistical methods to standardize particular feelings, moods and behaviours into one universal diagnosis. Comparably, fMRI-based lie detection software is very rarely used in court. Nevertheless, problems of neurobiological findings and their applications need to be tackled before they are fully established. Even the “old-fashioned” instruments change the subject by changing their conduct of living. Furthermore, the diagnostic equipment of psychology is also used as a basis for research on brain diseases. When subjects are to be selected for a brain imaging study on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the criterion is a diagnosis based on the most famous psychological test for OCD, the Y-BOCS. If a court considers using lie detection it has to question the notion that the truth is hidden unconsciously and bear the fact in mind that lie detection works best for confessions. Unfortunately, the role of models, methods, and technical devices is generally underestimated. Quite the contrary: in neuromarketing and neuroeconomics the assumption of being able to side-step humans’ messy subjectivity (Wells 2008) and letting brain waves speak directly outweighs the awareness of the constructedness of neuroscientific knowledge.

After all this, what should STS perspectives on Neuroscience be like – criticism, co-operation, or collaboration? Considering the discussion in the panel in Trento, I think STS perspectives should be very flexible and change their roles strategically. STS would then adapt to the functioning of its “object” which consists of networks within which the objects of neuroscience are mingling. The definition of the social cannot be left to neuroscience alone. It would likewise be negligent to claim sovereignty for social sciences in the realm of the social. Rather, STS should constantly watch and analyze the development and evolution of neuroscience objects and practices to be ready to intervene in “neurobiologisation”. Whether to criticise, co-operate or collaborate has to be a situational decision. Stay tuned, STS!

  • Panel Organizers:
    • Andy Balmer (Sheffield)
    • Des Fitzgerald (London)
    • Martyn Pickersgill (Edinburgh)
  • Participants:
    • Johannes Bruder (Basel/Lucerne)
    • Choon Key Chekar (Cardiff)
    • Lotta Hautamäki (Helsinki)
    • Torsten Heinemann (Frankfurt)
    • Pim Klaasen (Amsterdam)
    • Paul Martin (Nottingham)
    • Svenja Matusall (Zürich)
    • Sigrid Schmitz (Vienna)
    • Tanja Schneider and Steve Woolgar (Oxford)


  • Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York.
  • Pickersgill, M. D., Cunningham-Burley, S. and Martin, P. (forthcoming 2011) ‘Constituting Neurologic Subjects: Neuroscience, Subjectivity, and the Mundane Significance of the Brain’, Subjectivity (special edition on Neuroscience and Subjectivity)
  • Wells, Jennifer. 2008. The Brain Guy wants to get inside your head: Are you paying attention? Are you engaged? Are you remembering what you see?