Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Neuroetiquette and Neuroculture

Discover neuro-etiquette: fork and knife in action

Are neuroscientists taking jobs away from philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists?
"We need a neurocultural manifesto because the brain has been put forward by others as foundational for knowing about the self and social life, because neuroscientists are being asked to be the philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists of our era - they are being asked to do our jobs - and are responding with enthusiasm, and also because brain matter is mattering."

- from Neurocultures Manifesto by Victoria Pitts-Taylor.

In case you haven't realized yet, my job posting for a Tenure-Track Position in Neuroetiquette and Gender Theory was a spoof. The details were inspired by the highly unrealistic expectations of academia and by a disparate collection of neurowords.
  • Neuroetica -- I initially had a tough time decoding this word, translating its orthography to phonology and semantics. Neurorotica? Neuroetiquette? No, neuroetica is an Italian word from an article in Neuoethics that takes "a Look at the Development of the Italian Debate on Neuroethics." 

  • Neuroetiquette -- Much to my dismay, a writer at New York Etiquette Guide had already coined the word 'neuro-etiquette' in her blog post on neuroplasticity, learning to play the piano, and how to properly hold your knife and fork.

  • Neuroculture -- Etiquette is part of culture, of course. One encounters the word 'neuroculture' in many online discourses, from the tenets of the Neurocultures Manifesto to David Dobbs' blog Neuron Culture to the lifestyle marketing claim that Neuro Gasm Is Part Of The New Neuro Culture.

I think the neuro-panic among social scientists is overblown. How many philosophers, sociologists, and gender theorists are unemployed because their respective departments have decided to hire neuroscientists instead? How many developmental neurobiologists have applied for this Instructor of Philosophy position at Rochester Community and Technical College? Will a cognitive neuroscientst be able to teach transnational feminism or postcolonial feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory in the Women's and Gender Studies Program at Illinois State University?

Are we living in a neuroculture?

Daniel Buchman and David Dobbs asked that question two years ago. Their answers were "yes" and "of course we do!" More recently, a conference on Culture, Mind, and Brain: Emerging Concepts, Methods, Applications was held at UCLA:
The aim of this 2-day conference is to highlight emerging concepts, methodologies and applications in the study of culture, mind, and brain, with particular attention to: (1) cutting-edge neuroscience research that is successfully incorporating culture and the social world; (2) the context in which methods are used as well as the tacit assumptions that shape research questions; and (3) the kinds and quality of collaborations that can advance interdisciplinary research training. 
To find out what happened, you can check out the Conference Blog, Neuroanthropology, and Somatosphere. Ultimately, it sounds like we can all get along.

All sarcasm aside, I am in favor of multidisciplinary research. And I strongly endorse critical thinking about neuroscience. However, some self-appointed pontificators want to strip the brain of any power over human thought. At those times, it's good to see a defence of cognitive neuroscience. I'm starting a backlash against the anti-neuro backlash. After nearly 7 years of critical neuroblogging, it might be time for a change: The Neurocomplimenter.

But I never tire of highlighting those neuro-analogies that go over the top...
Discover neuro-etiquette: fork and knife in action

by Lyudmila Bloch, Etiquette Expert New York City

From the frontiers of neuroscience research, we know that our brain can change, reorganize, adapt, learn, and reprogram itself to a new “wiring” regardless of our age, previous experience, or current challenges.

A revolutionary discovery in neuroscience, called neuroplasticity, has confirmed that our brain is not a fixed, hardwired machine but rather vital and tirelessly evolving organ in our body. Experiments and clinical trials over the past two decades, conducted by the best minds in neuroscience, have discovered that our amazing brain, with proper rewiring and targeted conditioning, can master the most difficult of tasks at any age. Astonishing progress in overall functioning and new- skills acquisition show this master organ to be nothing short of, well, miraculous!

Leading behavioral psychologists and scientists have been collaborating, trying to understand the process of how a human brain learns and how it acquires new skills.
. . .

Any new skill or task we try to learn, including the proper use of dining utensils – so essential to our dining etiquette -- will entail the same kind of diligence in practicing, over and over, a “balancing exercise” -- holding your fork and knife correctly.

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At October 25, 2012 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think the neuro-panic among social scientists is overblown. How many philosophers, sociologists, and gender theorists are unemployed because their respective departments have decided to hire neuroscientists instead?"

It's probably the book and lecture market they are worried about. At least social scientists have a bit of a bad reputation that neuroscientists haven't, yet. But will probably burn out eventually like quantum physics did and get replaced with some new shiny discipline.

At October 30, 2012 2:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to comment on the same point that the previous commenter. Philosophers or sociologists might also be unemployed because their departments aren't hiring anybody. If neuroscience is going to take over some of their traditional topics, it's more likely to be by attracting funding, students, and visibility out of the philosophy department than by colonizing it.

I don't have any specific number but I would guess that philosophy department budgets are already dwarfed by the neuroscience, economics or psychology funding and the importance of philosophy in universities is, relatively speaking, very small compared to what it once was.


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