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’.

2013-03-08 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Brain freeze from a slurpee was blamed for a five car pile up in Texas according to Jalopnik.

Salon takes a nuanced look at hook-up culture. It’s a culture? I thought it was a hobby.

Housewives, tranquilliser use and the nuclear family in Cold War America. Wellcome History have a fascinating piece on the first fashionable psychiatric drug.

Time reports that enhancing one type of maths ability with brain stimulation impairs another. My own experience is that it helps with spelling but not with grammatical.

What do museums of madness tell us about who we were and who we are? BBC Radio 4 programme Mad Houses is fascinating but no podcast because the BBC love the 20th century.

Futurity reports on a new study finding that the infant brain controls blood flow differently – which could have huge implications for brain scanning technologies like fMRI which rely on blood flow.

The oddly recursive Brain Awareness Day will happen on March 14th.

Retraction Watch covers a case of scientific fraud in studies on the response to reward.

New Neuropod. You know the drill.

Science News reports that heavy drinkers get extra brain fuel from alcohol. Like putting rocket boosters on a one legged donkey.

The uncertain dance of the spoken word

Stanford Magazine has a wonderful article by a writer who relies on lip-reading and experiences speech through this subtle movement-based language.

Rachel Kolb skilfully describes how this works, and more importantly, feels.

The part where she describes how she experiences accents is just amazing:

Accents are a visible tang on people’s lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning. Accented words pull against the gravity of my experience; like slime-glossed fish, they wriggle and leap out of my hands. Staring down at my fingers’ muddy residue, my only choice is to shrug and cast out my line again.

The full article is highly recommended. Both fascinating and wonderfully written.

Link to ‘Seeing at the Speed of Sound’ (via and thanks to @stevesilberman)

The essence of intelligence is feedback

Here’s last week’s BBC Future column. The original is here, where it was called “Why our brains love feedback”. I  was inspired to write it by a meeting with artist Tim Lewis, which happened as part of a project I’m involved with : Furnace Park, which is seeing a piece of reclaimed land in an old industrial area of Sheffield transformed into a public space by the University.

A meeting with an artist gets Tom Stafford thinking about the essence of intelligence. Our ability to grasp, process and respond to information about the world allows us follow a purpose. In some ways, it’s what makes us, us.

In Tim Lewis’s world, bizarre kinetic sculptures move, flap wings, draw and even walk around. The British artist creates mechanical animals and animal machines – like Pony, a robotic ostrich with an arm for a neck and a poised hand for a head – that creak into life in a way that can seem unsettling, as if they have a strange, if awkward, life of their own. His latest creations are able to respond to the environment, and it makes me ponder the essence of intelligence – in some ways revealing what makes us, us.
I met Tim on a cold Friday afternoon to talk about his work, and while talking about the cogs and gears he uses to make his artwork move, he made a remark that made me stop in my tracks. The funny thing is, he said, all of the technology existed to make machines like this in the sixteenth century – the thing that stopped them wasn’t the technical know-how, it was because they lacked the right model of the mind.

p015lq0qJetsam 2012, by Tim Lewis (Courtesy: Tim Lewis)

What model of the mind do you need to create a device like Tim’s Jetsam, a large wire mesh Kiwi-like creature that forages around its cage for pieces of a nest to build. The intelligence in this creation isn’t in the precision of the craftwork (although it is precise), or in the faithfulness to the kind of movements seen in nature (although it is faithful). The intelligence is in how it responds to the placing of the sticks. It isn’t programmed in advance, it identifies where each piece is and where it needs to go.

This gives Jetsam the hallmark of intelligence – flexibility. If the environment changes, say when the sticks are re-scattered at random, it can still adapt and find the materials to build its nest. Rather than a brain giving instructions such as “Do this”, feedback allows instructions such as “If this, do that; if that, do the other”. Crucially, feedback allows a machine to follow a purpose – if the goal changes, the machine can adapt.

It’s this quality that the sixteenth century clockwork models lacked, and one that we as humans almost take for granted. We grasp and process information about the world in many forms, including sights, smells or sounds. We may give these information sources different names, but in some sense, these are essentially the same stuff.

Information control

Cybernetics is the name given to the study of feedback, and systems that use feedback, in all their forms. The term comes from the Greek word for “to steer”, and inspiration for some of the early work on cybernetics sprang from automatic guiding systems developed during World War II for guns or radar antennae. Around the middle of the twentieth century cybernetics became an intellectual movement across many different disciplines. It created a common language that allowed engineers to talk with psychologists, or ecologists to talk to mathematicians, about living organisms from the viewpoint of information control systems.

A key message of cybernetics is that you can’t control something unless you have feedback – and that means measurement of the outcomes. You can’t hit a moving target unless you get feedback on changes to its movement, just as you can’t tell if a drug is a cure unless you get feedback on how many more people recover when they are given it. The flip side of this dictum is the promise that with feedback, you can control anything. The human brain seems to be the arch embodiment of this cybernetic principle. With the right feedback, individuals have been known to control things as unlikely as their own heart rate, or learn to shrink and expand their pupils at will. It even seems possible to control the firing of individual brain cells.

But enhanced feedback methods can accelerate learning about more mundane behaviours. For example, if you are learning to take basketball shots, augmented feedback in the form of “You were 3 inches off to the left” can help you learn faster and reach a higher skill level quicker. Perhaps the most powerful example of an augmented feedback loop is the development of writing, which allowed us to take language and experiences, and make them permanent, solidifying it against the ravages of time, space and memory.

Thanks to feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment. Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose. Tim Lewis’s mechanical bird might seem simple, but in terms of intelligence it has more in common with us than with nearly all other machines that humans have built. Engines or clocks might be incredibly sophisticated, but until they are able to gather their own data about the environment they remain trapped in fixed patterns.

Feedback loops, on the other hand, beginning with the senses but extending out across time and many individuals, allow us to self-construct, letting us travel to places we don’t have the instructions for beforehand, and letting us build on the history of our actions. In this way humanity pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.

The rise of everyday neuroscience

I’ve got a feature article in The Observer about how our culture has become saturated with ‘neuroscience talk’ and how this has led to unhelpful simplifications of the brain to make the same old arguments.

This is often framed as a problem with ‘the media’ but this is just the most obvious aspect of the movement. Actually, it is a cultural change where the use of a sort of everyday ‘folk neuroscience’ has become credible in popular debate – regardless of its relationship to actual science.

Folk neuroscience comes with the additional benefit that it relies on concepts that are not easily challenged with subjective experience. When someone says “James is depressed because he can’t find a job”, this may be dismissed by personal experience, perhaps by mentioning a friend who was unemployed but didn’t get depressed. When someone says that “James is depressed because of a chemical imbalance in his brain”, personal experience is no longer relevant and the claim feels as if it is backed up by the authority of science. Neither usefully accounts for the complex ways in which our social world and neurobiology affect our mood but in non-specialist debate that rarely matters. As politicians have discovered it’s the force of your argument that matters and in rhetorical terms, neuroscience is a force-multiplier, even when it’s misfiring.

The article discusses how this popular neuroscience talk is being used and why is remains popular.

The piece was influenced by the work of sociologist Nikolas Rose who has written a great deal about how neuroscience is used to understand and manage people.

If you want to go in further depth than The Observer article allows I’d recommend his paper ‘Neurochemical Selves’ which is available online as a pdf.

A new book of his came out last week entitled ‘Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind’ which looks fascinating.

Link to Observer article ‘Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think’.

2013-03-01 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Providentia overs the curious history of Japan’s suicide volcano.

Skepticism about ‘social priming’ is driven by a long-history of doubt about subliminal priming of behaviour. Good piece on Daniel Simons’ Blog.

The New York Times has an amazing video about technology to enhance the perception of motion.

The ‘Vaccine Resistance Movement’ has an anti-vaccination conference in Vancouver on March 12th. Bizarrely it is being hosted by Simon Fraser University. If you want to contact them and make your views known you can do so here.

Neurobonkers covers a genuine scientific study on what gains Twitter followers. Note to self: posting pictures of yourself in underwear only works if you’re a glamour model.

We’re all Jonah Lehrer except me. Neuroskeptic on narrative and neuroscience.

The Fix discusses the overuse of ‘addiction’ to describe bad choices.

UK public art and neuroscience events currenty running: Affecting Perception taking place in Oxford and Wonder happening in London.

Slate has a form from 1889 to leave your brain to science. Only brains of “educated and orderly persons rather than those of the ignorant, criminal or insane”!

London neuroscience centre to map ‘connectome‘ of foetal brain reports Wired UK.

A neurobiological graphic novel

The Guardian has a video about the collaboration between neuroscientist Hana Ros and artist Matteo Farinella as they’ve been working on the neurocomic project to create a brain science graphic novel.

The finished project isn’t quite out yet but the artwork is looking amazing.

The film about the collaboration covers how they worked together and how each approach their work.

There’s a lovely bit where Hana Ros describes how she isolates neurons to work on and mentions she gives them all names.

Make sure you also check out the artwork on the project website.

Link to video on the collaboration.
Link to the neurocomic website.