I started this weblog in order to share my ideas relating to the history, philosophy, and sociology of the neurosciences, as well as to reflect upon my training and work as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History and Sociology of Science (HSS). I entered the program in 2013, and I am one of its greatest fans. Alongside my HSS studies, I am taking part in Penn’s neuroscientific life as a graduate from the certificate program in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN), which allows me to better comprehend current neuroscientific developments, and to trace their roots back to earlier brain science endeavors.
Subsequent to my studies in mathematics and philosophy as an undergraduate student in Germany (Karlsruher Institut für Technologie and Freie Universität Berlin), I decided to dig more deeply into the conceptual and historical foundations of the sciences. Thus, I acquired an M.A. at Technische Universität Berlin in a program for the History and Culture of Science and Technology (Geschichte und Kultur der Wissenschaft und Technik). In my master’s thesis, I started to investigate whether it is historically justifiable to call fMRI research “new phrenology.” I did this by comparing the work of F.J. Gall with fMRI research in the 1990s seeking for sex/gender differences in human brains.
I am currently working on two pre-dissertation projects. One traces the history of adult neurogenesis, a special form of brain plasticity, and its intersection with neuroscientific sex difference research since the 1960s. Utilizing a broad range of methods, from interviews through close-reading to large-scale digital textmining, I am investigating into the extent to which the idea of a malleable human brain that is structurally shaped by life experience has challenged the understanding of brains as congenitally male and female. The second project traces the term “new phrenology” from the early 19th to the early 21st century and uncovers at what time and in what context the designation has been used as praise or denigration. This consideration spans the histories of phrenology, criminology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, psychometric testing, and brain imaging. These two projects relate conceptually to my dissertation project, in which I will inquire into handedness as an investigational category in the brain and mind sciences since the late 19th century. In my analysis of handedness, I will focus on German cultural and scientific sources, but relate the theories and practices in the German-speaking world to concurrent developments in the transatlantic world, such as the educational reform movement in the early 20th century or the development of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory in the 1970s.
Recently, I also kept myself busy with co-organizing the conference “Sorting Brains Out: Tasks, Tests, and Trials in the Neuro- and Mind Sciences, 1890–2015” together with Ekaterina Babintseva and Matthew Hoffarth, supervised by John Tresch. The fabulous event took place at Penn in September 2015. For more information on the conference, you can consult the call for graduate student abstracts or our poster (yes, it is green!!).
The title of this weblog, by the way, was born out of a lunch discussion in the employee cafeteria on the 10th floor of TU Berlin’s math department with Martin Hähnel and Konstantin Kiprijanov. The “semipermeable” was meant to account for the flow of information in one direction, and the response of readers in the other—so please take advantage of this opportunity.