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 behaviour. Key to the rapid spread of neuroscience knowledge from the lab to society is the concept of brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to change its functions and/or structure due to development, experiences, or injury. The notion of brain plasticity ‘opens up’ the brain for all kinds of interventions and invites actors to do something with it. The idea of a plastic, changing brain allows neuroscientists and neuro-advocates to propose all kinds of prescriptions of what to do and how to flourish – in short, it allows them to engage in ethics.
In my dissertation, I explore how the concept of brain plasticity is normatively used in societal practices of self-fashioning and flourishing. Combining theories and methods from Science and Technology Studies (STS), pragmatist ethics, and the sociology of valuation, I empirically analyse the journey of valuations and normativities of three manifestations of a plastic brain that together constitute doing and being good across the lifespan: teenage brains in the context of parenting; the stressed-out adult brain in the context of work; and the ageing brain in the context of self-care. By explicating the deliberate efforts of neuro-advocates in making brain claims valuable for specific audiences and for specific ends, I demonstrate for what sorts of problems, prescriptions, and ideals the plastic brain is mobilized in these cases of a brain-inspired good life, and whether this results in moral changes in what it means to be a good parent, a good employee, or to age well.
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Maastricht University, 2011-2017