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Dossier thématique

Neuroscience examined by the clinical and the social science

Crossed perspectives
Les neurosciences à l’épreuve de la clinique et des sciences sociales. Regards croisés
Neurociencias a la prueba de la clínica y de las ciencias sociales. Perspectivas cruzadas
Émilie Bovet, Cynthia Kraus, Francesco Panese, Vincent Pidoux et Nicholas Stücklin
Traduction de Haig Aivazian
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les neurosciences à l’épreuve de la clinique et des sciences sociales [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Neurociencias a la prueba de la clínica y de las ciencias sociales [es]


L’essor scientifique, historique, politique, culturel et médiatique des neurosciences est remarquable. Promues pour vaincre les maladies du cerveau, elles promettent de répondre aux vieilles questions des rapports entre pensée, corps et cerveau de manière définitive grâce à nouvelles techniques d’observation. Le dossier thématique mobilise historien·ne·s, psychiatres, anthropologues, psychologues, sociologues, neuroscientifiques et philosophes, pour éclairer la façon dont les neurosciences reconfigurent les pratiques de soin et pour interroger leurs ambitions. Les contributions témoignent du développement d’analyses critiques des neurosciences et des tensions épistémiques et politiques qu’elles entretiennent avec d’autres disciplines. Un premier ensemble de texte concerne les dispositifs d’imagerie cérébrale, l’inflation des objets produits et leur façonnage de l’humain. Le deuxième ensemble porte sur les tentatives de compréhension des bases cérébrales de la pathologie mentale et les instruments, substances et méthodes visant modifier les états psychiques. Il aborde aussi les transformations du rôle des experts et de la recherche clinique avec l’evidence-based medicine. Le troisième ensemble pose la question de l’articulation entre modes de production de savoirs, dont l’analyse héritée des études féministes, dénaturalisant le cerveau pour re-politiser les différences relatives au sexe. Les articles interrogent le développement des neurosciences et leurs effets épistémiques et pratiques sur les sciences humaines et sociales, ainsi que les dynamiques de compatibilité et de tension entre différentes analyses.

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  • 1 For example, the American-based Society for Neuroscience, founded in Washington in 1969, currently (...)
  • 2 An example that comes to mind is the recent European Human Brain Project which has received up to a (...)
  • 3 Presidential Proclamation on the Decade of the Brain, 17 juillet 1990, (...)
  • 4 Fact Sheet: BRAIN Initiative. White House Office of the Press Secretary. April 2, 2013, http://www. (...)
  • 5 These strategies are particularly present in the many publications of the Dana Alliance for Brain I (...)

1Since the 1990s, proclaimed the “Decade of the brain” in the US by former president George Bush Sr., the rise of neuroscience can be considered to be a major scientific, historical, discursive, political, cultural or even mediatic event in Western society (Rose and Abi-Rashed, 2013). Countless symposiums and publications of all sorts have been produced regarding the relationship between the brain and the human subject.1 Since the 1990s the field of neuroscience has been benefitting from massive financial and symbolic investments,2 which have had the promotion of scientific research aimed at “defeating brain disease” as primary goal (including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, vascular cerebral accidents, autism and schizophrenia) as well as “enhance[ing] public awareness of the benefits of brain research.”3 More recently, president Barack Obama inaugurated the “Century of the Brain” with a publicly funded research programme called the Brain Initiative, which links therapeutic advances and brain mapping, techno-scientific innovations and job creation.4 Brain research has therefore been developed and renewed within a “rhetoric of hope” (Mulkay, 1993), buttressed with persuasive strategies looking to lend credibility to the politico-moral position that claims research will revolutionise human understanding and allow human preservation in terms of cognitive, mental, psychological and even social health.5 Given these circumstances, it can be difficult to differentiate between hype and reality, hopes and facts.

  • 6 According to psychiatrist and historian Henri Ellenberger, “cerebral mythologies” (Hirnmythologie) (...)
  • 7 The term “neuroscience” has been in existence since 1960 and was first used in the name of MIT’s re (...)

2Nonetheless, the promises of the imminent revolutions which have taken place in the name of neuroscience, are not reducible to mere “cerebral mythologies”6 to be unmasked or refuted. Rather, these promises are an integral part of the “proleptic structure of neuroscience” (Hagner and Brock, 2001), and in that sense they do not simply constitute a promotional tool, but much more fundamentally, they constitute a mode of production for an ever-expanding field. This proleptic structure however is neither new, nor is it proper to neuroscience –sometimes referred to as “new brain sciences”7 given that they are backed by “new brain imaging techniques” (in particular functional M.R.I.). In fact, this structure has been a defining feature of the long history of brain research. Indeed brain research has been in pursuit of the same essential questions since the eighteenth century (the link between thought and the brain, between the body and the brain, the debate on the innate and the acquired mental capacity, questions on the physical support of the subconscious, emotions, etc.). The promises to find definitive answers to these essential questions are not only renewed with every iteration, but they are even embellished with new techniques of observation (Hagner and Borck, 2001; also see Borck, in this issue and Gumy, also in this issue).

3The project of critically demystifying neuroscience seems all the more problematic given that the field’s revolutionary rhetoric also affects the realms of Social and Human Sciences (henceforth SHS), which usually oscillate between fascination and repulsion. Some emphasise how neuroscience opens up previously unexplored potentials of revolutionizing or revamping SHS –including the field of psychiatry– while others stress how the increasing “cerebralisation” of their research objects puts the SHS at risk of being “colonised” by, or even dissolved into “hard” brain science. These contrasting positions, between neurophilia and neurophobia, exacerbate tensions that in reality have less to do with the disciplines in question, than with the common and inherently controversial object these domains of knowledge and practice share: the human subject. Given this commonality, it is convenient, at least for now, to situate neuroscience and SHS on the same level and to consider them according to a principle of symmetry: a symmetry much cherished by the anthropology of science and knowledge.

4It is perhaps useful to mention here that a number of disciplines included in SHS –such as cognitive behavioural psychology, developmental psychology, philosophy of the mind and neuropsychology– have long been making use of the tools of brain science in order to validate their own findings and to expand their resources of innovation. Since the 1990s, the SHS “with brains” have developed into a particular research framework that promises to elucidate the neuronal foundations of human behaviours. This framework is referred to as social neuroscience (for a further discussion, see Borck in this issue,) and it is, so to speak, reflected –in both senses of the term– in projects related to “Cognitive Sociology” (Clément and Kaufmann, 2011). More recently research groups have been trying to integrate the SHS into neuroscience by calling on questions, concepts and even qualitative tools taken from SHS, in order to contextualize, refine and improve their experimental protocols. This is particularly true in the case of Critical Neuroscience (Choudhury, Nagel and Slaby, 2009; Slaby 2010; Choudhury and Slaby, 2012; for further discussion, see Kraus, this issue) and of the project NeuroGenderings (Dussauge and Kaiser, this issue; see also Dussauge and Kaiser, 2012).

5It must be noted that certain SHS also are a part of brain sciences in a broader sense of the term, which surpasses the disciplinary boundaries by far, even if these boundaries are revived or exacerbated by the hopes of neuroscience and its ambitions of interdisciplinarity. Therefore, it is no longer about choosing a camp in the “war of subjects” between a “cerebral subject” and a “speaking subject”, a dichotomy deemed by some to be disciplinary and by others ontological (Ehrenberg, 2004). Rather, it is a matter of analysing without disciplinary bias, the manner in which anthropological knowledge is produced and various “types” of subject come to be constituted, regardless of whether that constitution is done in the name of neuroscience, SHS, or both. This might be one of the aspects that validates a critical approach to neuroscience, by drawing inspiration from the social studies of science, technology and medicine. However, it is necessary to note that criticality and reflexivity are not the sole prerogative of such approaches (Lynch, 1982.) As in most scientific developments, it is crucial to recognize the critical activity of the players involved in the growth of neuroscience. Here, the traditional distinction between “peers” and “informants” tends to become blurred, especially given the tendency of these fields to be introspective in their practice and its effects on their subjects. This is particularly true of medicine’s “special” branch, psychiatry, which cannot stop itself from constantly reflecting on its practice and to verbalise its associated difficulties.

6One of the major challenges of the tenants of psychiatric neuroscience is to promote so-called “translational” research, or in other words transferring (or translating) the research produced in the laboratory towards the realm of the clinic in a manner beneficial to patients. This places the field of psychiatry between two particularly interesting paradoxes. Firstly, despite the fact that the everyday life of therapists seems very far from the promising discourse put forward by brain research, and despite the fact that therapists can treat patients without having to study the brain, their practice is nonetheless strongly affected by the institutional upheavals brought on by the rise of psychiatric neuroscience. While the brain is rarely mentioned in the clinic, it remains omnipresent in the protocols of translational research. This has inevitable repercussions on manners of thinking the clinic. The clinicians are therefore under ever increasing pressure to master theories emerging from research on psychiatric neuroscience, despite the fact that those theories hardly have any impact on their practice. Secondly, even though psychopharmacology has remained omnipresent within psychiatry, from the 1950s until today, psychiatric neuroscience tends to distance itself from this heritage deemed to be too empirical, irrational, and even cumbersome, since it opposes the translational ideal: in psychopharmacology, it is the findings of the efficacy of psychotropic drugs that lead to subsequent neurochemical hypotheses and not the other way around, meaning that the pharmacological model has therapeutic applications, from “the mouse to the human being” or from the lab bench to the bedside of the patient. These two paradoxes even further encourage professionals in mental health to render practices coherent that can be very heterogeneous, but which also reflect a body of knowledge and experience acquired on the ground facing human subjects. This is why it strikes us as very important to pay close attention to the ways in which neuroscience reconfigures (or not) the everyday practice of therapists, and to do so with the therapists themselves.

7It is in this spirit that the research group PNS3 (“Psychiatry, Neuroscience, Health [Santé in French], Subject, Society”) was formed at the University Institute of the History of Medicine and Public Health (l’Institut universitaire d’histoire de la médecine et de la santé publique [IUHMSP]) in Lausanne. Comprised of historians, psychiatrists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists neuroscientists and philosphers, the PNS3 group promotes social studies of neuroscience by privileging a reflexive approach to the production of anthropological knowledge by brain science, including neuroscience and SHS. Since 2006, the group’s research seminars and symposia8 have generated a constructive dialogue outside of a strictly disciplinary framework, along with individuals interested in brain research, in order to explore the challenges raised by the reinforcement of neurobiological theories in the process of shaping the human subject.

8The articles selected for this issue stem from this approach: to investigate the brain sciences, in order to test neuroscience on the basis of its own stated ambitions, and, in a bid to be symmetrical, to also interrogate the SHS. The contributions collected here reflect on the one hand the development of critical analyses on the historical, social and epistemological dimensions of neuroscience as such, and on the other, the epistemic and sometimes political tensions towards other fields such as SHS and other practices such as the psychiatric clinic. The articles also outline, each in their own way, the challenges of dialogues between various fields, qualifications, paradigms and various players such as psychiatrists, historians, neuroscientists, sociologists and philosophers. The contributions are organized into three sections each reflecting a line of research: in our opinion, the selected articles subscribe and illustrate these lines in particularly relevant and original ways.

Linking images, shaping objects

9The first part of this volume tackles brain imaging technologies, which today, constitute one of the most powerful drivers of the success of neuroscience. The functional brain maps produced by these technologies have undeniable “productive properties” (Beaulieu, 2005), including that of inscribing cognitive and emotional functions in the brain and to render them visible, which tends to immediately place them in a biomedical register. Facing these images of cerebral functions, various epistemic cultures ranging from “iconophilia” to “iconoclasm” (Beaulieu, 2002) have been deployed since the mid-1990s in the context of interdisciplinary collaborations, bringing together clinicians and researchers specialised in the production of these images. Very little controversy surrounded this expanding field of interdisciplinary research until 2008, when an influential scientist from within the field itself raised questions about the value and the claims of functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery (fMRI) (Logothetis, 2008). More recently, a debate on the size of samples and the statistical validity of proposed correlations in the framework of studies conducted by fMRI resonated beyond the community of cognitive and social neuroscience (Button et al., 2013).

10This controversy is in line with the one analysed by Cornelius Borck, in this issue, from the standpoint of the social studies of science. From the so-called “Voodoo Correlations” debate, which took place in 2009, Borck analyses the manner in which researchers borrowed the technical resources of functional neuro-imagery with the hopes of producing tangible proof of the existence of complex social categories. The author demonstrates how, by expanding a reductionist approach to social and cognitive realms, functional imagery has caused an “ontological inflation” of strangely animated material objects. He suggests that neuroscientists utilising functional imagery are in effect practicing “voodoo,” not due to a lack of scientific rigor –as the criticism generated by the controversy would seem to imply– but rather because they transform cultural entities into natural objects.

11In “Images of Adolescent Passions”, Christel Gumy, in this issue, looks into techniques of visualisation in research conducted on emotions and the “adolescent brain” in order to understand them as veritable “technologies of gender” (de Lauretis, 1989). From this standpoint, she analyses studies conducted in neuroscience that make use of a set of photographs of facial expressions. As a first step, she reconstitutes how Ekman and Friesen in the 1970s, with the help of actors mimicking certain emotions (joy, fear, etc.), formalised a typology of facial expressions meant to refer to universal emotions, thus considered to be independent of the person’s sex and age. At a second stage Gumy shows how this same typology is translated into various studies that make use of functional MRI, producing an “adolescent brain” correlated to the supposedly specific expression of emotions, paradoxically depending on sex and age. The author shows that this version of the brain, destined for media-centred and clinical fortune, establishes problematic correlations between for instance, the “emotional brain” of young boys and a higher likelihood for them to be risk takers.

Modulating the brain, modifying the clinic

12The attempt to understand the cerebral basis of mental pathologies have shaped psychiatry well before the rise of contemporary neuroscience, with its ebbs and flows of hope and disappointment. Indeed studies on cerebral metabolism have marked the history of the field, bringing along with them high hopes as to the imminent resolution of the mysteries surrounding its etiology. While most of the methods utilised in biological psychiatry during the first half of the twentieth century have been relegated to the rank of quasi-inhuman therapy in the historicisation (“mise en mémoire”, Abir-Am, 1998) of the discipline following the introduction of neuroleptics, they also reflected, each in their own particular way, a hope of modulating the brain so as to have it act on the psyche. Hence, be it through barbituric, lobotomy or electrochoc, the psychiatric clinic has, for over a century, been defined by instruments or substances which aim to act on the cerebral metabolism in order to alleviate psychic suffering. The introduction of the first neuroleptics at the beginning of the 1950s, and the adhesion of researchers in neurophysiology to the chemical theses of neurotransmission a decade later, are constantly presented as revolutions in the history of the field.Nevertheless, these moments follow a long line of attempts to modulate the brain in psychiatry. In this sense, the revolutionary tales constructed after the introduction of neuroleptics are comparable to the tales that feed the hopes of grasping the relationship between the brain and psychic trauma by reinforcing neurobiological theories on mental illness today (Bovet, 2012).

13In the second half of the twentieth century, there is a striking contrast between on the one hand the proliferation of theoretical and therapeutic currents originating from the clinic, and on the other, the spread of biological psychiatry, on a quest for ways to try and re-establish patients’ neurochemical balance, but which generally without considering the clinical experience of psychiatrists. The introduction of randomised controlled tests from the 1960s onward considerably has transformed the role of psychiatrist clinicians, characterised by the new ideal of a “clinic without clinicians” (Pidoux, 2012). At the same time, the discipline has also seen the decline of neurochemical hypotheses looking to link a dysfunctional neurotransmission to the appearance of psychic disorders (Healy [1997] 2002).

  • 9 On this topic, refer to a presentation by Pierre Magistretti, the previous director of Centre for P (...)

14It is striking to realise that contemporary psychiatric neuroscience is seeking to distance itself from the previous century’s therapeutic empiricism,9 by obliterating the fact that this very empiricism lies at the basis of the theoretical production of links between cerebral dysfunction and psychic trauma. Neuroscience seems to be increasingly distinguishing itself from administering substances, in order to better focus on other means of modulating the brain such as: deep cerebral stimulation, cognitive-behavioural therapy, neurofeedback, relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, desensitisation, eye movement reprogramming, etc. In this sense, it seems crucial to take on the issue of the modification of psychic states by material and non-material paths, with or without substance. These are the sorts of reconfigurations that have marked the psychiatric clinic with the advent of psychopharmacology, but the will to act on the brain in order to modify the psyche, far surpasses the topic of psychotropic drugs: from the Coué method to techniques of auto-stimulation and auto-suggestion, the history of a brain modulated without substances must have its place in the quest of trying to better understand how the reticence towards cerebral metabolism has been able to influence the evolution of the psychiatric clinic.

15The interview with the medical doctor and pharmacologist Jacques Diezi, in this issue (interview conducted by Emilie Bovet and Vincent Pidoux), tackles the transformations of the role of experts, clinicians and researchers in pharmacology, which have taken place from the 1970s until the current stagnation of medicinal innovation. There are various hypotheses as to the reasons for this stagnation, such as the importance of serendipity, or the role of universities and medical control agencies.

16Looking at the metamorphosis of scientific articles, Michael Saraga, in this issue, describes the transformations of clinical research in the field of psychopharmacology. He demonstrates that the development of so-called evidence-based medicine is mirrored by the development of research strategies and a mode of result restitution, progressively eclipsing the clinic of singular cases to the benefit of serial statistics. He shows that studies published during the “golden era” of psychotropic drugs (1949-1957) attach great importance to describing the cases in literary styles that are engaging, narrative and suggestive. However, critical debate around the DSM-III surrounding most notably lithium, appears to force detractors and defenders of these substances alike, to produce numbers, as statistics seem to bestow these studies greater scientific authority. Through a close reading of a number of typical publications, Saraga shows how the requirements of an evidence-based medicine tends to progressively eclipse the literary dimension of scientific articles to make way for a mathematical schematism. This eclipse is itself linked to a transformation of the psychiatric clinic in the field of psychopharmocology.

17The third contribution in this section discusses the interesting situation of the modifications of psychic states which bypass the use of substances. Hervé Guillemin, in this issue, approaches the astonishing history of the “Coué Method”, which according to its inventor, pharmacist Émile Coué, generated positive psychic effects through the auto-enunciation of “ritual sentences.” Based on correspondences between practitioners of this method in the 1920s, Guillemain analyses the manner in which Coué sought to promote this autosuggestive healing technique, by highlighting the absence of drugs, of a mediator (the therapeutic autonomy of the participant) and the quasi-absence of cost. According to the author, the persuasion strategy for this method was all the more efficient given its positioning “in the crevices of academic medicine.” However, the users of this method express difficulties of “following the method without a guide”. One of the contributions of this original investigation is to evidence how it is precisely the difficulty faced by most of the patients to do away with mediation that leads them to develop a network of practitioners, as if autosuggestion only was possible with the reassurance, no matter how tenuous and episodic, of a third party.

To collaborate, to co-elaborate?

18The third part of this issue more specifically discusses the subject of interdisciplinarity, looking into the possibility and opportunity to develop collaborations between neuroscience, the clinic and SHS on modalities that are yet to be explored in various domains and analysed in the social studies of science (cf. for example Weingart and Stehr, 2000). Indeed, the expansion of the “new brain sciences” is accompanied by repeated calls by neuroscientists and their critics (who are sometimes neuroscientists themselves) to go beyond disciplinary boundaries (cf. e.g. Choudhury, Nagel and Slaby, 2009; Panese, 2009). This current state tends to conceal the long history of collaborations, which have existed between the brain sciences, psychiatry and the SHS since the nineteenth century. From the physiology of the brain to the study of emotions and from phenomenology to psychopharmacology (Pidoux, 2012), and from cerebral stimulation in neurosurgey to the emergence of cerebral hypotheses of mental pathologies (Bovet, 2012), one could say that the brain’s influence on the modification of psychic states is an integral part of psychiatric questioning, and that the cerebralising versions of psychic trauma have over the decades constituted “interesting” (Strengers, 1992) objects of study.

19In other words, the articulation between different modes of production of practical knowledge on the brain and human subject, be they “normal” or “pathological”, is not a novelty in and of itself. Regardless, the modalities upon which this set of practical knowledge today finds itself reconfigured due to the rise of neuroscience, is neither a given, nor is it self evident. These modalities are the topic of intense debates and are an arena for struggles and redefinitions, sometimes within the “disciplines” themselves. The last three contributions, each in their own way, revisit these interrogations and challenges that are linked to interdisciplinarity and that sometimes accompany the creation of new alliances –or rather “re-alliances”– between neuroscience and the clinic on the one hand and between neuroscience and SHS on the other.

20Two psychiatrists, Pierre Bovet and Josef Parnas, in this issue, consider the manners in which neuroscientific and molecular approaches to mental illness tend to reduce it to its observable symptoms, while obliterating the patient’s lived experience, as well as psychopathological and empirical data. The authors oppose to this conception of mental illness, which they qualify as being objectivist, a phenomenological clinic of the subject. They insist however, that this clinical approach is not incompatible with neuroscientific explanations. By taking schizophrenia as an example –their domain of expertise– Bovet and Parnas urge neuroscientists to work in close collaboration with clinicians, in order to co-elaborate practical knowledge on mental illness. More particularly, they suggest that the contributions of psychiatric phenomenology and those of the developmental psychology of children’s subjective and intersubjective structure be integrated into the methodology of neuroscientific research. Work conducted on premature glutathione deficiency, which may render one prone to schizophrenia, points towards this possibility. The authors define a wider reaching research perspective for psychiatric neuroscience: they invite researchers to adopt a phenomenological epistemology, in order to make compatible psychiatry, neuroscience, “the phenomenology of the mind” and the physiology of the brain.

  • 10 A theory developed in the 1990s aimed at deconstructing the categories of identity, be it biologica (...)

21As initiators of an interdisciplinary project entitled neuroGenderings, Isabelle Dussauge and Anelis Kaiser reflect on the possibilities of pursuing and renewing the objects and instruments of analysis inherited from the mostly Anglophone critical tradition of feminist and queer10 studies of science in general and neuroscience in particular. Based on a rigorous discussion of existing areas of study, one can distinguish two main research paths. The first of these is theoretical: a feminist and queer perspective encourages to denaturalise in order to better re-politicise the innumerable differences relating to sex, gender and sexuality, which the brain sciences are constantly “(re) discovering” –from nineteenth century phrenology to more recent research on typically feminine, masculine, gay, transsexual or intersexed brains. The second research axis has a more distinctive empirical aim: here Dussauge and Kaiser discuss the point and the means of transforming neuroscientific research from a feminist and queer perspective, with the goal to integrate a critique of “neurosexism” (Fine, 2010) in the study of the materiality of the brain, and in particular its plasticity (also see Dussauge and Kaiser, 2009). This empirical project, which opens up the possibility of developing a feminist and queer neuroscience, or a “neurofeminism” (Bluhm et al., 2012), shares a programmatic proximity with “Critical Neurosciences” (cf. Choudhury, Nagel and Slaby, 2009), and even, though admittedly to a lesser extent, with Bovet and Parnas’s proposition of a “phenomenologising” the psychiatric neurosciences.

22In her article dedicated to “the critical study of the sexed brain,” Cynthia Kraus, in this issue, expands on Dussauge and Kaiser’s critical reflections, while bringing them into a perspective which privileges the analysis of scientific controversies and social conflict. Based on a constructive critique of “Critical Neuroscience,” Kraus demonstrates in particular how this programme shares elective affinities with personal development guides for couples: by promoting an interdisciplinary dialogue where neuroscientists seem to come from Mars and SHS researchers from Venus, the SHS are relegated to the role (traditionally attributed to women) of appeasing the conflicts inherent in their relations with neuroscience and the public, casting interdisciplinarity as a unidirectional critical practice (benefitting neuroscience) and, moreover, preventing any dissensus. Inversely, Kraus proposes here to work on exacerbating dissensus in the critical analysis of the relationship between (neuro)science, medicine, gender and society (also see Kraus, 2012). According to the author, this perspective has the advantage of being able to link the question of knowing what the –feminist and queer– critique within SHS is, to the question of the use of SHS in the life and clinical sciences. Indeed, the author defends the idea that an analysis centred on controversy and conflict is far from preventing collaboration or interdisciplinary practices, and can actually make them possible in better conditions. Nor does this praising of “dissensus” imply a renouncing of the empirical project of improving (neuro) scientific research: a project which Dussauge and Kaiser, and Bovet and Parnas are all invested in. On the contrary, if one admits that controversy is constitutive of the relationship between (neuro)science and society, that it is in this sense a phenomenon that “is not only typical and common but… normal (perhaps even desirable)” (cf. Jasanoff, 2008: 391), it is perhaps a prerequisite for any “good science” and for “bring[ing] the (neuro)sciences into democracy” (Latour, 1999.)

23The texts collected here have in common the fact that they, each in their individual way, adopt a critical perspective on the development of contemporary neuroscience and its epistemic, epistemological and practical effects on “the science of man” as one would have referred to it in the past, and the “practices of the human mind” (Gauchet and Swain, 2007.) Neuroscience, like psychological, sociological or clinical approaches, does reconfigure our relationship to the “human subject.” The question today is perhaps less about the “truth” of the versions that it proposes, but rather about understanding the dynamics of compatibility and tension between simultaneous, differing and contextual versions. In this sense, the critique can take the path of a close analysis of the ways in which rules of exchange between worlds which attribute contrasting significance to the objects they share, in this case the brain and the human mind, establish (or do not establish) rules of exchange. One way to bypass the polemical hurdle all while maintaining criticality, is perhaps the formulation of what ethno-psychoanalyst Devereux (1972) called a complementarist perspective: to contemplate, without any otherworldliness, both the unity of the human object and the proliferation of the discourses and practices which constitute it, while conducting research on precisely their relationship of complimentarity and the dynamics of what differentiates them. For Devereux, complementarism represented a possible path to overcome two aporias in natural and social human sciences: reductionism and idealism. To offer perspectives on neuroscience, from the specific standpoint of the clinic and social sciences, as we have done here, is a possible means of going in that direction.

The authors would like to warmly thank the University Institute of the History of Medicine and Public Health (Institut universitaire d’histoire de la médecine et de la santé publique-IUHMSP), the faculty of Social and Political Sciences (SSP), The Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), and the Laboratory of Sociology of Lausanne University for their generous financial support.

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1 For example, the American-based Society for Neuroscience, founded in Washington in 1969, currently has 42 000 members from all over the world. During its first annual convention in 1971, the SfN brought together 1 400 participants, and the number of participants had gone up to 32,000 forty years later. See (Seen on June 23, 2013.)

2 An example that comes to mind is the recent European Human Brain Project which has received up to a billion Euros of funding for the coming 10 years.

3 Presidential Proclamation on the Decade of the Brain, 17 juillet 1990, (See on June 23, 2013.)

4 Fact Sheet: BRAIN Initiative. White House Office of the Press Secretary. April 2, 2013, (See on June 21, 2013.)

5 These strategies are particularly present in the many publications of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and its European outpost, the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB), both of which are neuroscientific organisations which emerged from the Brain Decade, and whose purpose is to improve public awareness of neuroscience. See EDAB publications available online: (Seen on June 23, 2013)

6 According to psychiatrist and historian Henri Ellenberger, “cerebral mythologies” (Hirnmythologie) spread among doctors, neuropathologists and neurophysiologists, during the 19th century. The tendency has consisted in “describing psychological and psychopathological phenomena in real or hypothetical brain structure” (Ellenberger, 1994 [1970]: 455.) Towards the end of the 19th century. Many psychiatrists borrowed from terminology from cerebral anatomy in order to describe the psychopathological disorders of their time. Ellenberger notes “it is curious that it is always the same men who put down the milestones of scientific anatomo-pathology of the brain and whom on the other hand, fell into the traps of ‘cerebral mythology’” (Ibid: 506). These “cerebral mythologies” were particularly criticized by German psychiatrists Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969.)

7 The term “neuroscience” has been in existence since 1960 and was first used in the name of MIT’s research program (Neuroscience Research Program) in 1962, under the direction of the biologist Francis O. Schmitt (Abi Rached and Rose, 2010; Cowan, Harter and Kandel, 2000.)

8 The entirety of the five editions of the international symposium Mind the Brain! (2008-2012) organised by the group PNS3 is available on Lausanne University’s iTunes U platform dedicated to the free downloading of educational material via the iTunes Store. Also available on

9 On this topic, refer to a presentation by Pierre Magistretti, the previous director of Centre for Psychiatric Neuroscience of the Canton of Vaud: (Seen on June 17, 2013).

10 A theory developed in the 1990s aimed at deconstructing the categories of identity, be it biological sex, sexual or gender identity, bodies and desires, or race, in order to situate the paradoxical, and sometimes subversive, dynamics of norms in individual and collective practices.

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Émilie Bovet, Cynthia Kraus, Francesco Panese, Vincent Pidoux et Nicholas Stücklin, « Neuroscience examined by the clinical and the social science »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 7-3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, consulté le 28 octobre 2020. URL :

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Émilie Bovet

Socio-anthropologist with a doctorate in Life Sciences, she teaches Social studies of science at the University as well as at the École Polytechnique of Lausanne. Her research is primarily focused on the history of the ties between psychiatry and brain sciences, and more generally on the impact of neuroscience on the field of mental health. She regularly collaborates with the psychiatric nurses in the canton of Vaud, in order to come up with ways to improve the care offered in the field. Alongside Nicholas Stücklin, she is co-president of the STS-CH association, which seeks to promote the social studies of science in Switzerland, by organising conferences and symposia between researchers.

Address: Institut des sciences sociales, Laboratoire de sociologie, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bâtiment Géopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne (Suisse).
E-mail: emilie.bovet[at]

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Cynthia Kraus

Philosopher and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Social Sciences in Lausanne, her research specialises in gender studies, the social studies of the body and sexuality, the social studies of science and medicine. She works in particular on the biology of the sex, the so-called gender-identity clinic (intesexuality and “transsexuality”), neuroscience, as well as on the construction of links between the (neuro)sciences, medicine, gender and society. Recent publications include: Kraus C. (2013.) Hypospadias surgery in a West African context: the surgical (re)construction of what? Feminist Theory, 14(I), 83-103.

Address: Institut des sciences sociales, Laboratoire de sociologie, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bâtiment Géopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne (Suisse).
E-mail: cynthia.kraus[at]

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    Critical Studies of the Sexed Brain. A Critique of What and for Whom?
    Estudios críticos del cerebro sexuado. ¿Una crítica de qué y para quién?
    Paru dans Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 7-3 | 2013

Francesco Panese

Professor of social studies of science and medicine at the University of Lausanne, he is also the director of the Museum of the Hand, an institution dedicated to scientific and medical cultures. His research primarily focuses on the visual cultures in the sciences, the shaping of the body in biomedicine and, more generally, the relations between science, medicine and society.

Address: Institut des sciences sociales, Laboratoire de sociologie, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bâtiment Géopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne (Suisse).
E-mail: francesco.panese[at]

Vincent Pidoux

Sociologist and a Doctor in Social Sciences, he teaches the social studies of science and medicine at the University of Lausanne. He is also a research fellow at the University Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine (IUMSP) and free staff member of the University Institute of the History of Medicine and Public Health (IUHMSP), University Hospital of the Canton de Vaud (CHUV). His research interests lie in material techniques, in particular visualisation and standardisation, Life Sciences and Medicine, historic epistemology of neuroscience and psychiatry, and on the production and (non) uses of scientific knowledge in the clinic.

Address: Institut des sciences sociales, Laboratoire de sociologie, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bâtiment Géopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne (Suisse).
E-mail: vincent.pidoux[at]

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Nicholas Stücklin

He works at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lausanne. He is writing a dissertation on the relationship between humans and animals in the Life Sciences, and more specifically about the metamorphisis of the prairie vole, a North American rodent described as monogamous and biparental in zoology and brain science. He has also worked on the politics of compassion and on emotions as a tool of persuasion in organ donation in a research program at the National Research Pole in Affective Sciences. Alongside Emilie Bovet, he is co-president of STS-CH, an association seeking to promote the social studies of science in Switzerland, by organising conferences and symposia between researchers.

Address: Institut des sciences sociales, Laboratoire de sociologie, Quartier UNIL-Mouline, Bâtiment Géopolis, CH-1015 Lausanne (Suisse).
E-mail: nicholas.stuecklin[at]

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