11 August 2009

Critical Response: Fernando Vidal, “Brainhood, anthropological figure of modernity”

Dr. Fernando Vidal is an extraordinary thinker. He was the first to call attention to the rise of the “cerebral subject,” a conception of the self that proposes that identity and the brain are the same thing – as Vidal puts it: “that the brain is the only part of the body we need in order to be ourselves” (p. 6). Vidal’s scholarship is some of the best in the history of the neurosciences. He has single-handily inspiried many graduate students and young academicians, and mainly because he has something to profound to say and supports his profundity with extremely rigorous research. His scholarship, moreover, is a cure for the now widespread disease of “neuro-optimism”, a social condition whose ideological proponents presuppose with much hype the transcendence of all things neuroscientific and the simultaneous applicability of neuroscientific knowledge to everything that involves humans. It is not, however, the business of “The Neuro Times” to laud anyone (or for that matter to create animosity). In other words, I presume that the merits of any scholar (and his or her scholarship) featured in “The Dictionary of Neurology Project” are self-evident.

E. H. Carr’s famous series of lectures at Oxford titled “What is History?” surely number among the more brilliant passages ever written on history. In his fifth lecture titled “History as Progress”, Carr offers an observation that frames this critical response to Vidal’s essay. Carr wrote,

…only the future can provide the key to the interpretation of the past; and it is only in this sense that we can speak of an ultimate objectivity in history. It is at once the justification and the explanation of history that the past throws light on the future and the future throws light on the past.

For Carr, then, the judgment of posterity would provide the ultimate objectivity to contemporary history, while also shaping its subjects and frameworks and simultaneously offering explanations of the origins of human progress. At first, Carr’s claim appears little better than those trite aphorisms: “history is written by the victors” and “save us from the condescension of the historians”. But in fact, his remark indicates the central problem entailed by Vidal’s historical approach to the “cerebral subject”. For if, as Vidal claims, the “cerebral subject” first took shape in the thought of Descartes, Willis, and Locke, why was it only discovered after the “Decade of the Brain”? As I shall make clear shortly, this is not the cute rhetorical question it appears but rather the essence of our problem for understanding the history of the neurosciences and their stature in contemporary society.


In the introduction to his essay, Vidal begins by noting the new cache of the neurosciences and the consequent legitimacy that cache has lent to the notion of brainhood – the idea that we are our brains. Importantly, Vidal claims that we can construe the “cerebral subject” as the archetypical “anthropological figure inherent to modernity”. He furthermore suggests that an originating thread of this conception arose in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, where Vidal argues Locke “redefined ‘person’ as a continuity of memory and consciousness.” And thus demonstrated that each individual had inalienable rights that “could in principle be attached to any substance” but were “in practice…necessarily located in the brain as organ responsible for the functions with which the self was identified.” (p. 7). What follows this powerful introduction is a provocative and curious story, one moreover that Vidal has arranged in a peculiar and highly noteworthy fashion.

In his first section – “Hoping for Breakthroughs” – Vidal examines the divisions of labor in formation and their tropes that manifested ultimately out of The Decade of the Brain and subsequent calls for The Century of the Brain. This period, perhaps 1945 to the present, brought with it a variety incarnations. Against such scary backdrops as Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, the neurosciences appeared ominous and raised “the spector of mind control” and Owellianism. What we might call mind as machine optimism also led to many assertions and these in turn fostered the formation of new disciplines like neuroethics and neurophilosophy. These fields – and many others – contributed to a staggering transformation in the concept of being human, some of it banal, some of it profound, but almost all of it marked by a “self-serving function” that sustained the ideology of the cerebral subject and re-enforced the “alliance between the norms and ideals of individualistic autonomy and self reliance” and “the prestige of the advanced technology supposed to demonstrate that we are our brains” (p. 10).

Where might this ideology of the cerebral subject have originated. In two subsequent sections titled “The Self Before Brainhood” and “Origins of Brainhood”, Vidal remarks that brainhood appears to be a Western formation inextricable from earlier conceptions of self, body, I, and the soul. With the breakdown of the Aristotelian system in seventeenth century Europe, the soul and mind became reduced into one entity. The animal spirits contributed to human volition, and with the localizationist debate that sprang up between the schools of Thomas Willis and René Descartes, the question of the seat of the soul became entangled with the notion promulgated by both thinkers that the brain and self were connected. According to Vidal, these debates represented a less clear formulation of brainhood. A clear version appeared in the writings of John Locke. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke described identity as being contingent upon the ability to engage in thinking, reason, and reflection in different places at different times. “Thus, if the soul of a prince, containing the consciousness of the prince’s past life,” Vidal paraphrases, “is transferred into a cobbler’s soulless body, then the being who resembles the cobbler would in fact be the prince” (p. 13). From this formulation, it follows, Vidal argues, that, “bodies become things we have, not things we are” (p. 14).

These provocative insights lead to the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that conceptions arising from brainhood anticipated many of the central insights of the modern neurosciences (broadly defined). “Thus” Vidal writes, “even thought the rise of the cerebral subject is irreducible to the history of the brain sciences, any attempt to understand how it became a central figure of modernity must give this history a central role” (p. 14). And hence a short history follows, the details of which I presume will be familiar enough to regular readers that for brevity I shall summarize only. Vidal moves rapidly through currents of intellectual history in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The studies of von Haller, the phrenology of Franz Joseph Gall and Jean Pierre Flourens, the aphasia studies of Paul Pierre Broca, the comparatively more recent studies of Oskar Vogt, Wilder Penfield and Roger Sperry, as well as research in cybernetics and cognitive psychology receive succinct attention. The thrust of this wide-ranging intellectual history is neatly concluded with Vidal’s remark that workers in the contemporary neurosciences show a remarkable capacity for cannibalising a diet of diverse facts and regurgitating them as “the ideology of brainhood” (p. 20).

In the final two sections of the essay, Vidal turns to the contemporary moment and the question: what is to be done? (Note that he does not state the question this way.) The penultimate section – “The Situation Today” – reviews the recent literature that might be described as comprising the ideology of brainhood. The sources are popular, scientific, academic, cinematic, and sometimes even theological. All seemingly equate personhood with brainhood. Indeed, the brain, Vidal writes, emerges “as the somatic limits of the self, so that I cease to be (myself) if I lose it by amputation”. Such social formations invariably lend themselves to a radical reformulation of the human sciences, of which neuroethics, neurolaw, and neurophilosophy are manifestations. Invariably much of the work of these fields relies on marketing, popular conceptions, self-promotion, and likely bad science, but their message also capitalizes on modernist dreams – the promise of better knowledge and better technology.

Where does all of this leave us? For Vidal, the answer seemingly resides in reorienting statements – my mirror neurons don’t think; I think. My brain doesn’t love, I love. This strong position bears some resemblance to the positions of M. R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, especially in the way that it calls attention to what those authors describe as the “mereological fallacy”. But Vidal locates his position not within an Aristotelian-Wittgenstein-ian philosophical tradition, but rather in the hope and promise of artistic enterprises – especially their open-ended unwillingness to see and declare progress and “their unwillingness to bring closure to questions such as that of free will”. It is hope only, because Vidal ends with a series of questions for consideration as well as an injunction to avoid reducing neuroimages “to an arbitrary manipulation of numbers” or “raising them to the status of portraits of the self” (p. 27).


No one could or should accuse Vidal of failing to deliver. Like his other published works and public presentations, Vidal’s eloquence and argumentative power threatens to overwhelm his readers into submission. But I think there is much still to be said: E. H. Carr’s observation that it is only posterity that can order the past in conjunction with a consideration of the structure of Vidal’s essay are fitting places to begin (although I shall not end there).

Firstly, it is highly noticeable that much of this essay focuses on the period after the Second World War II – indeed really after 1980. “Breakthroughs”, the first section following the introduction, is mainly framed in modern terms; it is followed by a brief consideration of the origins of brainhood and its subsequent journey from the 1700s to the present. From here, Vidal returns to the contemporary moment – c. 1990-2009. Furthermore, a substantial proportion – though not all – of the primary and secondary works cited in his essay are from that period and afterwards as well.

Vidal’s essay acquires in consequence a polemic edge driven by concerns about the immediate urgency of now. Yet missing from this sense of urgency is a real explanation of “why brainhood” and "why particularly brainhood now"? And this requires, moreover, a stronger answer to the question of “how brainhood?” The answer, I would hypothesize, lies in the particular power of historical narrative and the acquisition of an official narrative amongst the brain sciences. Indeed, I would assert that a concept like the “cerebral subject” is only possible because of that historical narrative. To us the spectre that Carr’s comment should raise is that history itself has been the chief vehicle of propaganda for the neurosciences – a propaganda that Vidal unintentionally replicates.

There is no particular reason that we have to construe early modern research on the brain, heart, nerves, or muscles as having any real bearing on the modern neurosciences (see Elizabeth Green Musselman on this point). Vidal acknowledges this view, but argues nonetheless that these early conceptions of brainhood anticipated the future studies of the science and medicine of the nervous system. When construed as broadly as the “anthropological figure of modernity”, we might even generalize that claim to state that they prefigured capitalism, secularism, and the Enlightenment. And that, of course, is the point. “Brainhood” is not really a thing at all – it is a symptom of deeper historical forces. Brainhood, in other words, does not really possess a history. It was not there until we decided to see it. One can imagine easily that Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and Second Treatise could be described as originating documents of practically every work of subsequent significance in Western culture. Putting it differently, to what could we not ascribe in some way to Locke?

This accusation is not intended in anyway to suggest that Vidal is finding what he wants to find in historical sources – he is not tilting a lance at windmills. However, we are all often guilty of ignoring what we wish not to see. And that is an entirely different statement that demands that we ask of what benefit is the discovery of a past for brainhood? To whom does such a construction offer advantages? It is curious that it should be described as an anthropological figure of modernity: why not an economic figure? a scientific one? even (given all of the limits of the knowledge Vidal so carefully reveals) a metaphysical one? Conceptually, brainhood does little to critique discipline building claims that workers in the contemporary neurosciences routinely make for their place in the distant past. If anything, it further justifies those claims. Brainhood furthermore seems to reassert the utility of intellectual history frameworks, even if it embroiders them with the thread of rather more recent vogues in the humanities.

Against this concept of brainhood, I would offer the notion of “invented traditions” and in particular the most vulgar materialist version of invented traditions (see Ranger and Hobsbawm). It is well-known that invented traditions offer individuals enormous advantages. The origins of the neurosciences are so regularly claimed to reside in antiquity (an ahistorical tendency Vidal notes on p. 10) that claims that their origins are better traced from the nineteenth century are construed as controversial. And despite some hard hitting justifications, claims for why we might consider them of even more recent origin are simply dismissed out of hand. Yet the question that few have made much effort to answer is in what sense were any of these notions of brain, mind, nerves, vital and animal spirits scholarly and public knowledge? Who possessed knowledge of these things? How many of the gentleman – to say nothing of the women and peasants or peoples beyond Europe – of the early modern period had any notion whatsoever of these concepts?

Even today, the notion that we are our brains has currency in only a few circles – had they attained a level of far-reaching public dissemination by the late eighteenth century? Literature, phrenology, animal magnetism, electricity, and even George Cheyne’s The English Malady suggests that the concepts had some public and scholarly resonance, but one could connect that resonance with a myriad of cultural formations of which the cerebral status of humans would be but one incarnation. In any case, resonance can hardly be considered the originator of an “anthropological figure of modernity”, especially one as high-minded as “brainhood”.

There is, of course, an alternative possibility: Brainhood could have originated in the period after the Second World War - perhaps even as late as the "Decade of the Brain. The context would thus be the “Cold War” or its end, the comparatively rapid deindustrialization of the West, the ageing of many Western societies (and their correlative increases per capita of neurological diseases), and in at least the United States the significant disparities in medical care and expectations between wealthy and poor, as well as each demographics’ intense preoccupation with matters of identity. The myths of these societies also included intense pre-occupations with notions of meritocracy, which when combined with eugenic thought or socio-biology could easily contribute to the formation of an ideology that represented failure in neurobiological terms.

Why might such a cultural form have arisen? The government money that flooded the neurosciences in the 1990s created whole new divisions of labour. The students of the neurosciences had no conception of the post university careers they would find. Some went to medical school; some wrote popular books; some became entrepreneurs; and doubtlessly more than a few ended-up having nothing to do with the neurosciences. The amounts of money flooding these fields meant than inordinately large amount of information was generated about the neurosciences relative to most other areas of science (with the exception of genetics, which were also highly "neuro" by the mid-1990s). It is not in the least bit surprising that many workers in these fields sought to capitalize on their expertise through the development of a sub-specialty attached to these fields. With the collapse of the “dot-coms” at the end of the “Decade of the Brain,” three fields with enormous innovative and economic potential remained: nanotechnology, banking, and neuroscience. Banking had enormous supplies of capital, but the neurosciences had benefited from 10 years of government patronage. The fields that sprang out the neurosciences often fed upon the others: neuroeconomics certainly seems now the most overtly capitalistic, but springs in nanotechnology certainly fed streams as well.

For the entrepreneur in the neurosciences, the ideology of the cerebral subject was and is profoundly important. Moreover, the more ancient the origins of that ideology, so much the better (the oldest method of quackery has been to insist upon the importance of knowledge of the ancients). Vidal, like the artists he celebrates (as well as the author of this post), is embedded in this phenomenon as well. It seems inescapable – the new frontier of economy and therefore culture and society. Yet, Vidal presents himself as a critic of these formulations. If so, then a critical inquiry into this phenomenon requires not a knowledge of our connections to the past, but an examined awareness of our place in the present. The future is here and already – as Carr suggested – it begins to cast a new order on the past.


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  5. Excellent article. But in one very minor respect, you've misunderstood something that Vidal wrote, and hence misattributed an idea to the wrong text (by Locke.)

    What Vidal writes is

    "John Locke gave this idea its founding formula when, in the Second Treatise on Government, he wrote that 'every man has a property in his own person.' But what it 'person.'?

    "To the extent that Locke himself . . . redefined 'person as a continuity of memory and consciousness, each individual's absolutely inalienable self-ownership could in principle be attached to any substance."

    That's misleadingly worded; in fact, ALL Locke does in the Second Treatise is state that every man has a property in his own person. The definition of personhood in terms of continuity of memory comes entirely from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.