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I have been the recipient of much kindness and goodwill thus far in my life. In times of great developmental disruptions, friends and family have stepped forward and offered me food, money and a clean, dry place to sleep. Almost all of my significant relationship breakups have unfolded with a minimum of acrimony and resentment and allowed for steady movement in the direction of the next great healing/learning adventure. As I find myself immersed in what used to be considered old age (I’ll be 70 this July – how terribly strange), I feel blessed, many times over.

Stalking Generativity

Social neuroscience and psychology research would posit that I have reached Eric Erikson’s developmental stage called Generativity. In some ways it seems like I’ve been immersed in that stage since I was a kid. Generativity derives great joy from giving to others. University of Dayton psychologist Jack Bauer proposes that my generativity joy involves a “quiet ego,” one that doesn’t need to clamor for attention, fame or recognition. With generativity comes a preference for taking a back seat to the needs of others that allows me to bask in their accomplishments. That pretty much feels right.

I’ve been a mentor of one sort or another for 40+ years now. Some of the housebuilders I’ve mentored have gone on to far surpass me in the field. And a number of the psychology doctoral students I’ve guided have gone on to win professional prizes and peer acclaim for their research (one for research on … altruism!). That all feels bask-worthy. Currently, I’m deriving great joy from building and giving away Prayer Pods for the homeless.

Mirroring Altrusim

Some neuroscience researchers argue that our brains are hardwired for altruism. I’m not so sure. In one example, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of mirror neuron fame, asserts that our brains come equipped with something he calls “prosocial resonance” circuitry. The Stress CurveAll he has to do is knock out the neurons and their connections that interfere with those prosocial circuits and voila, I’m ready to not only give you the shirt off my back, but my pants and shoes as well (I’ll probably keep my underwear, similar to how experimental subjects in this study only gave away 75%! of their money).

The overriding, real-world reality seems to be that if such hardwiring exists in most of us, it’s powerfully neutralized by the overriding circuitry that impedes altruistic behavior. Why else would 1502 of the world’s 1645 billionaires refuse to sign the Buffet-Gates Giving Pledge? (To increase that number, Gates and Buffet might want to send their next invitation letter written on … sandpaper. As this study suggests, it might actually work!). Interestingly, this neurological conflict also seems to be mirrored in the frequent clashes between science and religion. If I look into my own experience, I find myself most unempathetic when my brain has “jumped the hump” in its expression of stress hormones, for example, when I’m in physical pain or experiencing excessive fear.

Stress Makes Me Stupid and Stingy

We know from research like this and hundreds of other studies that not only can’t we think straight under stress, but most of us don’t even realize we’re not thinking straight. When I volunteered as a grief counselor, one of bit of guidance we gave every client as a matter of course was, “Don’t make any important decisions for at least a year.”

Ego CentricOne of the ways I frequently end up not thinking straight under stress is that I begin thinking 24/7 about me, me, me. You would think I’d be able to step outside that self-obsession and realize how tiring it is to spend time around other people lost in self-obsession, including myself. But no! Those interference circuits in my brain seem to have a life of their own. And until the stressor is removed or resolved, those brain cells will keep firing their interference patterns.

A Reliable Way Out

One way for me to eventually get that circuitry to calm down, I attribute to The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. There’s little better than a smart, trustworthy, reliable more organized brain living in an adult body who can listen clearly and reflect back my own self-absorption to me. More often than not such altruistic, compassionate action works to answer The Big Brain Question and simultaneously bring me home to the present moment where, more often than not, “everything is just perfect.” And because I know just how complex and unpredictable the world actually is, I can override my brain’s penchant for “time traveling” and let go and begin to relax with an open curiosity, avidly interested in what might actually be trying to show up in the next moment.

Finally, before you go, would you like to take the latest Enchanted Loom with you? It’s a review of one of the most successful neuroscience writers on the planet. If so, click HERE.

I have this friend – let’s call him Cal – who’s made enough money in the stock market to last the rest of his life. He loves learning and is widely read. From his studies he’s able to make lots of inferences and connect widely disparate dots. He then figures out how these connections might potentially impact a company’s stock price and send it higher. Cal then writes up his research and thinking and publishes it in a newsletter several times a day, complete with charts of the companies he’s researched. And he does it because he loves it. He emails his research to folks for free.

stock-marketIn any one week, Cal might mention 20 companies. They’re mostly low-priced companies that have fallen out of favor. Part of Cal’s reasoning for focusing in this area is that it’s easier for the market to take a company like Neothetics (NEOT) from .70 cents to 1.40 than it is to take Apple (AAPL) from $105 to $210. The percentage gains are the same 100%, but the amount of money the market requires to obtain those gains is significantly different.

Of the 20 companies that Cal might recommend in any week, 18 of them will make money and perhaps 2 of them will remain cheap or lose money. Guess which two companies my brain invariably has me hone in on!

The Fascination of Loss

Even though losing money is painful – money is often wired as part of the brain’s survival circuitry – and stressful, leading to all kinds of bad decisions – I still find it fascinating that I can so unerringly select Cal’s few losers. Take Water Generation Industries (WGI – a fictional company based on a real one) as a recent representative example. In mid-September of last year, simply because a notorious name in the industry had given WGI a casual mention in the financial press the price shot up from .94 to $3.47! I later bought the stock (cheap, I thought) at .74 cents shortly before they announced earnings.

Well, the company’s report was pretty much as the market expected. However, they projected a 60%-80% increase in revenues going forward! Normally, when a company makes such projections, the stock price will skyrocket. WGI’s price at this writing: .61 cents. I’ve lost roughly 18%.

Hardwiring Feedback Loops

So, what might be going on here? First of all, when it comes to money, I think it’s important to know how memory works. It’s useful to think of memory simply as learning. When learning takes place, cells in the brain make connections. No connections, no learning. Multiple connections – powerful, memorable learning.

Neuroscientists recognize two kinds of learning/memory: explicit or declarative; and implicit or procedural. The first is conscious and we mostly use language to demonstrate it. The second, Procedural memory (“knowing how”) is …

the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things. These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice, and are composed of automatic sensorimotor behaviors that are so deeply embedded that we are no longer aware of them. Once learned, these “body memories” allow us to carry out ordinary actions more or less automatically.

poverty-shoes 1200xx3870-2177-0-199When you grow up in poverty, your brain and body “learn” how to be poor. Through repeated exposure to the conditions that lack of money creates, through procedural memory, your neurophysi- ology learns to adapt and feel “at home” with poverty. Being poor feels familiar and “right.” It has laid down learning connections in the brain that take little energy to operate that are mostly unconscious. And we’re unconsciously and powerfully drawn to things that will tend to keep us feeling comfortable and familiar. Which is part of the reason I believe it’s so easy for me to significantly beat the odds in personally picking the two losers out of Cal’s 20 stocks. It’s not me; it’s my body’s memory.

Disconnecting and Rewiring

I’ve come up with three things I want to practice in an attempt to disconnect the early wiring and unlearn this procedural conditioning carried over from childhood. First, I’ve got to gradually move in the direction of things I don’t feel comfortable with, learning to incrementally manage the discomfort. With the stock market, as an experiment, I probably should stay away from Cal’s picks that I really like. Better to meta-learn his reasons for selecting the companies he does and also choose companies from his list that I don’t much resonate with initially, like small banks, which Cal specializes in.

Stress Nectin

Click Image to Enlarge

Next, when I have the urge to sell, I should pause, especially when it’s a “reactive sell.” Reactive sells are “unreasonable” – meaning the decision isn’t arrived at by clear reasoning – and are almost always generated by unconscious procedural memory wanting to homeostatically discharge the stress hormones and make me feel better. Reactive selling accomplishes that.

Finally, with affirmations and by calling up conscious declarative memories with regard to a few successful market selections I have made – by repeatedly attending to the conditions that resulted in those being successful – I will begin to strengthen new learning (brain cell connections) and let the old, unhelpful connections hopefully sever their adherence proteins and die out from disuse.

And with all of this, I probably will be very well served by patience … with my own brain and its slow growth and change, and with the daily operating brains that work as this global collective entity we call the stock market.

“Our brain is simply a vehicle for formless awareness to function in form. It is kind and wise to learn to use it well.”

~ Kathleen Singh, The Grace in Aging, 121


1. Life Above All Else

The primary default function of our brain is to keep it and our body alive.

Almost everything the brain does, from winnowing down input from our senses so that 99% of what we encounter can be processed – albeit unconsciously, to the constant monitoring of the environment for threats, to the ongoing modulation of arousal states – these brain functions have all evolved with the primary purpose of keeping us alive. To the brain, death is perceived as the enemy, one to be kept at bay by almost any means necessary for as long as possible. To see the unfortunate consequence of this vulnerability of our collective brains, visit a senior care facility. Or watch crows when one of their own dies. Or better yet, read this account of what happens when a good neuroscientist’s brain goes bad.

ReaperTo countermand this limitation of the brain – its inability to fathom the strangeness of unbeing – many spiritual traditions offer practitioners specific information about death. Often what’s offered is guidance for what practitioners can expect once the body dies. So, for example, Tibetan Buddhism offers The Eight Cycles of Dissolution as a description of what to expect upon leaving this life. Catholicism instructs that those who die in sin are dispatched to the Hell Realms, while those who die in God’s grace receive eternal salvation. Neuroscientists believe that something happens – The First Law of Thermodynamics applies – they’re just not sure what. And it may be different for every one of us, just as every one of our living brains and bodies are different.

But what happens to us while we’re living and our brain-built concerns about death genuinely become a non-issue? One measure of death as a non-issue might be our degree of self-transcendence. It turns out there are specific networked brain regions that correspond with our degree of self-transcendence. Might our personal concerns about dying dissolve into self-transcendence simply by organically rewiring those areas? And if so, how might we best go about that rewiring?

2. Our Brain Uses Words to Navigate the Consensus-Reality World

Between 18 to 24 months, the language areas of the brain become available for understanding and generating language. These are generally thought to be Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area, located in the left hemisphere (corresponding areas in the right hemisphere are thought to process the “Deep Structure” of language). How we learned these areas are associated with language understanding and generation was through research on patients who had Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas damaged. Word SaladPeople who are unable to understand written or spoken language are diagnosed with Wernicke’s Aphasia. We are able to put thoughts into words and generate speech courtesy of Broca’s Area, which is considered the brain’s scriptwriter. When Broca’s area is damaged, we lose the ability to express language.

Once language comes online, it mediates direct contact with the world. We begin to attach words to people, places and experiences. We begin to construct a life-narrative. That narrative uses words which store easily as memories. Those memories and that narrative begin to define – and significantly limit – who we think we are. Who would we be without our personal narratives, our unique personal histories? Especially since much of what our brain is designed to pay most attention to are people, places and experiences where hyper-arousal or threats to life are involved, making them all most memorable.

3. Our Brain Constantly Time Travels.

In the 1970’s the comedian Flip Wilson made The Church of What’s Happening Now a national meme. Members of the church lived life according to The Ram Dass Principle: Be Here Now. Divinity/Spirituality can only be found in the now – in the present moment. Unfortunately, thanks to the Prefrontal Paradox (email me – floweringbrain@gmail.com – if you’re interested in the explanatory slideshare), many of our brains lack sufficient bandwidth and connectivity to continually take up residence in The Church of What’s Happening Now. Rip Van WinkleIn order to keep us alive, the brain generates all kinds of words that either take us back to the past or have us thinking about the future in ways intended to insure our survival. It generates thoughts like: How can I make more money? How can I get healthier? How can I have more friends? How can I learn more about spirituality and the brain?– all oriented towards making things different and hopefully better and contributing to a longer life at some time in the future.

So, there you have three ways the brain undermines spirituality. If you want a few hundred more, here’s a link to a dozen recent books on Neuroscience & Spirituality. They’re filled with words about death and a better future that you may find to be an interesting distraction. I certainly did.

Oh, and lest I forget, here’s another Enchanted Loom on spirituality – my friend, Kathleen Singh’s wonderfully readable book, The Grace in Aging.

The first day I showed up for work at one of the nation’s premier Think Tanks I was totally overawed. So much so that I considered not even taking the job. I would be hanging out daily with people who were extremely mentally agile, people who’d won Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Genius Fellowships, Pulitzers. These were people able to make rapid and far-flung mental connections with lightning speed and often their staccato way of communicating that information made me extremely nervous. Even though I was a member of Mensa and I’d earned the same Ph.D. degree as they did (and even had the CEO of Proquest [where all academic research dissertations go to die] personally call me up and praise my work!), I found their reputations and that manner of thinking and speaking extremely intimidating. This world, so very different than my ordinary one, triggered massive stress hormones in my body, since my own daily brain operated in a much more “Which way did he go, George?” manner.

The Color of Genius

Creative Business Idea

But the people who hired me were warm and welcoming and after only a few weeks up there on top of the hill, I began to settle in. One day, one of the staff members took me aside and offered me this assurance: “One thing you’ll learn up here is – genius isn’t genius all the time.” Not only did I learn the truth of that reality, but I came to directly experience over and over that intellectual genius and emotional genius are not the same thing, and in fact, it’s quite uncommon for both to simultaneously take up residence in a single body.

Since then I’ve come to learn a little bit about the brain’s acquired ability to think fast and talk fast. I’ve also learned something about my inability to feel comfortable in the company of highly regarded academic superstars. As this recent research from Brad Hershbein at the Brookings Institute (another high-level think tank) shows, the college degree that I received is significantly different than the degree academic superstars obtain. Why? Because we each began our careers from very different starting points. Growing up poor, only state colleges and lower income majors had much realistic appeal for me. The people and the surrounding environments were what my neurophysiology felt most comfortable with.

Matching Environment to Brain Function

So, for example, I began my academic career at a small junior college in Southern California (Valley College). I easily fit in, did well and felt comfortable there. As a Junior, I transferred to UCLA. There I felt totally overwhelmed and out of place. The sheer size of the school and the large masses of people proved to be more stimulation than my brain and body could easily integrate. Constantly overstressed, my brain didn’t work well. I finally dropped out and transferred to a small state school in upstate NY (SUNY New Paltz) where I graduated with honors. For graduate school, I tried UCLA again. Again I dropped out in favor of a much smaller startup school in Silicon Valley – The California Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. Total enrollment: 38 students! Guess what. I felt totally at home. It took ten years, but I finally completed a Masters Degree and then a Ph.D.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Each of the schools I felt most at home in had very few fast thinkers or fast talkers, and those few who did show up I shied away from. When think tank fellow Daniel Kahneman published his book, Thinking Fast and Slow several years ago, you can bet I was immediately drawn to it. Here’s a passage that helped me make sense of my think tank experience: “People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” In shying away from fast thinkers and talkers, it turns out my brain was most likely exercising unconscious, prudent discernment.

But my exposure to fast thinkers and fast talkers inspired a number of important developments. First of all arose a desire to try and understand what made them tick. This desire inevitably led me to neuroscience. Here’s a recent brief partial explanation of how their brains work: What makes the brain tick so fast?

Meeting the Fast Talker Challenge

Wisdom of ListeningAn inevitable challenge for me was to learn how to be comfortable around fast thinkers and fast talkers – to not end up either hyper-aroused or feeling totally shut down in their presence. That desire was the initial inspiration for developing “listening practice.” I began reading pieces by people whom I respected on the topic of skillful listening. People like Ram Dass, Joan Halifax, Rodney Smith, and Kathleen Singh. Then one day I got the idea to put them all together into an anthology, since that’s what many of the scholars at the think tank often did. And thus The Wisdom of Listening was born. And now here, 13 years later, to my great delight, it’s remains a useful, steady-selling resource for people of all sorts of thinking and talking styles.

Who? Me? My brain? Judge you? No way.

Way.

Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you who you are. — Cervantes (1607)

Brain-Changing Training Offer: Click -> HERE

 

Here’s an interesting study done more than a decade ago. Michelle Hebl and Laura Mannix, psychologists at Rice University, placed a number of volunteer subjects in a waiting room with a prospective job applicant. In one condition the applicant sat in a corner all alone. In another, they sat next to a person of average weight. In a third condition, the applicant sat next to a person who was overweight. Different sets of volunteer raters were then asked if they would hire the applicant.

Fat and SkinnyAs you might suspect – simply because I’m including it here under this blog title – in addition to being perceived as less active, intelligent, hardworking, attractive, popular, successful, and athletic, the job applicant sitting next to the overweight person was deemed to have lower professional and interpersonal skills when compared to the person sitting alone or with a person of average weight. Cluelessly, these “hiring managers” were not only penalizing overweight applicants, but they also penalized someone who was merely in proximity to someone overweight.

Now consider: more than 2/3s of the people in this country are currently obese or overweight. What do you think those unconscious negative judgments are doing to people who struggle with weight’s neurophysiology? What unspoken answers do you think their own brains are giving to The Big Brain Question? (An interesting aside: If YOU win a Lottery Jackpot, this research suggests my brain is more likely to make me spend to the point of bankruptcy!).

The Brain’s Primary Primary

My brain has one primary concern: keeping me alive. If you’re someone who hangs out with fat people, my brain unconsciously decides that you will not be of much help when the Storm Troopers or the toothless guys from the movie, Deliverance show up. My brain (mostly) unconsciously decides my chances of survival are better if I don’t hang out with you, but hang out with mixed martial artists and Navy Seal Team Six members instead. Of course, knowing about this unconscious bias of my brain is necessary in order for me to then consciously override it. But what if I’m clueless and unaware of this unconscious bias? Then what?

Color Me Biased

This unconscious bias in my brain is unfortunately not only active in me when it comes to the company overweight people keep. It’s also quite active in assessing the color of the company I keep. If you are a person of color or hang out with a person of color, my brain has a built-in anti-preference for you. And unfortunately, it has it against you even if I am a person of color myself. Frances Aboud, a developmental social psychologist at McGill University, has been studying toddlers for decades. Black White ToddlersBlack, brown, white or yellow, every toddler in predominantly white cultures unconsciously prefers … white. Why? Because virtually everything their brain has been exposed to in white dominant cultures implicitly and explicitly portrays white-preference. From billboard ads to television programs to simply their larger numbers on the street – whites dominate the world around us. They also dominate in the world inside us – in the connections our brain cells make in the process of learning about the world around us. In order to counteract this early learning it is important to expose children to diversity in as many forms as we can supply it. From people of different colors, various sizes, different sexual and political and religious preferences, to people with different developmental and physical limitations. Exposure to multi-forms of diversity in the world outside us leads to multi-forms of diversity in the neural networks inside us. Which provides a much richer life to live.

Finally, here’s a perfect Enchanted Loom review to further your understanding of just how unconscious so many neural operations actually are – Shakar Vedantam’s book, The Hidden Brain.

Near as I can tell, the most cash-flow positive way to make money on the Internet seems to be to seduce people with a “can’t fail, easy-as-peasy pie” scheme to make money on the Internet. Of course, only a very small percentage of the people who buy these seminars and take these online courses ever reap the millions promised. Why? Well, the vulnerabilities of our brain and the limitations of our body might have something to do with it.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those people who make millions on the internet are similar to those people who make millions from multi-level marketing “opportunities.” They are people who have the energy, discipline, drive and focus to be successful in almost any business or enterprise they immerse themselves in. But energy, discipline, drive and focus are functions of a brain that operates in a very specific manner.

Competing With Free

It’s not an accident that even free internet courses like those offered by EdX and Udemy and Coursera have a massive fail-to-complete rate. That means that the vast majority of people who enroll in online offerings don’t have the energy, interest, drive and discipline or the ability to sustain the focus required to complete them. This means several things.

MOOCbetterwordbubble

As someone who has taken such courses and who has completed them (and taken several that I did not complete), I have a sense of the brain processes involved. One is that if self-directed study is to be successful, I need to know why I’m doing the studying, and I need to keep reminding myself of that reason(s). Two courses I managed to complete online were Idan Segev’s and Peggy Mason’s courses on brain physiology – something I am deeply interested in and already know a lot about. Now I know even more. Those courses about changing the brain and how it works have changed my brain and how it works. That was my purpose in taking them.

Interestingly, there were two other internet courses about the brain that I enrolled in that I did not complete. The main reason: the teachers. I simply did not resonate with the teaching and presentation style. Peggy Mason and Idan Segev are colorful characters. And they’re passionate, about the brain and about teaching. Their energy and unique personality – their spirit – shines through. It didn’t even matter that Idan is Israeli and half the time I couldn’t understand what he was saying because of his heavy accent. For me, his passion over-rode his accent. These professors did manage to stimulate the pleasure centers in my brain. That circuitry lit up in response to me learning something REALLY INTERESTING in a fun, surprising and enjoyable way.

But of course, now, if I’m going to make millions on the Internet, I’m left with the hard work of actually APPLYING what I’ve learned from Peggy and Idan in compelling and creative ways such that massive numbers of people will be willing and wanting to discount “free” and pay good money for. So far, no good.

The Empowerment Delusion

Another factor that precludes most of us from ever becoming internet millionaires is The Empowerment Delusion: the false belief that feeling empowered, or believing I am empowered, is the same as actually being empowered. It’s something I have been a victim of myself more than a time or two. Best SellerPart of why The Empowerment Delusion works I suspect, is that beliefs themselves, much like positive thoughts, affect neurotransmitters in the brain associated with Reward Circuitry – with the ventral-tegmental area and the striatum – the brain’s pleasure centers. But while generating feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters may be necessary, it is clearly not sufficient when it comes to the hard work required to actually accomplish something of significance that will generate substantial cash flow.

Take writing a novel as an example of The Empowerment Delusion. Here’s a typical “empowerment pitch”: You Can Write Your Novel in 30 Days. As a young and naïve aspiring novelist, I’ve probably taken a half dozen of these workshops/programs. Initially, my brain generates all kinds of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. I’ll be off to the races, cranking out pages day after day. Then, about 10 days or two weeks in, the thrill suddenly stalls. Those bewitching brain chemicals no longer work their magic. Writing now becomes … work. It was conveniently never mentioned that this novel-writing gig was going to feel like work! I could actually feel this way by getting a job with a paycheck. And have money coming in, rather than day after day only going out!

If Michaelangelo were alive today, I doubt he would become a grand master by spending untold hours attempting to become an Internet millionaire. I’ll leave you with what he had to say about his own mastery: “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

Here’s an important essay that probably won’t set your dopamine circuitry ablaze, but it’s important to read if you want to be truly knowledgeable about neuroscience research.

A Neurocultures Manifesto

By Victoria Pitts-Taylor

This manifesto is for those of us who do not consider ourselves as belonging to one of the scientific fields generating official brain knowledge. We need a neurocultural manifesto because the brain has been put forward by others as foundational for knowing about the self and social life, because neuroscientists are being asked to be the philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists of our era – they are being asked to do our jobs – and are responding with enthusiasm, and also because brain matter is mattering. Its materiality is now making itself known everywhere: in images, texts, in culture, in embodied practices, in the clinic and the hospital and the school, in everyday life. Many of us want to expand and diversify the available knowledges about the brain by offering critical perspectives on the brain and brain science that take the social and cultural as seriously as the biological. This is a critical task that deserves encouragement.

anatomy_of_the_nilla_brain_by_iceandsnowThe “Biocultures Manifesto” (Davis and Morris 2007) encouraged the work of critical scholars who were collapsing the onto-epistemological divides between biology and culture. The biocultural view argues for the co-constitution of the body and culture, and for the impossibility of knowing them separately. Following a biocultural view, the term “neurocultures” refers to a number of social and biological problematics, including: the cultural condition of the so-called age of the brain, or the current era’s excitement over neuroscientific knowledge; struggles among scientists, doctors, patients, advocates, ethicists, and activists over what the brain is, should be, and can be; representations of the brain and applications of brain science in the cultural and political imagination; personal and collective uptakes of neuroscientific knowledge in everyday life; academic appropriations of neuroscience in the humanities and social sciences; and, most fundamentally, the inextricability of neuronal matter with its bodily, social, and historical surroundings.

This manifesto draws on the work of neo-materialist scholars in feminist and social theory who are rethinking biological matter. Dissatisfied with the limitations of social constructionism for critiquing biological knowledge, but mindful of its insights, neo-materialism examines the ineluctably social character of nature and the natural makeup of the social. In doing so it ultimately collapses the distinctions between them, recalling Donna Haraway’s (1991) formulation, nature/culture. Neuroscientific knowledge is being widely applied to questions of mind, self and society, with significant implications for our understandings of personal identity, gender, sexuality, embodiment, ethics and morality, human nature, and social life. In response, feminists, social theorists, writers of literature and memoir, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, artists and others outside of neuroscience are now taking up and critiquing brain science. This manifesto urges a commitment to a biocultural framework in our critical engagements.

NeuroCultures Manifesto

  1. The brain is biocultural. A biocultural point of view sees biology and culture as inextricably connected. This does not mean that biology determines the social, but means instead that they interface and cannot be divided; separation is fatal for critical thinking. For example, research on brain plasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change in response to environmental changes and experience, and epigenetics, or how genes are differentially expressed, raise many questions regarding how culture matters neuronally. A dynamic view sees the brain (as a physiological structure), mind (as what the brain does) and world (the body, other people, culture, the environment) in constant engagement.
  1. Neurocentrism is a limiting viewpoint. The brain is part of, in, and dependent upon the body. Any philosophical treatment of the brain that forgets this should be reminded. Conversely, critical scholarship on the body in cultural studies, feminism, queer and social theory should take into account the brain as a bodily organ that, like the rest of the body, expresses the co-dependence of nature and culture.
  1. Selves and subjects are always embodied. They are always biological as well as cultural, social, and personal. Social theory that pits culture, mind and self against biology, including neurobiology, diminishes our grasp of the dynamic relation of these.
  1. The brain is matter. Critical scholarship must take up how the brain is framed by neuroscience, but it does not best proceed by treating the biological as if it were simply made up. Social constructionists should not assume “social facts may be entirely dissociated from biological facts” (Davis and Morris 2007). Critique should not limit itself to describing the conditions under which facts of biology are known or generated (Latour 2004). Critical work on the brain must attend to the materiality of brain facts. We must examine the technologies, practices, and modifications that intervene in and transform neural flesh, while taking the organic seriously. Those who do not take the organic seriously are at risk of reifying dualist modes of thinking and dismissing people’s lived experiences of embodiment.
  1. flying_brain_by_pixelnaseThe brain is not ahistorical, fixed, or atemporal. A good deal of current neurobiology paints a picture of the brain as continually shaped through its constant dynamic relation with the world. Further, the brain is always situated in a body and self, and thus in social relations, in family, community, in culture and the economy, in the local and the global, in history. One of the tasks of neurocultural critique is to insist upon holistic perspectives; the methods and knowledges of the humanities and social sciences are necessary for grasping the situated brain as a cultural as well as organic subject/object.
  1. Because a biocultural brain must be understood and interpreted biologically and culturally, scientists cannot be left to do this job alone. Relatedly, the cultural implications of cellular-level research in the lab cannot be interpreted solely through the lens of biology. Interdisciplinary work is no longer optional, but required in order to avoid and combat biological reductionism in arenas where it is an intellectual detriment.
  1. A lot is at stake in knowledge about the brain. This is true for those identified as neurotypicals and those identified as neurodiverse; for patients and those not (yet) patients of neurologists; for those whose body practices and notions of personal wellness are being shaped by brain science; for those identified as at risk for dementia, addiction, depression, infertility, obesity, or other bodily condition now being informed by neuroscience; for juries, jurists, judges and defendants who are being exposed to brain evidence; for men and women who are being told that they have different brain types; for anyone implicated in discussions of morality, emotion, reason, intelligence, sanity, health, sexuality, personality and character. The stakes are material as well as discursive; brain knowledge is not simply shaping what we think brains are, but is informing practices that literally, materially shape them.
  1. We should all participate in negotiating these stakes. Neuroscientists are expanding their reach far beyond their training, into realms of philosophy, ethics, society, culture. Scholars of these fields must return the favor. When boundaries are broken down between biology and culture, cultural theorists need to be as empowered to speak about biology as biologists are about culture.
  1. We should learn to be critical readers of brain scholarship. We should teach our students to read neuroscientific papers, critique methods and interpretations, and follow controversies in the field (see for example Dumit 2004; Jordan-Young 2010; Vidal and Ortega 2011). We should not rely on only popular books that sell neuroscience as philosophy; we should read the research upon which these books make their claims.
  1. We should not accept uncritical uses of neuroscience in our own disciplines. Neurosociologists should be as careful with neuroscientific methods and interpretations as they are of sociological ones. Cognitive literary studies should be as attentive and responsible with its use of research on neurons and brain regions as it is of texts. The reification of neuroscientific ideas is anathema to a biocultural agenda.

There are now numerous scholars in the humanities and social sciences whose work is engaging critically with brain science. Collectively we are establishing a critical biocultural, neurocultural literature on the brain. Unfortunately, however, it is still much easier to find uncritical rehearsals of brain science that disseminate it as monolithic, unassailable truth. Critical neurocultural scholarship on the brain can improve the fund of knowledge about our biocultural constitution. A neurocultural intervention will be critical but also relevant; it will grasp the cultural-political stakes; it will demand holistic perspectives on organic matter; and it will make room for multiple and complex interpretations of the cultural/biological interface that refuses to reduce one to the other.

Victoria Pitts-Taylor is Professor of Sociology, Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society, and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as Professor of Sociology at Queens College, CUNY.

References:

Davis, Lennard and David Morris. 2007. “Biocultures Manifesto,” New Literary History vol. 38 no. 3: 411-418.

Dumit, Joseph. 2004. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women:The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Jordan-Young. Rebecca. 2010. Brainstorm: the Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to

Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 no. 2: 225-248.

Vidal, Fernando and Francisco Ortega. 2011. “Approaching the Neurocultural Spectrum – an Introduction,” pp 7-27 in Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe, ed. Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal. New York: Peter Lang.

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