Researchers at Lund University in Sweden argue that with the developing field of “neuropolitics,” we are seeing more focus on the brain as the cause of political issues rather than looking at history and social context.
“Neuropolitics” is a field concerned with attempting to explain political decision-making, policy, and other related issues by focusing on the specific neuroscientific physiology of individuals and groups.
The authors of the paper, Niklas Altermark and Linda Nyberg, state that this new paradigm of examining politics through studies of the brain takes certain things for granted. Among these assumptions is a belief that the mind is equal to the brain, that the glorification of neuroscience to understand politics glosses over methodological problems with this kind of research, and that much of this research fails to address associated ethical issues.
They rely in part on the philosopher Michel Foucault’s arguments around the relationship between knowledge and power—for example, the many instances in psychiatric history where biological arguments and research programs initiated by so-called experts/professionals were used to reinforce negative stereotypes and oppressive psychiatric practices.
“Following Foucault, Butler, and Rose, among others, the question we have sought to raise in this text is not how the truths of biology should urge us to rethink politics, but how these truths are made and can be understood as political in themselves.
Against the naturalization of the biological brain, we urge political analysts to consider the ideological functions that neuropolitics serves and how it is embedded in pervasive structures of power. The most significant aspect of how political scientists turn to neuroscience concerns how this field of research enables a repertoire of new problematisations, where the perceived problems of how humans behave are rooted in the materiality of their brains. This is what we have called ‘the pathologization of politics.’”
The authors look at three “case study” neuropolitics papers and examine them for the problems mentioned earlier—what they call “meta-theoretical presumptions” related to ontology (how things are, for example, whether the brain “produces” or is identical to the mind versus some alternative explanation), epistemology (how we know things), and ethics (how individuals and societies should conduct themselves).
They clarify that they are not saying neuropolitics is inherently bad as a field of study but that there are specific problems with how it often functions which should be addressed.
The three case study papers examined by the authors include 1) a study on how individuals develop (or fail to develop) the necessary neural conditions for becoming participants in democratic political systems, 2) a study examining why people fail to combat climate change, and finally 3) a study on the effects of cognitive decline related to age, in relation to political leadership.
The first study, published in 2007 by Ivelin Sardamov in the journal democratization, examines the neuroscience behind why certain individuals and groups are predisposed to participating in democratic political regimes compared to other groups. Significantly, the authors note that this agenda happens to coincide with U.S. foreign policy as the primary driver of attempts to bring “western democracy” to the world at large.
Sardamov’s study centers around the following topics:
- “Why democracy takes time to consolidate.”
- “What pre-conditions must be in place for democratization to take off?”
- “To what extent are there cultural factors that may hamper democratization processes?”
Sardamov argues that “democratic” thinking and activity are not hardwired into the human brain. Instead, it requires neuroplastic development over generations. As Altermark and Nyberg are quick to point out, although Sardamov warns against accusations of “inferiority” of certain cultural groups and individuals, it is challenging to avoid ethnocentric and likely racist “judgment [s] concerning the underdevelopment of the brains of non-western people.”
Here we can see ethical or normative dimensions at play in the background of such a study. The assumption is that democratization of the western sort, marked by qualities such as “impartial reasoning” and “detachment and self-restraint,” is inherently desirable. Whether or not readers agree with this line of thinking, it is plain to see that ethical judgments are being made by Sardamov that are politically contestable.
One might wonder about the neural makeup of those advocating spreading U.S. foreign policy and its associated “democratization” to the far corners of the world, which is, of course, not addressed.
The second study case study, published by Marco Grasso in a 2013 edition of the journal Environmental Politics, performs a neuroscientific analysis of why people fail to act in terms of reducing carbon emissions. The authors state that Grasso’s article is more “thoughtful” than Sardamov’s, but they still take issue with it.
Grasso claims “that neuroscientific evidence suggests that the human brain is hardwired to act on consequentialist reasoning rather than on abstract principles of justice.”
Consequentialism is a moral philosophy that refers to the idea that human beings judge actions by their outcomes, rather than the commonly contrasted “deontological” moral philosophy, which can be summed up by the idea that actions are good or bad in themselves rather than based on what they produce.
The authors write:
“In Grasso’s interpretation, the human brain is not properly organized to respond to the problem of climate change since the persons responsible for the change and the persons suffering from its effects are separated in space and time. Therefore, if we want people to change their behavior to reduce carbon emissions, we must shift the debate towards consequentialist arguments about harm in order to match the kind of reasoning that our neuronal organization is predisposed to react to.”
For Grasso, this is followed up by the claim that neuroscience reveals our “inner nature” as consequentialist in our morality, so efforts to combat climate change must appeal to this kind of moral philosophy rather than one based on “duty” as in deontology, or a person’s “virtue” as in the moral philosophy of “virtue ethics.”
The third case study paper, published in a 2014 edition of Politics and the Life Sciences by Mark Fisher and colleagues, essentially argues that the executive function-related sections of the brain decline as individuals age. The takeaway for Fisher and colleagues is that social scientists should educate the public about the dangers of “voting for an elderly leader.” This paper engages in speculation about specific leaders and their decision-making, such as former Israeli prime minister/general Ariel Sharon’s “sudden” decision to leave the Gaza Strip in 2002.
Moving on to the discussion of ontology, epistemology, and ethics, Altermark and Nyberg make several observations.
First, in terms of ontology, they note that, as mentioned previously, the field of neuropolitics takes for granted the philosophical position that the mind is equal to the brain. Although this is a widespread view among many in the scientific community, it is not ultimately proven. Moreover, many philosophers, spiritual figures, and even scientists question whether this is the case—for one example, see philosophical arguments around panpsychism–the belief that consciousness is at the foundation of reality rather than a mere “product” of the brain.
Second, the authors argue that there are two epistemological difficulties with neuropolitics as a field. First, neuroscientific methods such as neural imaging techniques are far from perfect, as research has revealed. Additionally, the authors point to the fact that:
“…‘neuro-talk’ adds trustworthiness and legitimacy to popular scientific accounts. This is saying that neuropolitical claims to knowledge draw part of their strength from the impression that they present us with objective scientific evidence. Following from its status as cutting-edge natural science, it is clear that the research field of neuropolitics is underpinned by a hierarchy concerning the kinds of knowledge generated by the natural and the social sciences—a hierarchy in which social scientists are urged to incorporate findings from neuroscientific research rather than the other way around.”
Finally, the authors note that ethically speaking, neuropolitics research often “contains claims about what is right and wrong; how things should be….” They argue that this has been evident throughout the papers they examined, which take particular political agendas and norms as inherently good and desirable without ethical questioning.
Unfortunately, as they also state, biological approaches to psychiatry and psychology have a long history of “misconduct” in this area, for example: “eugenics, phrenology, or state confinement of the mentally deficient.”
Altermark and Nyberg make it clear that although there may be nothing inherently wrong with studying the relationship between neural structures and politics, in real-world studies, many of the same old problems that have haunted biological psychiatry since its inception continue to rear their head.
This is the cautionary tale of their article: that in looking at “neuropolitics” without considering issues of ontology, epistemology, and ethics, history can quickly end up repeating itself in terms of the abuses of psychiatry’s past, as well as the present.
Likewise, neuropolitics has the dangerous potential of reinforcing the same old medical model of individualism, which takes the spotlight away from social determinants of health, such as exploitative practices linked to neoliberal capitalism, racial discrimination among youth, and many more problems which contribute to human suffering outside the individual brain. As a result, studies of localized regions of the brain without sufficient attention paid to social, economic, and historical factors will always fail to grasp the whole picture necessary for real, sustained change and healing.
Altermark, N. & Nyberg, L. (2018). Neuro-problems: Knowing politics through the brain. Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 10, 31-48. (Link)
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