Should humanists follow neuroscience?

“We humanists study humans. Every human has a brain. It therefore behooves us to keep abreast of developments in neuroscience”


The study of caricature as a material, visual, imaginative, and lingustic form has led me to many weird and wonderful places (Soja’s ‘Thirdspace’ and concepts of intervisuality being two of the more memorable), but none have proven more interesting than my dabbling with neuroscience.

In spite of the sentiments quoted above, delivered as part of my introductory address to the Cradled in Caricature symposium, I am no biological determinist. Rather a suspicion of neurohumanities (and especially the neuroarthistory espoused by John Onians) has developed into a full-blown fascination with neuroscience.

Neuroscience is moving fast, and the discussions of what it can and can’t achieve are heating up. Raymond Tallis’ delightful Aping Mankind (2011) offers a useful starting point for anyone who has a natural caution for ‘SCIENTISTS FIND PART OF BRIAN WHICH MAKES PEOPLE RIOT!!’ headlines. Provocative, accessible, and exhaustive Tallis two-pronged attack on ‘Neuromania’ (neuroscience can and will prove anything and everything) and ‘Darwinitis’ (brains are part of evolution therefore human brains and animal brains function in the same way therefore humans (as animals) act purely on animal instincts dictated by the brain) is well timed. Indeed the efficacy of fMRI as a means of determining brain activity is beginning to come under serious scrutiny at precisely the same time as Iain Duncan Smith is developing UK government policy underpinned by a hugely problematic neuroscientific reading of child-rearing (something which the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent has recently attacked – see Jennie Bristow on parenting and junk neuroscience). Today these tensions were once again in evidence as the Royal Society have felt the need to speak out against calls for neuroscientific evidence to be used in the courtroom.

Neuroscience then began for me as a potential means of understanding caricature (and indeed may still prove useful for that purpose) and developed into a device for better understanding the value of my own discipline. I study humans. And every human I study has a brain. Yet involving myself in the literature of neuroscience has made me understand my human subjects are not defined by their brains. And as there are scholars (such as A.S. Byatt) who are seeking to define human activity through the brains which allowed that activity to happen, it behooves me as a humanist to keep abreast of developments in neuroscience.

Interested in reading about neuroscience in your spare time? Neuroskeptic and Mind Hacks are good places to start.