Being Brains

Being Brains

Fernando Vidal, Francisco Javier Guerrero Ortega

In the context of the collaborative project “The Cerebral Subject: Brain and Self in Contemporary Culture,” Fernando Vidal and Francisco Javier Guerrero Ortega wrote a book entitled Being Brains.

Are we our brains? Many seem to think so, at least to the extent that they claim the brain is the only organ we need in order to be ourselves. Our existential problems result from brain dysfunctions; our preference for Obama or McCain, from brain mechanisms supposedly reflected in brain scans; our religiosity, from the activation of a “God spot” in the cerebral cortex. The leading American neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has asserted that all of this proves “you are your brain.” More subtly, French philosopher Stéphane Ferret has written that “Person P is identical with person P* if and only if P and P* have one and the same functional brain.” How have we come to the point that such statements seem natural and obvious? What do their verbal and nonverbal forms and consequences imply for the individual and society?

Being Brains places these questions in historical perspective, and questions what we see as a problematic belief as what it means to be human. One thing is to say we are our brains, another to recognize that we need our brains to be ourselves. Though problematic, such ideology is not necessarily evil; it has given many patients hope in the possibilities of cure, or encourage them to form self-help and mutual-support groups. So the universe in which “we are our brains”—in other words, in which we are “cerebral subjects"—is a multifaceted reality, animated by conflicting interests, controversial opinions, media hype, inflated utopian and dystopian claims, and considerable political, public policy, and economic stakes.

Being Brains includes chapters on the history of the cerebral subject from John Locke to brain scans; the creation since the 1990s of various “neuro” fields (neuroethics, neuroeconomics, neuroesthetics, neurtheology, and various others, including, most recently, neurohistory); the ethics of neuroethics; the cerebralization of psychological distress; the growth of the neurodiversity movement; the emergence of neuroascesis (discourses and practices of cerebral self-help); and the embodiments of the cerebral subject in literature and cinema.

In working towards the book, Fernando Vidal and Francisco Javier Guerrero Ortega dealt in parallel with various related objects: neuroethics as self-appointed moral guardian—in fact, as approval mechanism—of the “neuro” worldview; the “neurocorrelational” mind-set characteristic of the “neuro” fields (which search for the “neural correlates” of behaviors and mental states through the use of brain imaging techniques); the cerebralizing of depression; and the cerebral subject in the movies.

Funding Institutions

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin