"Critical Neuroscience" and the discomfort of being studied

I drove up to Montreal yesterday, and amid visits with anthropologist and Somatosphere founder Eugene Raikhel, anthropologist Allan Young, and Suparna Choudhury, talked about (among other things) the emerging new area of study they're calling "critical neuroscience."

What the heck is critical neuroscience? Well, one definition calls it

the attempt to assess and inform neuroscientific practice from a rich interdisciplinary perspective, and to categorize, evaluate and (begin to) manage the various risks resulting from neuroscience and its results and applications


Daniel Lende, one of the founders of the excellent blog Neuroanthropology and a major instigator here, offers a more expansive shot at defining it and succinct version here; and a look at a recent conference line-up gives further clues.

And, finally, ringleader Suparna Choudhury, at lunch yesterday, offered that the idea in CN is not simply to step back from neuroscience so we can look at it as a social and cultural operation -- to study "the anthropology of the lab," as she put it -- but also to bring new cultural and anthropological perspectives and questions into the discipline of neuroscience itself, so as to enrich its investigations.

They're still figuring it out, really, as the thing itself is still taking on definition -- it's still half-idea, half-dispcline, which is half the fun.

"Critical X" is not new, of course. Social scientists, anthropologists, and historians of science have been picking apart scientific disciplines for some time now, producing a lot of interesting work and at times ruffling feathers to an extreme. For some time, for instance -- as since at least 1973 -- we've had critical psychiatry, which seeks to deconstruct the cultural, political, and commercial assumptions, foundations, and (alleged?) agendas of psychiatry from philosophical, cultural, and social-science perspectives: Foucault meets Pharma is just the beginning of this.

It's probably this legacy of critical psychiatry -- which is perhaps known most for being critical indeed of psychiatry, in a way that psychiatrists don't necessarily enjoy -- that makes some neuroscientists nervous about the emergence of something called critical neuroscience. Choudhury recently got a taste of this unease when she presented a paper outlining the critical neurosci agenda at a small conference of neurosci researchers in Europe; she said about half the audience were very excited about the implications and about half reacted with alarm. "It was amazingly controversial," she said, mostly because people tend to misconstrue the word 'critical,' which we mean to denote reflexivity about the way we work and the tools and concepts we use and to provide a way to be creative in the lab. [underlined copy added later 2/27/09]

I'm liking this, myself, and think it has tremendous potential to enrich the field. The convulsions that psychiatry is now undergoing might arguably have been avoided or made less severe if it were better able to integrate some of the more constructive ideas and critiques about it; conceivably it would be less wed to pharmacology, or more resistant to its excesses, and have found a way to be evidence-based and cognizant of biology while giving as much weight to behavioral results as chemical. (Why oh why, for isntance, is "Prozac" is a household term -- and prescribed by not just psychiatrists but millions of primary-care physicians -- while CBT, which is more effective and safer, is neither. Oh yeah I forgot I need to spell out CBT: cognitive behavioral therapy.

My hunch is that while the idea (and perhaps especially the name; maybe best find something less threatening than "critical") will put some neuroscientists on the defensive, this is likely to product a more fruitful interplay than occurred in psychiatry.

Why will the better mix?

First, because neuroscience is in an early stage, and so more fluid, open, and dynamic.

Second, because neuroscience seems so open in general to ideas and people from the outside. Partly because it's young and still being defined, neuroscience is full of people who came to it from other disciplines: Computational biologists, neurologists, psychologists, economists, child development specialists. etc.. The short tradition is to mix.

Third, because in this open-source, open science, Everything 2.0 world, there's more general recognition that mixing disciplines produces richer work.

This be an interesting thing to watch. If you want to watch (and who doesn't like to watch), keep an eye on Neuroanthropology and Somatosphere, two outstanding group blogs that work this terrain, and Neurologica, new to me, seems to cover this ground too. Visiting it from time to time as well are Neurophilosophy, the Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic

.... and probably some I've left out. Please use the comments section to point out my oversights.

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Nice post.

The necessity for a critical neuroscience may have been anticipated by Karl Popper and John Eccles in their 1977 book, "The Self and Its Brain." They open the book by paraphrasing Immanuel Kant from the Critique of Practical Reason. Kant noted the incompatible but simultaneous existence of the material universe, on the one hand, and the human personality or "self" who was observing it on the other: "The first annihilates the importance of man, considered as a part of the physical universe. The second raises immeasurably his value as an intelligent and responsible being." Make the object under investigation the brain itself, and you have the triple problem of materiality, consciousness, and self-consciousness rolled into one!

Popper was more than just a philosopher of science. He was concerned also with how science was affected by the political and social conditions in which it was practiced. Later, historians and sociologists of science took this question up more seriously.

I'm not up to date with what people who call themselves critical neuroscientists are doing, but I imagine it to be an enhanced (with contributions by anthropology, consciousness studies, linguistics, etc.) confrontation with the question of the conditions for understanding mind and brain that Popper/Eccles identified in their book. Only for CN the emphasis is perhaps less on the refractions of philosophical self (the "mind") than on the collective self ("society").

But let's talk critically about the expression critical neuroscience for a moment. The word 'critical' has been used by academics so much it no longer has power to draw the attention of fresh listeners. Think of that horrible rash that has grown on English departments everywhere: "Critical Theory."

Many will dismiss any rubric containing the word critical because they associate it with the narrowly accusatory outlook with which it has usually been associated. The very sound of it arouses involuntary suspicion. How can a critical neuroscientist ever expect to raise grant money? Society rewards its builders not its critics!

Taking inspiration from The Self and Its Brain, perhaps a good name for the emerging discipline would be: The Brain-and-Its-Collective-Self Studies, as Adjunct to Neuroscience.