What Should We Do with Our Brain?

This will be the reading for August 24’s meeting.

Catherine Malabou’s aim this book is to connect neuroscience to socio-political emancipation. Let me say up front that the manner of this connection is, to me at least, a little confusing. On the one hand, Malabou is concerned with applying the advances in neuroscience to larger existential questions. On the other hand, Malabou seems to want to critique the discourse of neuroscience for unconsciously colluding with neoliberal ideology. (I will return to this tension later, but let’s get back to her own text.)

Marx said, “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it.” Malabou updates this maxim: “Humans make their own brain, but they do not know that they make it.” Her reformulation of Marx is not just a bit of rhetorical flash–she claims that the brain is a history. She also claims not to be interested in the invention of the brain in scientific discourse, nor is she interested in rehashing the old argument about whether the biological brain is the same thing as the mind (it’s “an old and specious debate,” she claims). Rather, she claims that the brain’s ability to form itself and leave empirically observable evidence of this forming is, quite literally, it’s historicity. In other words, she is takes the brain as a meeting point of biology and culture.

Philosophy and general public discourse have not yet assimilated the advances in neuroscience beyond some scattered vocabulary and common medical procedures–in other words, most of us have a piecemeal understanding of neuroscience and we cannot see what unifies it. The common link is the brain’s plasticity. Although it is a key term in neuroscience, non-specialists tend to think of the brain as something mechanical, rigidly determined by genetics in the same way as, say, our skin color or propensity toward certain diseases is genetically determined.[i]

In fact, plasticity is the exact opposite of rigidity. The word comes from the Greek plassein, which means “to mold”. This gives the word plasticity three senses that are important for Malabou:

  1. the ability to receive form (clay is “plastic”)
  2. and the ability to give form (“plastic arts,” “plastic surgery”).

The brain is thus something both forming and formable, active and passive.

  1. However, plasticity also has another sense, which is the ability to annihilate form, and she mentions the French words plastiquer (to explode something) and plastiquage (the act of exploding something).

She sums up these senses of plasticity by writing, “to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model” (6).

How is the brain’s plasticity connected to historicity? Throughout each person’s life, he or she retains the ability to learn, acquire skills, and create memories. This ability means that, over the course of our lives, we each progressively “erase” the original model or standard of our brains. Our brains record not just our job skills (the brain of a pianist is different from that of a mathematician), but also more personal things, like our encounters, accidents, surroundings, and so on.

It is because the brain is so changeable that we need to ask what we should do with it. Although there are lots of books about “brain training” and similar popularizations of neuroscience, we still persist in thinking of the brain as a machine. At the same time, the ideology of current capitalism constantly uses the notion of networks: workplaces, society, and politics use the notion of connections and flow all the time. That is, we “have an immediate, daily experience of the neuronal form of political and social functioning” (10).[ii]

Malabou’s question “what should we do with our brain?” is not about how to make our cognitive abilities more efficient (by playing Sudoku or holding chopsticks in our non-dominant hands, for example). Instead, the question is about formulating a critique of “neuronal ideology.” That is, neuroscience tends to describe brain functioning in a way that mirrors the way politics describes interconnectedness. The question gets reformulated, then, as “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”

One of the guiding theses of the work is the idea that we often mistake flexibility for plasticity. In fact, “flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity–at once its mask, its diversion, and its confiscation” (12). What is the crucial difference between the two words?

  1. Flexibility refers only to the ability to change or adapt to external forces without breaking, but this definition is only one of the meanings of plasticity (i.e., to receive form). Flexibility “lacks the resource of giving form, the power to create, to invent or even to erase an impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity minus its genius” (12)
  2. Plasticity is historical; flexibility is not.

Even in the writings of some cognitive scientists, flexibility is substituted for plasticity, as when an organism is described only in it’s ability to adapt to external pressure. The underlying message seems to be, “you see, we can stand even more than we thought!” However, to truly describe brain plasticity “means insisting on knowing what it can do and not simply what it can tolerate” (13).

Chapter 1: Plasticity’s Fields of Action

Malabou establishes “plasticity” as a graduated concept–that is, a concept that has various degrees of application between two poles, rather than a single meaning.

  1. On the one extreme, there is the “closed” meaning borrowed from material science, in which plastic is the opposite of elastic. An elastic material can be modified and return to its original shape (such as a spring), but a plastic material will retain the modifications made to it and not return to it’s original form (as in marble).
  2. On the other extreme is the “open” meaning of that which is capable of displacing or transforming its mark. For example, some adult stem-cells (such as skin stem cells) are capable of becoming not just skin, but also nerve or muscle cells–in genetics, this is even called “stem-cell plasticity.” In contrast to 1.,  this plasticity means the ability to change one’s destiny or trajectory.

Malabou wants to keep in mind the complexity of the word “plasticity” in the following discussions.

The Three Plasticities

There are three kinds of brain plasticity recognized in neuroscience:

  1. Development plasticity: The Formation of Neuronal Connections.
    1. Soon after conception, the brain begins to form according to a genetic plan (such that all humans develop, for example, neural connections between the eyes and the visual cortex in the brain, rather than some other part of the brain).
    2. At birth, our brains are only partially formed. To develop more, they must use external stimuli to develop neuronal connections. For example, at birth babies cannot see well not because of a problem with their eyes, but because their brains cannot process the information. Through the act of seeing, their brain learns to process the information.

In stage (a) the brain is effectively forming itself, but in (b) it is being formed by the outside world. Malabou highlights the blurring of these two stages–they do not happen in a strict sequence; rather, they overlap such that two kinds of plasticity (forming and being formed) are simultaneous.

Modulational Plasticity: The Brain and Its History

This refers to learning, experience, and habit. Basically, neuronal circuits will get stronger the more they are used and get weaker the less they are used. This kind of plasticity is the strongest example of the “open” idea of plasticity in that the brain forms itself based on it’s decisions and experiences. That is, we do certain things (because of our brains), and then those things make impressions on our brains that reinforce that action.[iii]

Malabou points out that modulational plasticity “allows us to put back into question the old dogma that the adult brain steadily loses its plasticity, the dogma that the brain can of course acquire new information but can know of no great change in its capacity to learn, its memory function, or its global structures except in the direction of decline or degeneracy” (25).[iv]

Reparative Plasticity: The Brain and Its Regeneration

This refers to our brains’ ability to repair itself, and it consists of two capacities:

  1. neuronal renewal (or secondary genesis):

As we age, some neurons die and need to get replaced. The old view was that this was a case of simple substitution in which neuron A gets replaced by neuron B, but that the structure is basically the same. Advances in neuroscience show that this is not the case. In fact, neuronal circuits are constantly appearing and disappearing throughout our lives.

  1. The brain’s ability to compensate for loss caused by lesions:

The ability of our brain to relocate the center of various functions. For example, a stroke victim loses the ability to control her left arm, but later she gets that functioning back. This is sometimes due to the brain changing the area in the brain responsible for controlling the left arm.

Given these three plasticities, Malabou underscores the non-mechanistic functioning of the brain. The question these insights force is this: “Does brain plasticity [. . .] allow us to think a multiplicity of interactions in which the participants exercise transformative effects on one another through the demands of recognition, of non-domination, and of liberty? Or must we claim, on the contrary, that, between determinism and polyvalence, brain plasticity constitutes the biological justification of a type of economic, political, and social organization in which all that matters is the result of action as such: efficacy, adaptability–unfailing flexibility?” (31). [v]

Chapter 2: The Central Power in Crisis

Malabou starts to get into the political side of her argument. Her entrance to this side is the claim that, “there is no scientific study of the modalities of cerebral power that does not by the same token–implicitly and usually unconsciously–adopt a stance with respect to the contemporary power of the very study within which it operates. There is today an exact correlation between description of brain functioning and the political understanding of commanding” (32).[vi]

There are two dominant but outdated ways of thinking of the brain–outdated because they fail to consider plasticity.

  1. One (stemming from Henri Bergson) is to claim the brain is like a central telephone exchange. In this conception, the brain relays information from and to various parts of the body, but it does not add anything to the information.
  2. The other is to think of the brain as a computer; that is, the brain is a machine that calculates.

The problem with both analogies is they put the brain in the position of a central, organizing power over everything else–they exclude the brain’s openness to being changed, as well as it’s evolutionary character. (In fact, Daniel Dennett discusses the brain-as-computer idea, but challenges it from the other side, claiming that computers are also machines “with multiple and adaptable structures” [38]).

Mentioning the brain’s decentralized position is not enough to get us out of ideology yet, Malabou claims, for the idea of decentralized power is precisely the way neo-liberalism works.[vii]

She justifies making a connection between neuroscience and politics by drawing on the The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. They claim that capitalist production represents itself by borrowing theoretical concepts from autonomous field–for example, since Darwin’s time, notions like evolution, competition, and adaptation have become central to the way Capitalism presents itself.[viii] This way of presenting itself with analogies to science is ideological naturalization. The following are some points of contact between neuroscience and neoliberal ideology:


In Science

In Politics

Networks There is no central point; there are “discrete assemblies of neurons forming mobile and momentary centers on each occasion” The manager is not a boss, but a integrator, facilitator. The boss does not seem to give orders, but relays information to and from the self-controlling employee units.
Delocalization Neural imaging shows that brain functions occur in patterns, not just in regions of the brain. Neurons can be recruited for multiple brain functions happening across the brain’s geography. The worker must be flexible, available, without attachments. The new Capitalism favors polyvalence over craftsmanship: “anchorings in a space or region, attachment to family or a domain of specialization, and overly rigid fidelity to self [are] incompatible with what today is called ‘employability’” (45)
Adaptability As noted in the intro, when neuroscientists talk about plasticity, they often do so by conflating it with flexibility–the capacity to adjust (passively) to stimuli. Workers should not be specialized; they should be versatile and able to switch situations at a moment’s notice.

Finally, Malabou claims that the way depression is described in neuroscience mirrors the way the unemployable are discussed in politics. In both cases, the problem is a lack of connections (I didn’t say more because I don’t understand her argument in this section).

Chapter 3: “You Are Your Synapses”

The final chapter is mainly devoted to refuting “what constitutes the chief affirmation of the neurosciences in general, and of the cognitive sciences in particular–the certainty that there exists a perfect continuity between the neuronal and the mental” (55). Put differently,  brain science (according to Malabou) claims that biology unproblematically explains mental states–emotions, ideas, etc. can all be reduced to signals in the brain.[ix]

Of course, there is a long history of debates about how the thinking part of people (the mind, soul, etc) is different from the body; however, these arguments tend to rely on substantial dualism. Malabou is a substantial monist through and through–that is, she is a strict materialist. What we are getting in this chapter, then, is a battle of the materialisms: that of brain science and that of psychoanalysis. (By the way, part of Malabou’s project in other books is to show that psychoanalysis is not rendered invalid by neuroscience).

The argument mainly takes place by attacking the ideas of two leading neuroscientists (Joseph LeMoux and Antonia Damasio–they are both big deals in the field, it would seem). Basically, both thinkers claim that they can derive Consciousness or The Self (our living, experiencing side) from the biological stuff in our brains. Damasio does this by creating a model with various stages of self. The first stage is the proto-self: the basic patterning our brain does that is totally unconscious. This pattern becomes the material of a higher pattern of activity (“the core self)”, which in turn becomes the material for even a higher level (“the autobiographic self”), until eventually we get to full consciousness.

What Malabou takes issue with is not the model of patterns described, but in the connection of these various stages. Basically, the separation of one stage to the next is an opening for negativity (Malabou’s Hegelian streak moves from the background to the foreground). How does this negativity work in materialist terms?

The model she wishes to refute looks only at established patterns–that is, it takes the plastic brain and makes it mechanical by focusing only one what remains constant in it. However, plasticity also means the ability to be formed. In fact, this forming can happen entirely by accident. Thus, some unexpected stimuli can start to strengthen certain synapses in the brain, which then change the pattern that had existed until that point. The negativity is not really a material nothingness so much as it is an element of material randomness that can shape the brain.

This randomness–in fact, this plasticity–is what allows Malabou to think she’s found a way out of the Free will-Determinism debate. Rather than saying we are one or the other, plasticity allows us to say it’s both, sometimes more one than the other.[x]

Finally, Malabou ties it all together by saying that we have to learn to say “no,” to use the brain’s third kind of plasticity (the explosive loss of form).[xi]

[i] Is Malabou correct about our general way of thinking about the brain? Do we tend to think of the brain as being basically genetically determined? That is, do we tend to think about the brain’s ability as beyond our ability to influence?

[ii] (a) The idea of networking implies multifaceted connections and flows, but does it involve anything else?

(b) Can you think of examples of the way society, politics, the workplace, etc. is compared to a network?

[iii] Does it sound like Malabou is putting too much emphasis on personal choice here? What about the fact that many of the experiences we undergo are not our choice at all, whether these be benign (the kinds of landscape we get used to seeing) or destructive (accidents that we suffer)?

[iv] Is the idea that we are too old for our brains to develop efficiently based in reality, or is it an aspect of the “neuronal ideology” that makes us passively accept our condition in life, even if that is a bad condition?

[v] Let me return to the point I made at the beginning about some confusion of purpose in Malabou’s book. On the one hand, she wants to tell us non-neuroscientists about the revolutionary discoveries of neuroscience (such as plasticity). On the other hand, she wants to critique the concepts of neuroscience for their ideological baggage (such as mistaking flexibility for plasticity). Are these two purposes compatible, or do they suggest a poorly constructed argument?

[vi] Why? Can’t neuroscience just be neuroscience, without meaning something political?

[vii] An example of this decentralized power is the organizing of work by teams and projects, rather than by permanent divisions and offices. Are there other examples of the way neoliberal ideology carries out the network analogy?

[viii] Do not all discursive fields explain their ideas by borrowing ideas from other fields; that is, by using metaphors? Even the vocabulary of neuroscience is borrowed largely from other ares of discourse (a dendrite is a part of a neuron, but the word “dendrite” comes from the Greek word for “tree”). Is their something unusual about capitalism’s borrowing ideas from other fields?

[ix] Again, can anybody shed light on this idea of the reduction of the mental to the neuronal?

[x] Do you buy it? Have we finally overcome that debate?

[xi] This suggestion for gaining political emancipation has a long history. Do we really need all the neuroscience in order to get here? Does the discussion of neuroscience teach us anything we did not already know, or is it just some creative marketing?


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