Chris Mays on Littlefield, Melissa M., and Jenell M. Johnson, eds. The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain.

Littlefield, Melissa M., and Jenell M. Johnson, eds. The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012. xiii + 254 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-472-11826-7.

At its core, The Neuroscientific Turn is a text that embodies deliberative debate. A diversity of disciplinary voices populate the chapters here, and this is one of the text’s major strengths. Without being overly optimistic or critical, the book explores in detail the overlaps, divergences, and contradictions both of neuroscience itself and of the popular and scholarly embrace of many of the methods and results of neuroscientific research. As in any productive conversation, many of the participants critique each other, and in many instances, the authors both directly and indirectly comment on other works in the collection. But there are also agreements in the conversation, and in these there can be found useful convergences of the sciences and the humanities, as well as useful models for interdisciplinary work in general. Anyone interested in neuroscientific research for any purpose should read this edited collection, but especially so if one has any kind of scholarly interest in neuroscience. As these authors demonstrate, there are many dangers and pitfalls when appropriating work outside one’s area of expertise, but there are also many ways to benefit from conversations with those scholars outside of our own disciplines.

According to the editors, neuroscience is one area where such conversations have already been happening. As they write, neuroscience itself is “one of the most significant interdisciplinary collaborations in the history of the life sciences” (4), and as such is well-suited to interdisciplinary study. However their approach to the topic, as they put it, is more than just interdisciplinary, it is transdisciplinary. While the term has been used and defined variously in the past (see for example Patricia Leavy’s Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research, reviewed in the Winter 2013 volume of IMPACT), here Littlefield and Johnson specifically define the term as connoting both simultaneity and difference; drawing on the definition set out in 2008 by the European Neuroscience and Society Network, the editors argue that transdisciplinarity entails “simultaneously taking into account visions and methods on the same topic from seemingly different perspectives” (2). To work transdisciplinarily, they argue, is to take rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s approach of “perspective by incongruity” (87), and so such work purposely brings together incongruous “vocabularies, methods, and epistemologies that might seem to be mutually exclusive” (3).

Living up to this premise, the authors in this collection represent a wide variety of disciplinary and epistemological perspectives. In general, however (and for the purposes of this review), these authors can be classified by their stance on the blending of perspectives that has largely defined the neuroscientific turn. The more sanguine among them depict the broad possibilities of such cross-pollination of research—while such integrated research would have several defined limitations, the central takeaway from many of these authors’ works is that neuroscience is amenable to collaborative work.

As an example from this group, Jameson Kismet Bell argues that historical examinations of what he calls “brain events” can provide useful context for our understandings of how the brain itself can be configured “within a particular epistemic frame,” in so doing shedding light on the importance of investigating the interrelation of scientific knowledge and cultural performances (65). In a separate contribution, Sarah Birge discusses the possibility of considering “creative literary works” as a method of “investigation or truth-seeking” that functions as “technology for self-exploration” (100). Birge’s argument explores the benefits of playing multiple disciplinary methodologies off of one another—a productive juxtaposition of difference. Gwen Gorzelsky heeds a similar call as does Birge; in her contribution Gorzelsky explores the possibility of using neuroscientific evidence alongside “textual and qualitative analysis” in order to explore the mechanisms of “cultural practices,” such as those involved in meditation, in “reshaping human biology” (122). And coming from a professional context itself situated at an interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) crossroads, neuroethicists Eric Racine and Emma Zimmerman discuss “the potential contribution of neuroscience to an ethics open to empirical research” (135). Racine and Zimmerman write that while uncritical uptake of neuroscience can lead to unreflective and reductive ethical prescriptions, there is room for a nuanced inclusion of neuroscientific perspectives.

On the other hand, there are several authors in this volume whose work hones in on the many dangers of the integration of multiple perspectives. In these selections, the authors remind us that any blending of perspectives can also subsume difference in such a way that elides precisely that which is beneficial about these perspectives on their own.

In one such contribution, Susan M. Fitzpatrick levels a simultaneously technical and adroit critique of some of the very kinds of neuroscientific evidence—such as fMRI—drawn on in other essays in the collection. And in another critical take, Anne Beaulieu voices an unease with transdisciplinarity’s aforementioned potential for flattening out difference, writing that because “different kinds of texts have different roles in research as in a culture,” it is important to pay “more attention to the variations in the kinds of neurosciences that are out there, and how best to use different sources” (157). In a unique contribution to this type of critique, Peter J. Whitehouse writes from a perspective as a neuroscientist who has worked for many years in the midst of these debates over the ramifications of neuroscience. Whitehouse urges caution in our uptake of neuroscientific work, and wonders if our “focusing on the neuroscience of brain changes may distract us from the major job of rethinking and revaluing our dominant cultural beliefs and actions” (232). And Kélina Gotman wonders if “the neural,” as a “both and” metaphor that brings together “micro and macro operations at the level of science (the neural body) and social and philosophical investments (the ‘I’) simultaneously,” is too good to be true (79). In other words, Gotman wonders if the unification of postmodern fragmentation and instability by the material, and by the authority of science, amounts to a “post-postmodern myth” where “change is constant, and yet there is—conveniently offered by the neurosciences—some reason to all this rhyme” (78–79).

The book is divided into three basic sections, and the contributors found in these sections come from disciplines of Neurology, History, Communication, Science and Technology Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, Biochemistry, English, Psychology, and many others, although much of their work exceeds the narrow purview implied by these labels. The real strength of this collection, however, is in the cross-talk across all sorts of divisions. This collection embraces diverse perspectives, but it does not assume a single way for such perspectives to co-exist, and the agreements and disagreements among the authors provides an enlightening look at a “turn” that is not at all unified—and as these voices make clear, nor should it be. The value of the collection, then, is in the collaborations, but also it is in the debate, in the critiques, and in the differences. And if the editors’ version of transdisciplinarity is to be a viable critical route in the future, such valuable features are precisely what will help sustain it.


Chris Mays
Illinois State University


Work Cited

Leavy, Patricia. Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2011.