19 December 2009

Neurobiography redux

A little while ago (in 2002), Thomas Söderqvist had pointed up, in a very welcome special issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, the somewhat unusual preponderance of (auto)biographical writings in a field that is perhaps all too sloppily labelled thus: the history of the neurosciences. Unfortunately, this rare attempt at soul-searching doesn’t seem to have inspired too much activity in terms of follow-ups  – even though it certainly is no secret that the neurosciences, a label hardly in use still thirty years ago, would appear to carve out a distressingly diverse array of historical lineages indeed.

Or do they? In fact, there prevails a definite tendency to envisioning this thing called neuroscience as essentially a brain-representing, imaging-technology-mediated ‘science of the mind’. Or as we might say, the image of neuroscience would seem to be pretty much exhausted by something coming with the qualifier ‘cognitive’ (neuroscience); or perhaps, in its less edifying dimensions, by visions of a neuropharmacological u/dystopia (and here one already enters terrains traditionally filed under the history of psychiatry). Said mostly biographical writings apart, this state of affairs corresponds to the rather sketchy historical understanding that we still have of the things that happened in matters of neuroscience in the last four or five decades or so – by a lot of criteria, neuroscience’s formative period. To the best of my knowledge, no historian of the neurosciences has, for instance, seriously engaged the much-belaboured (among STS circles) post-ca.-1980-transformations of the university landscape, when, should we believe the hype, the nature of the scientific enterprise began to tilt quite dramatically away from the cozy economics of cold-war era science, and towards an age of neoliberal science management and research assessment exercises (again, by a lot of criteria, the definite period of neuroscience’s spectacular expansions). This alone should be food-for-thought for anyone overly enchanted by the charting of intellectual continuities rather than by, say, the material situatedness of knowledge production.

Since Söderqvist’s intervention above, the situation no doubt has considerably changed, of course. A growing number of book-length studies by professional historians of science have begun to map the sciences of the nervous system in the twentieth century from very different vantage points than the biographical one. What is noteworthy, however, is that these historians (meaning, for all practical purposes, historians of the cultural kind) have rarely, or never, ventured much beyond the WWII period. And that – not too unlike, we should say, many of those histories of the less academic, Galen-to-fMRI variety (easily dismissed but finding a more widespread readership, one assumes) – they tend to come with a strong focus on the central nervous system – representing/imaging/constructing the brain and mind.

Meanwhile, biographical works on and by 'neuroscientists', like it or not, do continue to pile up and a recent one may serve to meditate briefly on this issue, and an issue which has been raised in several variations on the pages of this blog before: the somewhat curious brain-centredness of the historiography of neuroscience. For present purposes, this is to say: despite, rather than because of, the biographies. The point might have been made by way of pondering some of those officially pivotal biographies, such as, notably, Francis Schmitt’s Never-ending search, Alan Hodgkin’s Chance and Design or the more recent In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel (it requires little more than disentangling the more or less grandiose narratives from the rather mind-and-brainless invertebrates that feature big-time in these accounts); the book in question here is in a rather different category. It is the story of the life and work of the Dutch neurophysiologist Gysbertus Rademaker (1887-1957), a little remembered, indirect product of the famed ‘Sherrington school’ of physiology. It’s not a brilliant or even very readable book – in fact, reading it will require some considerable effort and produce little pleasure. Still, it may belong to the more timely additions to the corpus, strangely side-stepping, in its way, the cerebralism of the historiography. 

Written by a pupil of Rademaker’s, the book, oddly (and somewhat misleadingly) titled Cognition and recognition: On the origin of movement, quite definitely belongs to the hagiographic end of the biographical spectrum and it comes (though that’s something not at issue here) with all the problems inherent to the genre. (Indeed, the more academic historians of science will find much to despair in what is a at times very detailed and repetitive account of Rademaker’s scientific oeuvre, from a ‘scientific confirmation of the value of being the son of a clergyman’ (Rademaker being one) to an epilogue on Rademaker’s ‘four epiphanies’.) There isn’t much analysis, contextualizing or historical argument going on in this biography, to be sure. Neither is the story as such altogether too remarkable: it’s largely a story, quite typical of the interwar period, of someone whose experimental forays into neurophysiology revolved around posture control and muscle tonus (though Rademaker was, we learn, in fact responsible for one of the more seminal works in this busy and bodily field of investigations, Das Stehen (1931)). Rademaker, a pupil of the German-born Sherrington-disciple Rudolf Magnus (himself renowned for his work on body posture), we also learn, emerged as the celebrated master of Sherrington’s decerebrated animal preparations; he pioneered cinematographic analysis in experimental neurology during the 1920s studying reflex-control by way of delabyrinthized animals in free fall; he trained, as Willem Einthoven’s successor as Professor of Physiology in Leiden, a whole generation of influential Dutch neurologists; later in his life, Rademaker emerged as a major spokesperson for cybernetics in Holland.

Like so many stories, this is not merely a national (i.e. Dutch) one, however. Active during a period of crucial transformations as regards neurology as a medical specialty and self-styled international community (as readers of this blog will know), Rademaker’s main interlocutors included no lesser figures than the neurologists Fulton, Denny-Brown, Dusser de Barenne, Ranson, and Walshe. More intriguingly, behind such technical detail and biographical trivia, lurks another, and more significant story – and, I would argue, moral. Perhaps best labelled an experimental reflexologist, Rademaker’s work, emphatically so, was all about motion, balance, and control. At home in both the clinic and the laboratory, the nature movement, as he saw it, was itself cinematic, a ‘series of postures’. Rademaker’s formative scientific period were the six years between 1916-1922 which Rademaker spent as a young surgeon in Dutch Indonesia on horse racing tracks – as an ‘advisor’ in the business of horse racing; he went on to create, by way of the ‘cine-film’, a veritable ‘laboratoire des images’.

Though the deeper significance of all this and similar such irritations to the neuroscientific imagination is nowhere explicated, the relative insignificance of the brain (and mind) in all this body-mediated imaging of the nervous system (and to Rademaker’s experimental life, at any rate) transpires plainly enough; as does, as far as the historicity of ‘neurocultures’ is concerned, the far less cerebral, expressly neuromuscular cultural climate of the time. The material, palpable presence of bodies in this particular story (and we could easily generate similar ones) was profoundly significant, constituting and defining, very much so, what the nervous system was (this being a somewhat virtual entity, after all). Or this, I would argue, is how to productively read this rather strange biography. 

Subsequent reconstructions of the neuroscientific past have by and large obscured these bodily landscapes. Increasingly incomprehensible, and commemorated through the eyes of the newly complex phenomenon that was the brain, beginning in the 1940s and 50s, brain-minded, EEG-equipped neuro-physiologists began to discern in these landscapes technical limitations at best, faulting interwar neurophysiology for its perplexing obsession, as it were, with the peripheral nervous system, rather than the central one. And the moral, then, of this curious book indeed might be this: if the history of the neurosciences - a notion whose use is debatable - is to involve more than discerning in the past the contemporary materialization of imagined, virtual things – mind, language, memory and similarly cerebral things - that hold together the image of the neurosciences today, it might mean to disengage along with the Rademakers our (historical) imagination a little bit more from the brain/mind; not so much from the ‘organ’ necessarily but the neurosciences’ hypostatized effects, discursive and otherwise - an altogether more phantasmic entity. Indeed, the history of the latter more properly would seem to belong to the history of philosophy (viz. the mind-body problem).  

The story of Radermaker’s life at any rate - if read only slightly against the grain – would not seem to sit very easily with it, quite irrespective of however deficient our knowledge of neuroscience’s very recent past may be. Again, it’s hardly an important and much less so, enjoyable, piece of history-writing; rather, it is a curious reminder of the, at times, centrality of the body, of the peripheral nervous system, of muscles and bodily motions in the study of the nervous system. What’s more, in our present days of image-mediated brain-awareness, as such an irritant to the historical imagination (and, to be sure, sensibilities), it may contribute against too much forgetting of this, and all the other curiosities (and serious things) that might (or might not) serve to make the history of the neurosciences a more contested notion. (Vice versa, there is something to be said about not inscribing the contemporary neurosciences into an unfolding historical drama of uncovering man's cortical essence). Neurobiographies, for all their preponderance, may not have been preponderant enough.

(The book in question is: Leon A. H. Hogenhuis, Cognition And Recognition: On The Origin Of Movement: Rademaker (1887-1957), Brill Academic Publishers (2008))


  1. The curious thing about the brain centeredness of the neuro-focused historical literature is that many practitioners in the neurosciences would readily admit that they worked on the most reduced aspects of the nervous system. Workers, for instance, interested in addiction, might spend their whole lives studying receptor trafficking. It was only cognitive scientists - the name almost gives away that they were not neuroscientists - that were concerned with whole brain thinking. Most workers int the field were concerned with less flashy topics.

    I also take your point that few people have explored neuroscience in the post 1980 period. But I think the larger problem is that other than case studies here and there, few people explore the post 1945 period (you mention this). But we must also accept that "Cold War" and "Liberalism" (to say nothing of neoliberalism) make for extremely important contexts - contexts that are too-often dismissed. One of the major strengths of Boden's large two volume study is that she makes clear how much this research was burdened/aided by military spending in the USA or NATO alligned countries.