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Dispatches from the Neurosociety

In December of last year, Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) organized a conference at Oxford’s Saïd Business School called “Neurosociety: What is it with the brain these days?“  Here’s how the conference organizers described the aims of the meeting:

 The theme of the conference was the rise of the brain and the emergence of the brain industry or ‘neuro markets’. The aim was to explore how, why and in what ways the figure of the brain has come to permeate so many different areas of thinking and practice in academic and commercial life. What are the consequences for academia, business, commerce and policy?

Now, for those of who were unable to attend, the organizers have kindly made a number of talks and discussions — as well as slide presentations — available online.  Below is a list of the talks and discussions posted in mp3 format, along with abstracts.  You can also download a conference report, which summarizes some of the conversations among participants.

Welcome and opening remarks: Steve Woolgar and Tanja Schneider

Panel discussion: ‘Constructing and reading neuroimages’ (Chair: Paul Martin)

Kelly Joyce – ‘Producing and interpreting neuroimages in the clinic’ (slides available here)

Medical imaging scans are integral to neurologists’ medical work; these professionals use imaging scans as diagnostic procedures and as tracking or surveillance techniques once a person is diagnosed with a particular condition. This talk analyzes the work involved in producing, interpreting, and using neuroimaging scans in clinical practice. Drawing on field work in MRI units in hospitals; in-depth interviews with technologists, radiologists, and neurologists; and review of relevant medical literatures, this analysis demonstrates that MRI scans are best understood as etches that bring together the body, institutional contexts, medical professionals’ varying levels of skill and expertise, and socio-technical decisions. Discussing technologists’ and physicians’ work practices also offers insight into how health care professionals understand and use the technology in practice.

Patricia Pisters – ‘The brain is the screen: the “neuro-image” in contemporary cinema’ (slides available here)

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze argued in the 1980s about cinema that “the brain is the screen.” Taken this remark literal and investigating digital screen culture in connection to principles of neuroscience, I will discuss in which ways contemporary cinema can be described as a “neuro-image”. I will introduce the cinematographic neuro-image by looking at the changes in the cinematographic image in relation to thought, and by sketching some of its aesthetic characteristics.

Keynote 1: Nikolas Rose‘Who do you think you are? Managing personhood in a neurobiological age’ (slides available here)

No one can doubt the contemporary prominence of ‘neuro’ talk and the frequent references to the brain in the popular media, in policy analysis, and in much discourse concerning human thought, feeling, desires and conduct, from economics to theology. Some have suggested that we have witnessed a wholesale cerebralisation of culture and personhood.

In this talk I will ask how, by what means, and in what ways, neuroscience has emerged from the laboratory and the clinic to become a key dimension in so many programmes and practices for the understanding and management of persons in their everyday lives. While many from the human sciences have been highly critical of what they see as neurobiological reductionism, I shall suggest the possibility of a more positive encounter between the Geisteswissenschaften and the neurosciences.

Keynote 2a: Jonathan Rowson‘The social value of neurological reflexivity: decisions, habits and attention’  (slides available here)

This talk will critically examine the charitable purpose of the RSA Social Brain programme, our distinctive ‘Steer’ approach to behaviour change, and our practical attempts to inform people’s control over their decisions, habits and attention. Our work seeks to highlight the emergence of ‘neurological reflexivity’ through which ‘the brain’ becomes a touchstone for assessing our behavioural constraints and potentials. Such reflexivity is potentially empowering for everybody, but the knowledge that underpins it can easily be distorted or exaggerated, with harmful effects. The challenge explored here is how to distil and disseminate the relevant knowledge about brains and behaviour in an intellectually coherent and socially responsible way.

Keynote 2b: Sabine Maasen - ‘Neuroeconomics – a marriage of giants thanks to neoliberal knowledge society?!’

We are currently witnessing various attempts at uniting economic and neuroscientific knowledge both at the level of academic discourse (neuroeconomics) and professional practice (neuromarketing). While key protagonists would emphasize that these alliances result from self-evident epistemic affinities between two key sciences, I would rather like to scrutinize the social-cum-epistemic conditions for alliances of neuro and economics to arise. Among the most prominent of these conditions we find (a) the ever-precarious notion of ‘the social’ in everyday discourse, (b) the evanescent persuasiveness of purely social/cultural scientific accounts, and (c) the changing practices of sociability in neoliberal society towards neosociability – taken together, these developments provide fertile grounds for alliances such as neuroeconomics as well as neuromarketing to become ever-more plausible.

Closing discussion: Steve Woolgar and Paul Wouters


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