21 May 2012

The Return of Neurohistory

News reached me today of the formation of a web-forum for Neurohistory. Discipline formation follows rather typical patterns. I would therefore predict that soon there will be a new journal, a society, and thereafter courses will appear in many universities.
This is the long overdue follow-up to last year’s email, to let you know that the Neurohistory forum is up and running at this site: http://www.neurohistory.ucla.edu/neurohistory-web-forum. Our thanks to Lynn Hunt and her group at UCLA for providing the host and tech support. A link to opt-in to a subscription to a mailing list also should have arrived in your inbox. If it hasn't arrived, or got lost or re-directed to your spam folder, please let us the list admin know at neurohistory.net@gmail.com.

The contents of the forum are still somewhat skeletal; among other things, we haven’t yet tried to put together anything like a complete bibliography (check under Resources), in part because we need to put more thought into the categories. Under the most expansive understanding of the field, the bibliography could range from psychohistory and some areas of evolutionary psychology to cognitive archaeology and the history of addiction, and from books and articles that constitute solid contributions to the field of neurohistory to important works that make promising allusions. The list of relevant papers in neuroscience alone could go on for pages. Is more necessarily better? We would welcome thoughts about this, as well as any suggestions you might have about content and form. One thing we would certainly like to develop is a page for syllabi or for threads describing how you have worked neurohistorical perspectives into your courses. Please do take a moment to explore the site and send along suggestions or ideas. It would be helpful to constitute a steering committee; if you would like to volunteer, write to Dan Smail at smail@fas.harvard.edu.
I rather regret that students studying history will now be even less likely to read Braudel, Collingwood, Carr, Ginzburg, Hobsbawm, Oakeshott, or Thompson. I can, of course, see how our collective fixation on "ends" and "technology" makes neurohistory the logical replacement of history in the epoch of postmodernity. Yet it is still depressing to think of undergraduates majoring in history reading maintenance manuals of MRI machines and examining EEG prints to detect our paleolithic, hard-wired  and inevitably determined patterns of behavior - all in the name of scholarly respectability. It is still sadder to think about the undergraduates majoring in neuroscience who will eventually take a neurohistory course in lieu of a course focused upon Chinese, Japanese, African or European history, and thus have even fewer opportunities to read, for example, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, or De Tocqueville.

A final thought: the most challenging course I ever took as an undergraduate was Physical Biochemistry. Trust me: enzyme kinetics, quantum problems are tough going. There is one reason only that I passed that course. I was taking "History of Modern Physics" at the same time, and I was reading the primary sources to the science I was endeavoring to learn by textbook, lecture, and pen and problem. Without the history, I would have been sunk.


  1. History of Modern Physics helped you, but isn't it the sort of narrowly focused course you are lamenting here? I really think there has to be a limit to the amount of specialization we subject our undergrads to. Hardest course I ever took? 17th century British Poetry.

  2. I'll meet you half way. History of Modern Physics was specialized but it was still history and relied upon primary sources and historiography.

    Neurohistory takes as its starting point contemporary 'facts' derived from contemporary neuroscience and then reconstructs them as primary sources that drive the historical narrative about what was possible. So in order to do history (according to this view) one must first do 'neuroscience' and treat as sacred that which neurosciences established after the fact.

    (Curiously, no one calls for neuroscientists to become fully acquainted with the works of historians. I suppose that would require too much specialization, because well who has time to read books.)

    What I lament here is that it is nearly impossible to even acquire broad understanding of a limited event like the "Crimean War." The idea that scholars will now tell us about the event in scientific terms, and that we are supposed to be fascinated by their narrative is the source of my lament.

    Neurohistory's central conceit is that it can 'know' what happened by reference to various reductions, and that we can scale up from those neuroscientific facts to give us a picture of something as complex as, for example, the Enlightenment.

    The mistake here is the way in which the word "Enlightenment" is made more concrete than it should be, and the idea that some fact of science can establish "Enlightenment". Putting it sharply - and paraphrasing Steven Shapin - there never was an Enlightenment and we need a book about it rather than a discussion of how coffee's chemistry created its pre-conditions.

    Such activities remind me of neurologist-turned-historian Edwin Clarke's idea that we should all become "practical historians" and conduct the experiments as natural philosophers to see their meaning. The problem is that this idea of experience and empiricism rejects both von Ranke's belief in the primary sources of history and implies that anachronistic methods tell us something about the past. Now this isn't to say that there is no merit to the idea. Thor Heyerdahl's demonstration that a raft could leave South America and end up in Polynesia strikes me as a useful and important finding. But that is a far cry from the type of specialization we are describing with neurohistory, where the idea is that we find some gene or brain structure and project out of it possibilities. To me, that's objectionable because its self-fulfilling.

  3. Ah, I misunderstood the nature of Neurohistory. Now you explain it, I recognize it as a close cousin of Neuropoetics, which is to literary criticism what Neurohistory is to history: codswollop. Well, there are some interesting things about the way the brain treats images & rhythm, but what I've seen is pretty shallow & mostly recasts older critical commonplaces in neurospeak.