Cerebral Subject

The Cerebral Subject: Brain, Self, and Body in Contemporary Culture

Fernando Vidal, Francisco Javier Guerrero Ortega

Other involved Scholars: 

Suparna Choudhury (MPIWG/McGill University, Montreal, Canada), Felicity Callard (MPIWG/Durham University, UK), Nicolas Langlitz (MPIWG/New School of Social Research, New York, USA.)

Cooperation Partners: 

Institute for Social Medicine, State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The goal of this group project was to study the emergence, functioning, and topography in contemporary culture of the idea, epitomized by the expression cerebral subject, that human persons are constituted essentially by their brains. The cerebral subject has innumerable materializations inside and outside philosophy, psychology, and the neurosciences. Since the 1990s, new disciplines such as neurotheology, neuroeducation, neuroesthetics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuromarketing, or neuroeconomics have advanced bold plans to reform the human sciences on the basis of neuroscientific knowledge. Driven by the availability of brain imaging technologies, they focus on the quest for neural correlates of behaviors and mental processes. The media has given them considerable room; it has eagerly reported on neuroscientific advances of alleged social import, and played a crucial role in turning brain scans into modern icons of personhood. Parallel to academic approaches, there is an expanding galaxy of beliefs and practices that go from learning how to draw or feel with one side of the brain, to various forms of neurohealthism, neuroascetics, neuroesotericism, and neuroeschatology. The project approached these phenomena from different angles, mainly philosophical, historical, sociological, and anthropological, and in reference not only to science and medicine, but also to extra-scientific ideas and practices that ultimately concern the self and the definition of the human being.

Coordinated at MPIWG by Fernando Vidal (now at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, Barcelona, Spain), The Cerebral Subject was a collaborative project run together with Francisco Ortega (IMS/Institute for Social Medicine, State University of Rio de Janeiro). At the MPIWG it involved cooperations with Suparna Choudhury (now at McGill University, Montreal) and Nicolas Langlitz (now at the New School for Social Research, New York). It included a four-year (2005–08) IMS-MPIWG exchange program funded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), and two international conferences: The Neurosciences and Contemporary Society (Rio de Janeiro, 2006) and Neurocultures (Berlin, 2009, co-organized with the BIOS Centre, London School of Economics). The collective volume Neurocultures (ed. F. Ortega and F. Vidal, 2011) contains contributions by some of the participants in those events. Being Brains, co-authored by F. Ortega and F. Vidal, was published in the "Forms of Living" series of Fordham University Press. It includes chapters on the history of the cerebral subject as a view of the human from late seventeenth-century philosophy to late twentieth-century “neurobics;” on the emergence and logic of the neural turn in the human sciences; on the neurobiologization of psychological distress and the rise of the “neurodiversity” movement; on the cerebral subject in film, literature, and the arts. Through its treatment of these topics, Being Brains not only examines, but also questions what it sees as a problematic ideology of what it means to be human—problematic because it is not the same thing to say we are our brains, and to recognize that we need our brains to be ourselves; and because that ideology considers humanness as an essentially cerebral property at the expense of context and social relations.