Book Review: Brain Culture by Davi Johnson Thornton

Brain Culture by Davi Johnson ThorntonBrain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media
by Davi Johnson Thornton
Rutgers University Press, 2011
208 pages (Kindle Edition)


For centuries, human beings engaged the discussion of self-improvement and self-awareness through the soul. Some theologians fine-tuned that immaterial mystery, dividing it into faculties like will and intellect, speculating on the possibility that one can get at the inner-workings of the individual or control behavior by reflecting long enough on the ghost in the machine and conforming it to divine revelation.

The soul (or mind) became a muse for artists and theologians; today that muse is the brain.

I first came across Davi Johnson Thornton’s Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media in a conversation on the brain as the new muse (to use the language of Jonah Lehrer) last year on Google Plus, and noted a review of it at Brain Pickings here on The Discarded Image.

In Brain Culture, Thornton engages the cultural obsession with the brain as the Holy Grail for answers to human nature. From gaming systems designed to improve the brain’s functions to self-help books and fitness programs, the brain has been viewed as that organ that can change our lives once we understand it and are able to change it.

Thornton is interested in the brain as rhetorical, that is “to describe the unique ways we conceptualize the brain in contemporary culture.” Discussion of the brain is inseparable from its historical context and “contingent on available grammars and technologies.” As such, she also elucidates a sort of reception history on the brain, engaging the different and changing perspectives in neuroscience.

Despite the move into “popular media,” Thornton’s book is academic, methodical, and precise. It is not intended to be whimsical—though it is not without wit—rather, it is full of logical progression and clarity. It is intelligently written and moderates the exaggerations of brain science in popular media with a down-to-earth assessment. This makes the book valuable for anyone interested in the landscape of neuroscience.

What is particularly interesting is Thornton’s interplay between the older view of localization—the product of phrenology, which sees the brain as having specific locations for functions—and that of connectionism. For localization, functions of the brain are specific to a place and non-transferable, and when damaged they can essentially end the ability of a person’s brain to perform a function. Connectionism, however, sees the brain as flexible and capable of rewiring itself when damaged.

The vocabulary of neuroscience, as Thornton observes, tends to be driven by cultural discourse. Localization, as an older view, tends to speak of the brain as a machine composed of modules, while “connectionism tends to view the brain as an array of dynamic processes or distributed neural networks,” and emphasizes its plasticity.

And Thornton is not convinced that the world of neuroscience can been said to be driven by only one position, as if localization and connectionism are mutually exclusive. In fact, neuroscientists tend to speak with a vocabulary that is intertwined in both these positions, and so they fall across a spectrum of looking for locations, while also exploring the possibility of plasticity and rewiring.

Lastly, I was struck by Thornton’s discussion of a return to a form of mind-body dualism. As she writes:

 …mind-body dualism gives way to a brain-body opposition, as the brain is partitioned off from the rest of the body and given a special status. Only in a “conventional” sense is the brain part of the body; in terms of neuroscientific descriptions, the brain has a special status that cannot be reduced to the mute physiology associated with the passive body.

And this partitioning rings very true. If contemporary science fiction has taught us anything it is that when someone’s body gets sick, preserve the head in a freezer until one day humanity manages to clone a new body. The money is on the brain as the home of the person, putting the body just above a cadaver. Ironically, this is not entirely different from the place the body receives in theological literature, where the emphasis is on the soul as the ultimate concern for preservation.

Yet, as the media covers the newest in brain science, slapping the colorful scans on the screen, we might get a little over-confident in what we think we know about the brain. And lest we forget, neuroscience is a form of narcissism—it is the brain studying itself, awed at its own complexity and wonder—though it is hard not to be so amazed at its power. Still, there remains a lot of territory to cover and if our current success is an indicator of the future of studying the brain, it is not likely to cease from its muse-status anytime soon.



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