Neuro, Brain Storm, Plastic Reason: When Did Brains Become Malleable, and for Whom?

I am puzzled by comparing three pieces on later 20th-century neuroscience I read recently (in chronological order): Rebecca Jordan-Young’s Brain Storm, Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached’s Neuro, as well as Tobias Rees’s dissertation Plastic Reason. The historical arguments, despite similar periodization, don’t seem to go together very well—to phrase it mildly.

If you’re not familiar with these works, bear with me for a second, as I will summarize their main arguments of interest to my summer project.

In Brain Storm, Rebecca Jordan-Young synthesizes neuroscientific papers on brain organization research (BOR) from the 1960s to the 2000s. The brain organization theory states that gender identity is “hardwired” through prenatal testosterone exposure. Paying attention to the methods, presentation, and interpretation of data and results, RJY concludes that many inconclusive findings and contradictions have characterized BOR over the decades—and that the idea of immutably fixed sex(ualiz)ed and gendered brains remained a guiding neuroscientific principle nonetheless.

A plastic brain.
(”Unpacking My Brain” by brewbooks, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In case you cannot get access to Tobias Rees’s dissertation, I suggest you read his brilliant article “Being Neurologically Human Today” for starters. In his dissertation, he presents how “plastic reason” was introduced to the neurosciences only towards the turn of the millennium. He bases his account on a 1.5-year ethnography in the lab of Alain Prochiantz, then at the École normale supérieure, but he also provides a historical overview of the development of the “plasticity” concept from the late 19th century on. It is central to TR’s argument that the notion of a malleable brain, not only of functionally plastic synapses, did not become a neuroscientific fact until the late 1990s. Adult neurogenesis (ANG), i.e., the formation of entirely new neurons in mature brains, was put forward as early as in the 1960s, but these earlier findings were not accepted by the neuroscientific community. Thus, ANG did not become incorporated in the neuroscientific canon as a mechanism of adult brain plasticity when it was first (and a second and third time) “discovered.”

Please note the importance of the 1960s as the origin of both BOR and the first utterance of ANG—even though the latter was pretty unpopular at the time.

So far, so good.

In turning to Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached’s Neuro, I want to assert that this amazing piece of scholarship is tremendously intriguing and stimulating—and yet puzzling to the historian who looks at questions of neuroscientific sex/gender difference research, or at scholarship on the very recent advent of the concept of large-scale plasticity in human adult brains.

NR and JAR argue that plasticity is at the heart of contemporary neuroscientific concepts, and that this concept abolished all notions of innateness as well as of prenatal hardwiring. They state, for instance, on p. 48 (cf. p. 11):

The growing attention to these questions of development, neurogenesis, and plasticity [in the 1970s] … was linked to the growing belief that, when it comes to the human brain at least, neither structure nor function were fixed at birth, or inscribed in the genes. The neural architecture of the brain, it seemed, had to be located in the element of temporality—not just the time of development from fertilization to birth and into the early years of life, but also the time of the life-course, through adolescence, into young adulthood, and indeed across the decades.

I agree with NR and JAR’s brilliant analysis of the extent to which the notion of plasticity is (not) liberating for the individual, because it offers/enforces the opportunity/responsibility of perfecting oneself—through perfecting one’s brain—for the good of society (e.g., pp. 22 f., 52, 141–163, 221 f.); I am also very glad to be assured that the neurosciences with their idea of plasticity will not replace familiar notions of the self, but instead add one more dimension to the identity discourse (e.g., pp. 2, 223).

But these thoughts on the democratization of self-perfection, the flexibility of the neo-liberal economic subject, and the discourse of the plastic self are approaches from a philosophico-socio-political point of view.

From a historical point of view, I see some inconsistencies between the three works.

Interestingly, the history of large-scale human adult brain plasticity, as NR and JAR tell it, is different from TR’s: It postulates a gradually rising acceptance of the ANG concept from the 1960s to the 1990s (pp. 47–50), and it suggests that the broad acceptance of ANG in the neuroscientific field had abolished the notion of prenatal hardwiring by the 1970s, as quoted above. This is a contradiction to TR’s claim that “plastic reason” came into being only in the very late 20th century.

Furthermore, using the very same periodization as NR and JAR, RJY even argues that brain organization theory continues to be one of the most influential explanatory frameworks for sex/gender differences in brains, and that the idea of pre-natal hormonal hardwiring of gender identity has remained unchallenged by the concept of plasticity. (Interestingly, the claim of the impact of the ANG concept in the 1970s, as laid out by NR and JAR, relates only to prenatally determined mental diseases, for example, and is not applied to the concept of gender identity.)

Am I misreading either Neuro or TR’s dissertation and RJY’s Brain Storm when I think they aren’t compatible from a historical perspective?

I agree with Neuro that the obligation to “care” for one’s brain applies to all citizens in certain geographical areas covered in their book, but I am not so sure about the benefits of plasticity being shared amongst all members of society (such as, e.g., the liberating notion that one is not determined to suffer from certain mental issues, because one can train oneself and one’s brain in order to avoid this condition). The way I see it, the non-hardwiredness and the non-existing prenatal determination apply mostly to white so-called western cis-men. Underprivileged populations, such as women, are still seen as hardwired identities—not least if we take Brain Storm seriously.

To sum up, there is no “plastic reason” to be found in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s according to TR, and there is no plasticity involved regarding gender identity in BOR from the 1960s to the 2000s at least, as RJY tells us. Still, Neuro supplies us with the notion of the malleable brain, starting in the 1960s, gaining power in the 1970s, and advancing to abolish any concept of the immutable brain thereafter.

Is there a fourth dimension to the history of brain plasticity that is able to make these three accounts complement each other—instead of contradict each other?

2 thoughts on “Neuro, Brain Storm, Plastic Reason: When Did Brains Become Malleable, and for Whom?

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the post and also think that the historical imprecision of Neuro is well worked out.
    Neuro is an interesting book, but a careful analysis of plasticity and where it comes from is certainly not to be gained from it. That being said, it seems fair to say that Neuro is less a book about the history of neuronal research than an study of govern mentality today. Fair?

    and stay tuned: Plastic Reason is scheduled to be published with the University of California Press in February 2016!

    • I can’t wait! I will definitively advertise the book here once it’s out.
      Regarding neuro governmentality: Yes, fair, it’s a great job done there. I just think a more complicated account of the history would also caution us not to be too uncritical with what is presented today.

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