‘The changing brain: Neuroscience and the enduring import of everyday experience’ @PickersgillM et al

The changing brain: Neuroscience and the enduring import of everyday experience

Martyn Pickersgill, University of Edinburgh, UK; Paul Martin, University of Sheffield, UK; Sarah Cunningham-Burley, University of Edinburgh, UK

Public Understanding of Science 2015, Vol. 24(7) 878–892SJO_banner

Discourses of ‘neuroplasticity’ have become increasingly apparent in the neurosciences and wider society. These connect with broader narratives about the ‘changing brain’ throughout the life-course. Here, we explore their presence in the talk of a range of publics. Their presence is indicative of how novel neuroscience is accepted, or not, by our participants. In particular, we suggest that any acceptance of the science relates to
their personal and/or professional experiences of change (to their own or others’ subjectivities) rather than to some intrinsic and widely-held significance of scientific concepts per se. Accordingly, we also submit that it is in part through the congruence of some neuroscientific claims to everyday experiences and perspectives that the former are rendered legible and salient. In this respect, ‘lay’ knowledge has considerable import for the wider cultural authorisation of that of ‘experts’.


“Some social scientists and other commentators have already cast their gaze upon these discourses of the changing brain. As Choudhury and McKinney (2013) note, ideas about plasticity have also become intertwined with concerns within civil society about the developing brain and the (over-)use of digital media by children and adolescents. In the UK, where ideas about the changing brain and childhood have collided in social policy agendas (see Allen, 2011), considerable ire has been evoked in some quarters, with accusations being levelled at policymakers that they have been ‘blinded by neuroscience’ (Wastell and White, 2012). In the work of Pitts-Taylor (2010) and Thornton (2011), the concept and popularisation of plasticity in particular has been diagnosed as symptomatic of broader neoliberal agendas that seek to create and order ever more diligent subjects, who can today self-govern at the level of the neurological itself. Other social theoretical accounts of plasticity have underscored the potential of this idea for more liberatory forms of praxis (Malabou, 2008; Papadopoulos, 2011).”

“Negative changes in the brain were related to and evidenced by deficiencies in subjective qualities such as behaviours, interests or skills. For instance, one woman with epilepsy and who had suffered from cerebral aneurisms described how her “organisational skills are nowhere near what they used to be but, then again, they’re much better now than, you know, six, seven years ago” (F1, epilepsy group 1). Thus, whilst the brain might change for the worse, it may also, in time, improve to some extent. This narrative of loss and gain is most evident in the following extract:

I always said to my husband, “You know what,” I says, “I think they’ve moved a creative part of my brain somewhere” and he used to say, “What do you mean?” I used to be artistic, as in drawing, you know, sketching an’, you know, charcoals and things like that, I barely find that I can actually put pencil to paper, in that aspect anymore, but I can write poetry, stories, you know […] [A television programme said that] there can be a shift in the brain. (F1, epilepsy group 2)”

“Another woman described how “during my pregnancy I was seizure free”, but “they came back after I had my son. So there was some. But then every time I took my periods I always had seizures” (F3, epilepsy group 1). The third female participant in the discussion likewise pondered “why the brain says ‘no pain, no suffering during pregnancy’” (F2, epilepsy group 1). In the second epilepsy focus group, one of the female participants also linked epilepsy to changes in the brain that were possibly “partially hormonal” (F1, epilepsy group 2) in origin.”

The emergence of neuroplasticity discourse has been compelling to many who work within biomedicine (Rees, 2010; Rubin, 2009). At the same time, these ideas have found traction within a range of popular media (Pitts-Taylor, 2010; Thornton, 2011). As Prior notes in his work on neurological disorders, “what lay people recognise and report upon is change, and not disease” (2003: 48). …”

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