Neuroscience and the Humanities: A Meditation
By happy coincidence, last week I was reading both Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection The Givenness of Things, which begins with “Humanism.” In this essay, Robinson considers the limitations of neuroscience, which she describes as reducing the intricate complexity of the brain to “an essentially simple thing.”1 This reduction, in Robinson’s analysis, rejects the notion of the self and ultimately results in a devaluation of humanity.
Cordelia Fine’s book is a little less intellectually lofty, but she also takes popular neuroscience to task, specifically for oversimplifying and overstating complex and often unclear results about differences between men and women. Fine’s more narrow argument supports Robinson’s larger point: when neuroscience is used to support sweeping generalizations about gender differences, both men and women are dehumanized, their potentials and limitations reduced to electrical impulses in their brains.
Fine argues, repeatedly, that a focus on the brain alone erases the many social factors that lead men and women to behave and respond differently — in other words, neuroscientists tend to study brains as isolated rather than embedded in complex social networks. Reading Fine in conjunction with Robinson, we can criticize the tendencies of neuroscience, or at the very least reporting on neuroscience, to ignore the impact of both sociology and the humanities on our understanding of the self.
But why does this tendency to view the brain in isolation from society and the humanities matter? After all, neuroscience has the very specific goal of discovering how the brain works in a mechanical sense, exploring topics like where and how emotions manifest and whether differences exist between male and female brains. Any area of study must have its limitations, and as Robinson points out the very nature of science over the last two hundred years or so bars it from asking metaphysical questions about the soul, or even the self.
Fine and Robinson both take different angles on the question of why the limited focus of neuroscience is a problem, but both broadly criticize it for its overreach, the tendency to take a specific test result and make sweeping generalities about human nature. For Fine, the overreach lies in how neuroscience affirms and entrenches our tired old stereotypes of women — with the veneer of objective scientific truth but without consideration of the effect of centuries of patriarchy. For Robinson, the overreach lies in oversimplification, the notion that we can understand humanity by tracing where the brain lights up in a scanner. Both authors resist the essentializing of ourselves to the mechanisms of our brains, or at least to those mechanisms described in simple, cause-and-effect terms.
Neuroscience is just the latest in an extensive human tendency to oversimplify and essentialize human beings. Long before brain scans and modern neuroscience, the author Charlotte Brontë warns against reducing complex individuals to the mere sum of their parts. In Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Jane makes a passionate speech to Mr. Rochester in which she proclaims: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart!”
Brontë may not have had brain scans, but she was familiar with the nineteenth-century methods of essentializing people by class and gender. Given the social norms of the day, the wealthy, upper-class, male Mr. Rochester had every reason to believe that poor, lower-class, female Jane was, indeed, lacking in soul and heart, lacking in those characteristics that make one fully human.
Jane’s declaration reminds Mr. Rochester — and us, dear reader — that Jane herself, her desires and talents and emotions and capabilities, cannot be boiled down to her class, gender, and dare I say brain scans. Brontë’s heart-wrenching narrative of Jane’s childhood emphasizes her extraordinary passion and sensitivity despite an upbringing designed to squash those characteristics.
And so, despite all the inputs that should push her to develop a poor, mean character, Jane clings to a self that is kind, generous, good, a self that is shaped by her circumstances but not in a mechanical, cause-and-effect manner. Yet she knows that when people see her, they often see not her unique self but the presumed product of poverty, charity and femininity — a product endowed with less heart and soul than an upper-class man.
Neuroscience has a similar tendency, reducing the complex web of the self to a measurable series of stimuli and responses. Neuroscience has, to be sure, great value: for example, understanding how stress can reshape our brains can give us greater empathy for those who encounter the daily stress of poverty or racism.
But Robinson and Fine, along with all the great novelists, remind us that we cannot reduce humans to their brain chemistry. Social context matters greatly, especially since brain science is still in its infancy. Even social context, though, cannot fully account for the self. For that, we must turn to the humanities to understand what it means to have a soul, to have a heart — to have those qualities that poor, little, obscure Jane claims, qualities that make her an equal to any other human being.
I think most of would agree that our self is something more than the chemistry or electrical impulses in our physical brains. And to understand something as complex and metaphysical of the self, we must not limit ourselves to neuroscience. Instead, we must draw on the resources of social science and the humanities as we strive to understand what it means to be human.
Marilynne Robinson, “Humanism” in The Givenness of Things (New York: Picador, 2015), p. 6.↩