Practicing the Plastic Brain: valuing popular neuroscience across the lifespan

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 (Abi-Rached & Rose, 2013) 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 do 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, from the lab to three societal domains that constitute our adult good life: teenage brains in the context of parenting; the 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.

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