Neuroscience & Subjectivity – A Review

Reflections on Cromby, J., and Williams, S.J., Neuroscience and subjectivity Subjectivity (2011) 4, 215-226

In this paper, the authors tackle the “seductive allure” of contemporary neuroscience, challenging the eagerness with which thinly-supported findings, interpretations and extrapolations are taken up. They start by giving 3 simple examples that “begin to illustrate how the cultural uptake of neuroscience is contingent and variable, both impeded and progressed by the intersecting tensions generated by material, institutional and intellectual forces” (p217), before commenting on instances of neuroscience being used as a tool for either challenging and undermining existing powerbases and beliefs OR to reinforce them. This is an expected outcome, as neuroscience is inevitably used as yet another tool for self-esteem enhancement and identity preservation through confirmation bias, let alone, currently, opportunism and populism.

The authors quickly move to comment on the gaps between populist claims and what can be proven, such as the extent to which neuroplasticity is realistically possible or likely for most people most of the time. Specifically they give the example of neuroimaging as a method of lie detection, pointing out the hopes of those who adopted it for that purpose, as well as the narrow and unconvincing research that they based their conclusions on. They ask the question, “Can the complexity of our social, psychological and biological lives be reduced to a simple neurological measure?”(p219) Of course, the answer, based on the evidence, was no – neuroscience is not a reliable tool for objective truth-seeking. Rather, they describe neurological assessment, of any type, as being influenced by the “physical, social and psychological context in which it is undertaken” (p219). This is a crucial point – that emotions and behaviours are neurobiological responses to the situations people find themselves in, rather than simply being an inherently stable property of an individual. It is also important to note that this has epistemological implications too – in the brain, truth is not, and can never be, totally objective. More is written on this elsewhere.

There follows a discussion linking subjectivity to neuroplasticity, noting limits in both mental health diagnosis and brain recovery after injury. There seems to be a suggestion that subjectivity arises from neuroplasticity, but we would argue that subjectivity is also in our DNA – it is essential that all living beings see the world and its truths from the perspective of survival of self and species, not as external observers.

There are also comments about the nature of choice and agency, touching on the concepts of conscious decision making versus pre-programmed responses, with the comment that “although individuals are not accountable and cannot be blamed, they simultaneously cannot wholly control themselves and must accept the consequences” (p220). This is a fundamental question for society, and probably more a philosophical one than a scientific one. If our brains develop as a result of our DNA and experiences, and we are limited by its ability to understand, evaluate and respond, and every action choice is a result of a valuation and comparison process, how many of our actions result from free choice? Does free choice even exist, or is every thought and action simply part of a highly complex process? What does this idea say for responsibility and accountability? Is it fair that someone is sentenced to prison for a crime they were, effectively, programmed to commit? The answer for this, whichever way one looks at it, must follow the motivational process, where anticipation of reward or loss is a part of every action choice, giving the prospect of loss (e.g. punishment) a deterrent value, and the prospect of gain a stimulant value. Certainly, while, if one were to take the view that there is no such thing as free choice, changing penalties and rewards must, as a part of the no-choice process, influence behavioural choices. Our view is that accountability is an essential part of life, not least in the workplace, and that we should also accept that people’s responses are limited to their awareness, intuitions and capabilities, especially when distressed, as are own own.

Doubt is cast on the reliability of mirror neurons as a precipitator of empathy, citing context and contradictory findings, before accepting potential links to suggestibility, affective contagion (outward expressions of emotions) and attunement (similarities in brain wave patterns). This paragraph seems a little confusing, if not confused, with very little information for such a big topic. It’s almost as if the intent of the paragraph was to cast doubt on close and consistent links between mirror neurons and empathy by seeing this as a subjective and contextual experience with, obviously, variable outcomes. While the authors are not incorrect, the tone might be more helpful if it simply accepted that mirror neurons are often a helpful tool for non-cognitive processing of movements and emotions, allowing us to rehearse our own actions (in the premotor cortex) through watching others (e.g., a coach demonstrating a technique) and for emotionally joining with others through attunement, a core social skill aimed at speeding up understanding and relationship-building (laughing together and intuitively knowing when and how to offer and accept support are core elements of building trusting interpersonal relationships). Naturally this is influenced by both situational context and the want/ability of people to consolidate a relationship.

Before moving on to introduce other papers in that issue of the journal, the authors make a very useful point on p221 – that neurosciences can reduce, simplify and dismiss the richness and nuances of life, but can also enrich our understanding of how social, psychological and biological come together, in the process supporting our tolerance for subjectivity and intersubjectivity. This is a very useful thing to keep in mind – it is appealing to find comfort in generalisations and simplistic sense-making, but we can also draw on neuroscience to broaden and inform our perspectives and responses within the limitations and possibilities of a given context, including our own motives and capacity.

This paper was selected for review and reflection through its big-picture view of some aspects of the state, limitations and benefits of neuroscience in popular culture, and how that might stimulate thought around links with the workplace. Key points around context and subjectivity inevitably influence the neurobiological processes that precipitate not only action, effort and behaviour at work, but the varying natures of truth and reality that can divide or, with tolerance, curiosity and inclusion inform and unite, people with situationally differing fears, goals and experiences.

Finally, it is notable throughout the paper that the focus of the authors, in line with their editorial role in the journal “subjectivity”, seems to have been to place the usefulness and even validity of neuroscience within the context of subjectivity. This is appropriate for them in that context of course, but brings its own flieters and limitations, and is a useful reminder of how we naturally select, filter and interpret information to fit our own beliefs and motives.