Talk at conference "The Human Sciences after the Decade of the Brain“, March 31st

Talk at conference “The Human Sciences after the Decade of the Brain“, March 31st

Next Tuesday (March 31st), I’m speaking at the conference “The Human Sciences after the Decade of the Brain: Perspectives on the Neuro-Turn in the Social Sciences and the Humanities“ at the department of Philosophy of Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz (Germany). The program of the conference really looks good. Check it here at the conference website.

I’m going to talk about my chapter on parenting teenage brains. See below for the abstract.


Acting as External Frontal Lobe: the teenage brain as ‘1evidence-based’ parenting advice

In the past ten years, a new explanation to account for adolescent behavior has fuelled enthusiasm amongst parents, journalists, pedagogues, and family coaches: the teenage brain.  The teenage brain tells the complicated story of GnRH hormones triggering a restructuring of adolescent brains, making teenage brains particularly plastic. The teenage brain is used by as pedagogues and family coaches to tell parents what they should do with their (problematic) teenagers: parents should, for example, act as the external frontal lobe of their teenagers. Talking about prefrontal cortices, pruning and grey matter, it’s not at all obvious that such a scientific and technical discourse can play an important role in helping parents to answer questions of how to be a good parent – in short, questions of ethics. How is the teenage brain, with all its scientific technicalities, made valuable for parents? What does it mean to be a good external prefrontal cortex? And, since the concept of the teenage brain promises to ‘finally solve the mystery of adolescence’, does parental advice based on the teenage brain challenge existing ideas of good parenting, or lead to new parenting norms?

The teenage brain as the latest evidence in the history of science-based parenting advice, carries considerable credibility and authority. Experts from ‘soft’ social science disciplines such as pedagogy seem therefore eager to incorporate this new knowledge into their work and advice. But this scientization of pedagogy alone does not explain the wide and diverse uptake of the teenage brain as parenting advice. Based on an STS and empirical philosophy informed analysis of the appropriation of the teenage brain in the field of pedagogy and Dutch public discourse, I show how the teenage brain is able to reconcile different (and sometimes conflicting) parental norms. To show how the factual claim of the teenage brain becomes aligned with existing ideas of good parenting, I introduce the notion of ‘moral repertoire’. I argue that the appropriation of the teenage brain in pedagogy shows that the explanatory force of such neurobiological claims depends for a great part on how actors are able to incorporate it into existing moral repertoires. As such, I aim to develop a better understanding of the role values and norms play in the dissemination, appropriation and stabilization of neuroscience knowledge, thereby implying a co-evolution of techno-science and morality or techno-moral change (Swierstra et al., 2009).


Swierstra, T., Van Est, R., Boenink, M. (2009). Taking care of the symbolic order. How
Converging Technologies Challenge our Concepts. In: Nanoethics (3) 3, 269-280.