Department of History of Science and Ideas

Ties van de Werff: "Living Well with your Brain: valuing neuroscience in society"

  • Date: 3/17/2016 at 1:15 PM 3:00 PM
  • Location: Engelska parken - Rausing Room
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: Francis Lee
  • Seminarium

The History of Medicine Seminar

Ties van de Werff, Maastricht University, presents his PhD dissertation Living Well with your Brain: valuing neuroscience in society

Despite its complex scientific technicalities, in the past decade the brain has emerged in all kinds of societal and scholarly domains as a popular means for understanding human behavior. Key to the spread of neuroscience knowledge from the lab into society, is the concept of brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to change its functions or structure. The notion of brain plasticity ‘opens up’ the brain for all kinds of interventions (Abi-Rached & Rose, 2013) and invites actors to do something with it, invoking specific action programs, values, and other ideas of the good. Ranging from self-help manuals, management literature and brain games, interventions based on brain plasticity seem to serve as answer to the timely ethical question of how to lead the good life.

In my dissertation, I explore how the plastic brain precisely is made valuable for addressing these ethical concerns, and to what extent neurobiological interventions (based on brain plasticity) are able to challenge or destabilize existing norms, values and ideas of the good life. Combining theories and methods from Science and Technology Studies (STS), empirical moral philosophy and the sociology of valuation, I analyse the normative usages of plasticity arguments in three practices of a brain-inspired good life: parenting teenage brains; working the mindful brain; and caring for ageing brains.

I show that plasticity arguments in these practices enable actors to enact, stabilize and challenge different (and sometimes conflicting) ideas of the good. I further show that these valuations of the plastic brain occur through recurring patterns of moral argumentation, which I dub ‘moral repertoires’. I argue that the explanatory power of neurobiological claims does not solely come from the promise of finally unravelling what it means to be human. Rather, it results from the versatile ways brain facts can be used as ‘ethics by other means’. This indicates that values and ideas of the good play a crucial role in the valorization of science to society, implying a co-evolution of techno-science and morality or techno-moral change (Swierstra & Rip, 2007).

prof. dr. Tsjalling Swierstra (Maastricht University)
prof. dr. Heleen Pott (Maastricht University)