Monday, November 24, 2014

The Humanities Are Ruining Neuroscience

Photo illustration by Andrea Levy for The Chronicle Review

Inflammatory title, isn't it. Puzzled by how it could possibly happen? Then read on!

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece called Neuroscience Is Ruining the Humanities. You can find it in a Google search and at reddit, among other places. The url is {notice the “Neuroscience-Is-Ruining” part.}

Oh wait. Here's a tweet.

At some point along the way, without explanation, the title of the article was changed to the more mundane The Shrinking World of Ideas. The current take-home bullet points are:
  • We have shifted our focus from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they’re produced.
  • When professors began using critical theory to teach literature they were, in effect, committing suicide by theory.

The author is essayist Arthur Krystal, whose 4,000+ word piece can be summarized as “postmodernism ruined everything.” In the olden days of the 19th century, ideas mattered. Then along came the language philosophers and some French historians in the 1920s/30s, who opened the door for Andy Warhol and Jacques Derrida and what do you know, ideas didn't matter any more. That's fine, he can express that opinion, and normally I wouldn't care. I'm not going to debate the cultural harms or merits of postmodernism today.

What did catch my eye was this: “...what the postmodernists indirectly accomplished was to open the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience.”

My immediate response: “that is the most ironic thing I've ever heard!! there is no truth [scientific or otherwise] in postmodernism!” Meaning: scientific inquiry was either irrelevant to these theorists, or something to be distrusted, if not disdained. So how could they possibly invite Neuroscience into the Humanities Building?

Let's look at Krystal's extended quote (emphasis mine):
“...By exposing the ideological codes in language, by revealing the secret grammar of architectural narrative and poetic symmetries, and by identifying the biases that frame "disinterested" judgment, postmodern theorists provided a blueprint of how we necessarily think and express ourselves. In their own way, they mirrored the latest developments in neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. [Ed. warning: non sequitur ahead.] To put it in the most basic terms: Our preferences, behaviors, tropes, and thoughts—the very stuff of consciousness—are byproducts of the brain’s activity. And once we map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons, we should be able to understand—well, everything. So every discipline becomes implicitly a neurodiscipline, including ethics, aesthetics, musicology, theology, literature, whatever.”

I'm as reductionist as the next neuroscientist, sure, but Krystal's depiction of the field is either quite the caricature, or incredibly naïve. Ultimately, I can't tell if he's actually in favor of "neurohumanities"...
In other words, there’s a good reason that "neurohumanities" are making headway in the academy. Now that psychoanalytic, Marxist, and literary theory have fallen from grace, neuroscience and evolutionary biology can step up. And what better way for the liberal arts to save themselves than to borrow liberally from science?

...or opposed:
Even more damning are the accusations in Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience , which argues that the insights gathered from neurotechnologies have less to them than meets the eye. The authors seem particularly put out by the real-world applications of neuroscience as doctors, psychologists, and lawyers increasingly rely on its tenuous and unprovable conclusions. Brain scans evidently are "often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system … so seeing one area light up on an MRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions." 1

Then he links to articles like Adventures in Neurohumanities and Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities? (in a non-critical way) 2  before meandering back down memory lane. They sure don't make novelists like they used to!

So you see, neuroscience hasn't really ruined the humanities.3 Have the humanities ruined neuroscience? Although there has been a disturbing proliferation of neuro- fields, I think we can weather the storm of Jane Austen neuroimaging studies.


1 Although I haven't always seen eye to eye with Satel and Lilienfeld, here Krystal clearly overstates the extent of their dismissal of the entire field (which has happened before).

2 Read Professor of Literary Neuroimaging instead.

3 The author of the Neurocultures Manifesto may disagree, however.

link via @vaughanbell

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At November 24, 2014 9:06 AM, Blogger Right Mind Matters said...

I read that article too and found it puzzling. Postmodernism got rid of the author, as if the text were writing itself. Neuroscientifically based criticism, I would argue, revives the living, breathing authors in an attempt to explain from whence their creativity flowed. It's almost a throwback to 19th century criticism, but updated with brain science. This is, in fact, the criticism (I prefer to call it analysis) that I practice. My forthcoming book, In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, practices what I preach, with empathy for the poets' traumatic childhoods and genetic predispositions as well as appreciation for their atypical minds and incredible talents.

At November 24, 2014 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have quite a bit of sympathy for the criticism offered. In a race to apply biological insights to the humanities, too often the worst over-generalizations and caricatures of scientific ideas get applied to the analysis of art and literature. Outside of works of fiction, manipulating and applying the insights of experimental science using the rules of the humanities creates a chimera that rarely does justice to either field.

At November 24, 2014 3:08 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your comments.

Right Mind Matters - I agree with you, I was totally puzzled by that article. It was a bit unfocused (and way too long). I started writing before I'd finished reading it, and by the end I wondered whether I should've even bothered in the first place. I think it was the provocative (and tangential) original title that kept me going. Good luck with your book!

thealienist - So true, no one wants an unruly chimera...

At November 24, 2014 5:46 PM, Anonymous Tannahill said...

I see the mutant child of law and science all the time in the forensic realm. It makes for strange bedfellows. Theory becomes fact and correlation equals causation. Shades of gray must be black and white--and vice versa. I chalk it up to what thealienist note about applications of both arenas.

At December 07, 2014 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what the article was getting at, is that the author feels that knowledge destroys the magic of mystery. That trying to understand the science of arts, destroys arts.

I've heard religious people say similar things. The more we understand our world, the less amazing it becomes. Personally I don't think this way. I think there's beauty in understanding.

The good news for the author is that, I really don't think we're within centuries of understanding ourselves well enough to be able to reduce culture down to neural activity - and that's assuming it can ever be done. So he/she can rest easy for now.

At December 09, 2014 6:38 AM, Anonymous The Brain Idea said...

Yes the original article is curious, also if anyone has read Bruno Latour you'd very much question what we mean by 'modern' or even as Latour says, whether we were ever modern in the first place...we just like the idea of the word.

Anyway that aside, and wary of mass generalizations here, what he does elude to, is the idea that perhaps the humanities hasn't engaged quite enough in a systematic critique of neuroscience and how it creates knowledge (yes i used the word 'create', oooh), rather its literature tend just to refer to it as a 'threat' or a 'friend' to bolster a given research one way or another. See 'Neuro' by Nikolas Rose and Abi-Rached for the closest thing so far I've seen.


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