The brain sciences are influencing our understanding of human behavior as never before, from neuropsychiatry and neuroeconomics to neurotheology and neuroaesthetics. Many now believe that the brain is what makes us human, and it seems that neuroscientists are poised to become the new experts in the management of human conduct. Neuro describes the key developments—theoretical, technological, economic, and biopolitical—that have enabled the neurosciences to gain such traction outside the laboratory. It explores the ways neurobiological conceptions of personhood are influencing everything from child rearing to criminal justice, and are transforming the ways we “know ourselves” as human beings. In this emerging neuro-ontology, we are not “determined” by our neurobiology: on the contrary, it appears that we can and should seek to improve ourselves by understanding and acting on our brains.
Neuro examines the implications of this emerging trend, weighing the promises against the perils, and evaluating some widely held concerns about a neurobiological “colonization” of the social and human sciences. Despite identifying many exaggerated claims and premature promises, Neuro argues that the openness provided by the new styles of thought taking shape in neuroscience, with its contemporary conceptions of the neuromolecular, plastic, and social brain, could make possible a new and productive engagement between the social and brain sciences.
“In “Neuro,” Rose and Abi-Rached see the real problem: neuroscience can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones. It can tell us how our minds are made to hear music, and how groups of notes provoke neural connections, but not why Mozart is more profound than Manilow. Courageously, they take on, and dismiss, the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet that seem to undermine the idea of free will. For a muscle movement, Libet showed, the brain begins “firing”—choosing, let’s say, the left joystick rather than the right—milliseconds before the subject knows any choice has been made, so that by the time we think we’re making a choice the brain has already made it. Rose and Abi-Rached are persuasively skeptical that “this tells us anything about the exercise of human will in any of the naturally occurring situations where individuals believe they have made a conscious choice—to take a holiday, choose a restaurant, apply for a job.” What we mean by “free will” in human social practice is just a different thing from what we might mean by it in a narrower neurological sense. We can’t find a disproof of free will in the indifference of our neurons, any more than we can find proof of it in the indeterminacy of the atoms they’re made of.”—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker.
“Rose and Abi-Rached make a convincing argument for a more positive engagement between the social and brain sciences in their discussion of the effects of neuroscience on public understanding of the self. The authors suggest that humanists should not fear the triumph of a reductionist view of society as an aggregate of isolated individuals. According to Rose and Abi-Rached, human selfhood is not threatened by the idea that human beings are moved by forces beyond their conscious awareness. […] Neuroscience, they observe, may seem an unlikely ally of progressive social thought, but Rose and Abi-Rached express the hope with which most neuroscientists and social scientists can agree: that a greater engagement between the two may contribute to making neuroscience “a truly human science”. This book makes a valuable contribution to this process.”—Wayne Hall, The Lancet.
“In its self-confidence, eloquence, subtlety, and intellectual generosity, Neuro is a powerful demonstration of its own message: that the human and social sciences have “nothing to fear in the rise to prominence of neurobiological attempts to understand and account for human behavior.”—Cathy Gere, Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society.
“The ‘neurofication’ of the humanities, social sciences, public policy, and the law has attracted promoters and detractors. What we have lacked until now is a critical but open- minded look at ‘neuro.’ This is what Rose and Abi-Rached have given us in this thoughtful and well-researched book. They do not jump on the neuro bandwagon, but instead offer a clear accounting of its appeal, its precedents in psychology and genetics, its genuine importance, and ultimately its limitations. A fascinating and important book.”—Martha J. Farah, University of Pennsylvania.
“Neuro makes a significant and original contribution to our understanding of the impact of the brain sciences on social and cultural processes. The scholarship throughout is brilliant. This book gives us extremely perceptive, detailed, and illuminating analyses of what is actually being claimed in the various branches of the neurosciences. It will attract a great deal of interest and controversy.”—Emily Martin, author of Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture.
“I enjoyed reading this book. It provides an interesting and comprehensive map of the many sciences and quasi-sciences that have embraced the ‘neuro’ prefix. I also appreciate how Rose and Abi-Rached manage to examine the explosion of ‘neuros’ with a critical eye, but without dismissing the genuine prospects that it may hold.”—Michael E. Lynch, Cornell University.
ʿAṣfūriyyeh (formally, the Lebanon Hospital for the Insane) was founded by a Swiss Quaker missionary in 1896, one of the first modern psychiatric hospitals in the Middle East. It closed its doors in 1982, a victim of Lebanon’s brutal fifteen-year civil war. In this book, Joelle Abi-Rached uses the rise and fall of ʿAṣfūriyyeh as a lens through which to examine the development of modern psychiatric theory and practice in the region as well as the sociopolitical history of modern Lebanon.
Abi-Rached shows how ʿAṣfūriyyeh’s role shifted from a missionary enterprise to a national institution with wide regional influence. She offers a gripping chronicle of patients’ and staff members’ experiences during the Lebanese Civil War and analyzes the hospital’s distinctive nonsectarian philosophy. When ʿAṣfūriyyeh closed down, health in general and mental health in particular became more visibly “sectarianized”—monopolized by various religious and political actors. Once hailed for its progressive approach to mental illness and its cosmopolitanism, ʿAṣfūriyyeh became a stigmatizing term, a byword for madness and deviance, ultimately epitomizing a failed project of modernity. Reflecting on the afterlife of this and other medical institutions, especially those affected by war, Abi-Rached calls for a new “ethics of memory,” more attuned to our global yet increasingly fragmented, unstable, and violent present.
The book received the 2019 Jack D. Pressman-Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Development Award in 20th Century History of Medicine or Biomedical Sciences from the American Association for the History of Medicine “for outstanding work in twentieth-century history of medicine or medical biomedical sciences.”