The history of the birth of neuroculture

My recent Observer piece examined how neuroscience has saturated popular culture but the story of how we found ourselves living in a ‘neuroculture’ is itself quite fascinating.

Everyday brain concepts have bubbled up from their scientific roots and integrated themselves into popular consciousness over several decades. Neuroscience itself is actually quite new. Although the brain, behaviour and the nervous system have been studied for millennia the concept of a dedicated ‘neuroscience’ that attempts to understand the link between the brain, mind and behaviour only emerged in the 1960s and the term itself was only coined in 1962. Since then several powerful social currents propelled this nascent science into the collective imagination.

The sixties were a crucial decade for the idea that the brain could be the gateway to the self. Counter-culture devotees, although enthusiastic users of mind-altering drugs, were more interested in explaining the effects in terms of social changes than neurological ones. In contrast, pharmaceutical companies had discovered the first useful psychiatric drugs only a few years before and they began to plough millions both into both divining the neurochemistry of experience and into massive marketing campaigns that linked brain functions to the psyche.

Drug marketing executives targeted two main audiences. Asylum psychiatrists dealt with institutionalised chronic patients and the adverts were largely pitched in terms of management and control, but for office-based psychiatrists, who mainly used psychotherapy to treat their patients, the spin was different. The new medications were sold as having specific psychological effects that could be integrated into a Freudian understanding of the self. According to the marketing, psychoactive chemicals could break down defences, reduce neurotic anxiety and resolve intra-psychic conflict.

In the following years, as neuroscience became prominent and psychoanalysis waned, pharmaceutical companies realised they had to sell theories to make their drugs marketable. The theories couldn’t be the messy ideas of actual science, however, they needed to be straightforward stories of how specific neurotransmitters were tied to simple psychological concepts, not least because psychiatric medication was now largely prescribed by family doctors. Low serotonin leads to depression, too much dopamine causes madness. The fact these theories were wrong was irrelevant, they just needed to be reason enough to prescribe the advertised pill. The Prozac generation was sold and the pharmacology of self became dinner table conversation.

Although not common knowledge at the time, the sixties also saw the rise of neuroscience as a military objective. Rattled by Korean War propaganda coups where American soldiers renounced capitalism and defected to North Korea, the US started the now notorious MKULTRA research programme. It aimed to understand communist ‘brain washing’ in the service of mastering behavioural control for the benefit of the United States.

Many of the leading psychologists and psychiatrists of the time were on the payroll and much of the military top brass was involved. As a result, the idea that specific aspects of the self could be selectively manipulated through the brain became common among the military elite. When the two decade project was revealed amid the pages of The New York Times and later investigated by a 1975 Congressional committee, the research and the thinking behind it made headline news around the world.

Mainstream neuroscience also became a source of fascination due to discoveries that genuinely challenged our understanding of the self and the development of technologies to visualise the brain. As psychologists became interested in studying patients with brain injury it became increasingly clear that the mind seemed to break down in specific patterns depending on how the brain was damaged, suggesting the intriguing possibility of an inherent structure to the mind. The fact that brain damage can cause someone to believe that a body part is not their own, a condition known of somatoparaphrenia, suggests body perception and body ownership are handled separately in the brain. The self was breaking down along fault lines we never knew existed and a new generation of scientist-writers like Oliver Sacks became our guides.

The rise of functional neuroimaging in the eighties and nineties allowed scientists to see a fuzzy outline of brain activity in healthy individuals as they undertook recognisable tasks. The fact that these brightly coloured brain scans were immensely media friendly and seemingly easy to understand (mostly, misleadingly so) made neuroscience appear accessible to anyone. But it wasn’t solely the curiosity of science journalists that propelled these discoveries into the public eye. In 1990 President G.W. Bush launched the Decade of the Brain, a massive project “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research”. A ten-year programme of events aimed at both the public and scientists followed that sealed the position of neuroscience in popular discourse.

These various cultural threads began weaving a common discourse through the medical, political and popular classes that closely identified the self with brain activity and which suggested that our core humanity could be understood and potentially altered at the neurobiological level.

These cultural forces that underlie our ‘neuroculture’ are being increasingly mapped out by sociologists and historians. One of the best sources is ‘The birth of the neuromolecular gaze’ by Joelle Abi-Rached and Nikolas Rose. Sadly, it’s a locked article although a copy has mysteriously appeared online

However, some excellent work is also being done by Fernando Vidal, who looks at how we understand ourselves through new scientific ‘self’ disciplines, and by Davi Johnson Thornton who studies who neuroscience is being communicated through popular culture.

Link to ‘The birth of the neuromolecular gaze’.

3 thoughts on “The history of the birth of neuroculture”

  1. I lost 16 yrs. of my life in a wrong diagnosis and escape to psychiatric meds and labels. This journey that we are on is bigger than any pill. Find support in form of honoring emotions like meditation, massage, ti chi & chi gong, writing & poetry, dream work, and mindful psychotherapy. Meds are a unnecessary detour. Embrace life in all our seasons!!

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