Medical humanities & cognitive neuroscience: transdisciplinary openings & endeavours

Jonathan Smallwood’s, Daniel S Margulies’ and my article “Default positions: how neuroscience’s historical legacy has hampered investigation of the resting mind”, is just out in the Open Access journal Frontiers in Psychology

It comprises a collaboration between a psychologist, a cognitive neuroscientist and a medical humanities scholar. In this perspective piece, the three of us interrogate the ways in which cognitive neuroscience has tried to investigate the puzzle of the brain and mind “at rest”. We focus in particular on the difficulties that the field has encountered in investigating and understanding “self-generated cognition”, in other words, mental activity that is not provoked by external stimuli – or, in the lingo of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience – by “tasks”. (Think day-dreaming, mind-wandering, free association, fantasy, inattention …)

While a careful history of psychology and proximate fields (most obviously psychoanalysis and philosophy) reveals a rich seam of scientific investigations regarding such phenomena, the triumph of task-based experimental techniques in psychology and then in cognitive neuroscience resulted in the occlusion of much of this legacy. Scientists such as Jonathan Smallwood (see his blog) have pursued what has, until recently, been a lonely path in carving out anew a space for psychological investigations of mind-wandering and daydreaming. The growing visibility and popularity of “resting state” fMRI research holds open the potential for greater scientific attention being paid to developing appropriate methods and frameworks  through which to investigate “self-generated cognition”. But there are challenges ahead – which we gesture towards in our article.

My collaboration with Jonathan and Daniel serves, I hope, as an example of the ways in which the medical humanities can productively engage with not only the interpretation of science that is being pursued in fields close to medicine, but in its production.  There is, I believe, much that the medical humanities can offer to such endeavours. And this not least by virtue of its sustained interrogation of the problematic of subjectivity/objectivity. This problematic lies at the heart of any conceptualization of what is happening in a medical encounter; this problematic is, additionally, growing in visibility as a key conceptual and methodological concern within cognitive neuroscience today.

“Default positions” also comprises part of an ongoing collaboration between Daniel (who was trained in continental philosophy before turning to cognitive neuroscience) and me (I was trained in cultural geography and the history of psychiatry). We met for the first time in 2008 in a mouse lab – or, rather, the celebrated European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) just outside Rome – as two of the participants in the first “NeuroSchool” that was designed and run by the hugely creative European Society & Science network.

Daniel’s and my rather inept attempts to observe and document behavior in transgenic mice led us to think that our talents might be better utilized elsewhere. (There are many academic articles still to be written on collaboration and interdisciplinarity that really get at what sparks and enables productive collaborations.) And so we decided to trace the history and emergence of the then nascent field of resting state fMRI – the field to which Daniel as a scientist belongs. Our first jointly-authored publication, which both traced this history and forecast some of the consequences of such research for understandings of subjectivity and the self, was published in the special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Subjectivity on neuroscience and subjectivity (see the editorial by John Cromby, Tim Newton and Simon J Williams). It was entitled: “The Subject at Rest: Novel conceptualizations of self and brain from cognitive neuroscience’s study of the ‘resting state’” (2011).

There are, of course, many other examples of flourishing trans-disciplinary investigations of neuroscientific paradigms and practice. To mention just two (which is inevitably invidious!).

First, the productive work initiated and masterminded by Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby under their umbrella term “Critical Neuroscience”.  Those of you who have not yet put your mitts on their edited Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience (Wiley, 2011) should do so now.

Second, the about-to-be launched “Hearing the Voice” project  based here at Durham – which is led by Charles Fernyhough (PI, Psychology) and the Centre for Medical Humanities’ own Angela Woods (Co-Director). This inter- and trans-disciplinary research programme is investigating the phenomenon of hearing a voice no one else can hear (a phenomenon also referred to as auditory verbal hallucinations), its cognitive-neuroscientific mechanisms, its social, cultural and historical significance, and its therapeutic management.

And one final teaser, which also foregrounds how we are ensuring that our Centre for Medical Humanities can act as a crucible for further collaborations between medical humanities scholars, cognitive neuroscientists, historians of science and psychologists:

My colleagues Des Fitzgerald (Sociology, LSE, whose own research focuses on neuroscientific investigations and conceptualizations of autism), Simone Kühn (cognitive neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and Ulla Schmid (Philosophy, University of Basel) are organizing a workshop in Berlin, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, entitled “Experimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience”. It is designed to help a group of interested researchers from different disciplines to think concretely and pragmatically about some of the longstanding methodological and empirical gaps in their own science. About which, more anon. (Heads up: Charles Fernyhough, Daniel Margulies, Jan Slaby and Jonathan Smallwood will all be presenting.)

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3 Responses to Medical humanities & cognitive neuroscience: transdisciplinary openings & endeavours

  1. Pingback: Don’t just stand there, think | AnthroVenture

  2. Pingback: Experimental entanglements in cognitive neuroscience (Workshop, Berlin, 25-26 October 2012) | Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

  3. Pingback: CFP, Workshop and Seminars | Disability Studies Network (UK)

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