A Case for Neurohumanities

Ana Hedberg Olenina

1. Introduction: The Current Status of Neuroscience Vis-à-Vis the Humanities

Over the past twenty years, evolving technologies have allowed us to map the activity of the brain with unprecedented precision. Initially driven by medical goals, neuroscience has advanced to the level where it is rapidly transforming our understanding of emotions, empathy, reasoning, love, morality, and free will. What is at stake today is our sense of the self: who we are, how we act, how we experience the world, and how we interact with it. By now nearly all of our subjective mental states have been tied to some particular patterns of cortical activity. Beyond the radical philosophical implications, these studies have far-reaching social consequences. Neuroscientists are authoritatively establishing norms and deviations; they make predictions about our behavior based on processes that lie outside our conscious knowledge and control. The insights of neuroscience are being imported into the social sphere, informing debates in jurisprudence, forensics, healthcare, education, business, and politics. A recent collection of essays, compiled by Semir Zeki, a leading European proponent of applied neuroscience, in collaboration with the American lawyer Oliver Goodenough, calls for further integration of lab findings into discussions of public policy and personnel training.[1] Neuroscience thus plays an increasingly active role in shaping society, intervening into the arena traditionally overseen by the humanistic disciplines: political science, law theory, sociology, history, and philosophy.

In the cultural sphere, neuroscience has invigorated the study of art psychology by highlighting neurophysiological processes that accompany the creation and appreciation of art. Within the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics, researchers are evaluating the responses of the amygdala to paintings ranked by subjects as pleasant or unpleasant, documenting patterns of distraction during the reading of Jane Austen’s novels, and exploring the neural mechanisms involved in watching dance – to name but a few recent high-profile projects.[2] Yet, it is not always clear how the data gathered in these cutting-edge studies could figure in crucial disciplinary debates within literature, visual art, or performance studies. More often than not, laboratory experiments are operating with reductive models that take into account only a limited set of variables. In their current state, the neuro subfields within the humanities are making little use of the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the established methods of interpretation, such as historical contextualization, hermeneutics, formal analysis, semiotics, narratology, sociological reception studies, gender and ideological critique.

The “neuro-turn” sweeping the humanities has already generated a great deal of skepticism. Many of these objections revolve around the mind-body problem. As the philosopher Alva Noë, a long-term critic of applied neuroscience, puts it, no research has ever been able to demonstrate how consciousness arises out of brain processes.[3] The reduction of our mind to the latter is not simply a pet peeve of the entrenched humanitarians; rather, it is bad science. To give an obvious example, writes Noë, considering depression as solely a neurochemical brain disorder would mean disregarding the social and psychological factors that contributed to it.[4] By analogy, detailing the functional anatomy of the brain will not provide us with a full picture of the subject’s unique lifetime experiences, which have influenced the formation of cortical synapses. What is more, in explaining mental states on the basis of brain processes, scientists are often drawing on animal research without duly acknowledging the vast gap that separates us from other species. In doing so, researchers frequently fall prey to what Raymond Tallis calls the fallacy of “Darwinitis” (to be distinguished from legitimate Darwinism), where the complexity of our mental behavior is reduced to a simplified account of evolutionary adaptation.[5]

The fact that the study of the social and cultural life of the mind is now being outsourced to neuroscience is a direct consequence of the routine defunding of the humanities. As Joseph Dumit points out, the undercutting of the humanities and more traditional psychology “means that certain arenas of inquiry are being starved of evidence.”[6] In the long run, such erosion of specialist knowledge is not good for neuroscience itself – if it indeed aspires to a nuanced view of a system as infinitely complex as the human mind. With regards to financial backing, an alarming trend is currently starting to thwart the prospects of neuroscience as such. Once, fundamental research into the functioning of the central nervous system relied on the big pharmaceutical companies, which invested in developing new drugs for brain disorders. Between 2009 and 2012, however, the majority of international drug corporations, such as GlaxoSmithCline, AstraZeneka, Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi, and Novatis, began to wind down these programs, because they realized that it was more profitable to issue slightly modified versions of the already existent, FDA-approved medications rather than pursue the costly and risky research for new products.[7] Paradoxically, then, in the midst of surging enthusiasm for all things neuro, new medical research on the brain is shrinking. The plateauing serves the current business model of the drug producers, but to presume that everything we need to know about the brain has been already discovered is preposterous. And yet, as another sign of the times, Dumit cites the complete exclusion of experimental cognitive neuroscience from The Human Brain Project (HBP): a multi-billion dollar EU venture to simulate the entirety of cerebral processes on the computer.[8] The HBP was founded on the astounding premise that “previous neuroscientific research has already generated most of the data necessary for understanding the human brain from genes to cognition.”[9] Once again, the plateauing of fundamental research is being justified by a new priority: the translation of biological processes into digital codes and algorithms. To model the brain in silico would mean to ascertain the EU’s status as a world leader in neurotechnology. It is disturbing to think that research standards within neuroscience proper are so tightly tied to the political and business priorities of its funders.

2. What Can We Learn from History?

Looking back in time may help us understand the promises and limitations of neuroscience and its impact on the cultural and public spheres. My own research focuses on what may be seen as the precursor of neuroscience at the turn of the twentieth century – the discipline of physiological psychology, which pioneered the systematic quest for the physical underpinning of mental states. In the late nineteenth century, laboratories of experimental psychology introduced instruments, procedures, and modes of representation that focused on patterns of muscular contractions and changes in vital signs as markers of nervous activity. This data was then deployed in the study of cognitive and affective processes. New scientific discourses rapidly penetrated into a broader cultural sphere, generating wide interest in the question how the body participates in and reflects affective and cognitive processes.

My work examines the repercussions of these methods for the arts, revealing the factors that motivated writers, actors, and filmmakers in the 1910s-1920s to reformulate corporeality in accordance with recent trends in science. These factors ranged from a search for a more immediate transcription of unconscious creative impulses in handwriting, articulatory movements, and gestures, to utilitarian concerns with optimizing labor efficiency and raising the effectiveness of spectacles and propaganda. Both a history and a critical project, my book attends to the ways in which artists and theorists dealt with the materialist reductionism inherent in biologically-oriented psychology – at times, endorsing the positivist, deterministic outlook, and at times, resisting, reinterpreting, and defamiliarizing scientific notions. I am particularly interested in cases in which the explanatory power of science was overstretched, leading to dubious results. For example, in 1928, the inventor of the polygraph lie detector, William Moulton Marston, was recruited by Universal Studios to gauge the emotional responses of film spectators by recording changes in their respiration patterns and systolic blood pressure. Yet, Marston’s findings only replicated gender stereotypes of his time in suggesting that women spectators are predisposed to fall for scenes of romantic conquest.[10]

Overall, what I have learned from my study is that:

  • Science always exists in contexts, both institutional and political
  • Science is not neutral: biases play into the design of experiments and interpretation of data, as well as the extrapolation of findings beyond each individual experiment
  • The application of science in other areas – law, business, education, or aesthetics– is never a direct, transparent channeling of “truth” to achieve more “progressive” results.

This explains why I am alarmed by the news of technologies such as “brain fingerprinting” entering the arsenal of police interrogators. [11] Brain fingerprinting supposedly can reveal whether the subject has any vivid emotional memories associated with the circumstances of the crime, as it detects surges of electrical activity of the brain in response to the interrogator’s prompts. Heavily criticized by leading neuroscientists as underdeveloped, this technology has nevertheless been already adopted in court procedures in India, and is currently being tested in Singapore and the state of Florida.[12] Working on the nineteenth and early twentieth century, I am very familiar with the devastating social consequences of discredited scientific concepts such as phrenology, Alphonse Bertillon’s photographic galleries of rogues, and the polygraph lie detector. And I cannot agree more with the Italian neuroscientists Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà, who warn that laboratories of applied neuroscience often misrepresent the revelatory powers of brain research.[13] I believe that errors in science will eventually be corrected by science itself, but the intervention of the humanities is necessary in order to avoid the oversimplification of premises used in experiments and to warn policy makers about rushed wholesale applications of neuroscienscientific data.

In their book asserting the usefulness of neuroscience for law, Zeki and Goodenough brush off the historical misgivings of a purely biological perspective on the mind:

To the extent that biological approaches had been included in the great arguments of the twentieth century between fascism, communism, capitalism, socialism, dictatorship and liberal democracy, they wore a distorted and appropriately discredited aspect that had more to do with political expediency than with any accurate application of the admittedly limited science of the time. But that biology had been thus misused in the past is not a good reason for not taking into account its findings in the future, always of course with appropriate safeguards.[14]

Yet, who will be issuing the safeguards if the humanities continue to erode?

3. Conclusion

The humanities can help neuroscience to become aware of its current blindspots, to define more profound questions for research experiments, and design more sensitive and responsible methods for applying scientific insights outside the laboratory space. In particular, I would like to highlight several issues, where the sharing of expertise between neuroscience and the humanities would be crucial.

  • In the field of neuroaesthetics, how can we account for the complexity of human engagement with art objects? Too often we hear of studies that operate with a reductive model of aesthetic experience, relying on the subject’s reports of pleasure correlated with certain cortical activity and formal patterns of the art piece. Yet, to be impressive, art does not necessarily need to be pleasure inducing. Moreover, the perceptual properties of an art piece are not the only variable shaping our response; a much greater role is played by our cultural knowledge, memory, and imagination. Is there a way to create an empirical, quantificational method to factor in these variables? This formidable task cannot be accomplished without cultural historians, communication specialists, psychologists, and sociologists. Working towards this goal would give us a more nuanced view of the individual, contextualized, situational reactions, instead of the limited sets of universal, ahistorical laws that neuroscience gravitates toward.
  • What can we learn from the past? An inquiry into the social and political consequences of biologically-oriented approaches to the human mind, prominent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, may help us anticipate the potential dangers of overstretching neuroscience’s findings. Likewise, a study of artists’ and cultural theorists’ engagement with neurophysiological psychology in the past provides both cautionary tales and forgotten insights relevant for contemporary research priorities.
  • Foucauldian historiography may help open our eyes on the very functioning of what Nima Bassiri calls the current “regime of neuroscientific reasoning.”[15] The history of science teaches us that “the emergent authority of the neuroscience is a consequence of, among other things, complex political, economic and material contingencies rather than a consequence quasi-metaphisical revelations of the brain’s processes.”[16] What factors compel today’s research institutions, educators, politicians, and law enforcement agencies to embrace the neuroscientific explanations of human mind? In what way such reframing of our individual selves reflects the anxieties and impasses of our culture at this particular historical moment?
  • In light of the recent assertions that gender identity and sexual orientation are fixed during the fetal development of the brain, it is crucially important to draw on the expertise of women and gender studies specialists in the humanities. In working with neuroscientists, these experts could help create more nuanced categories of gender identity to be used in experimental setups, as well as more comprehensive and responsible interpretations of results. Moreover, as Sigrid Schmitz and Grit Hoppner argue in their article on “neurofeminism,” the recent research on the plasticity of the brain points to the “social influences on the gendered development of the brain and of behavior,” therefore opening up further avenues for transdisciplinary collaboration between brain scientists and humanities.[17]
  • Last but not least, the humanities may help to prevent the uncritical overstretching of “neuro-facts” and “neuro-explanations” in the popular media and applied neuroscience technologies. A very sensitive area, where such intervention is needed, is law theory, criminology, and court ethics.




Ana Hedberg Olenina is an assistant professor of comparative literature and media studies at Arizona State University and the founder of an interdisciplinary research cluster Embodied Cognition in Performance.  Her essays on performance in the Soviet avant-garde cinema, modern dance, and the history of applied psychology have appeared in journals such as Discourse and Film History, as well as several anthologies in Russia, the US, and Germany. Her current book project, Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Russian and American Modernity,  traces the ways in which early-twentieth-century film directors, actors, and performance theorists used the psychological ideas of their time to conceptualize expressive movement and transference of emotion.


[1]See Oliver R. Goodenough and Semir Zeki, Law and the Brain (New York, 2006), p. xiii.

[2] See Zeki and T. Ishizu, “The Brain’s Specialized Systems for Aesthetic and Perceptual Judgment,” European Journal of Neuroscience 37 (2013): 1413-20; Natalie Phillips, “Distraction as Liveliness of Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Characterization in Jane Austen,” Theory of Mind and Literature, ed. Paula Leverage (West Lafayette, Ind., 2011), pp. 105-22; and Bettina Bläsing et al., The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills (New York, 2010).

[3] See Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (New York, 2009), p. vi.

[4] See Ibid., viii.

[5] See Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham, England, 2011).

[6] Joseph Dumit, “The Fragile Unity of Neuroscience,” Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn, ed. Jan Vos and Ed Pluth (New York, 2016), pp. 223-30, 226.

[7] See ibid., p. 226.

[8] See ibid., p. 226.

[9] Phillip Haueis and Jan Slaby, “Brain in the Shell: Assessing the Stakes and the Transformative Potential of the Human Brain Project,” Neuroscience and Critique, p. 120.

[10] See Ana Olenina, “The Doubly Wired Spectator: Psychophysiological Research on Cinematic Pleasure in the 1920s.” Film History: An International Journal 27, no.1 (2015): 29-57.

[11] See David Cox, “Can Your Brain Reveal You Are a Liar?” BBC Future, 25 Jan. 2016, www.bbc.com/future/story/20160125-is-it-wise-that-the-police-have-started-scanning-brains

[12] See ibid.

[13] See Paolo Legrenzi and Carlo Umiltà, Neuromania: On the Limits of Brain Science (New York, 2011).

[14] Goodenough and Zeki, Law and the Brain, p. xii.

[15] Nima Bassiri, “Who Are We, If We Are Indeed Our Brains?” Neuroscience and Critique, p. 45.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sigrid Schmitz and Grit Hoppner. “Neurofeminism and Feminist Neurosciences: A Critical Review of Contemporary Brain Research.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 25 July 2014, journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00546/full


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