Researching ideas of the brain in contemporary society (Dr Andy Balmer)

Uploaded by manchestersociology on 12.07.2012

Well, my research is about the emergence of social neuroscience and the role of the brain
in contemporary society, so I’m interested in the way in which neuroscientists have begun
to conceive of the human subject and of social relationships.
So they explain things like love and friendship by reference to the way that our brains work,
but also things like how we make economic decisions, like ‘why do I prefer Coke to
Pepsi?’ and ‘how does branding work when it gets down the level of chemicals in our
brain?’. There are issues about the law, so some neuroscientists
are interested in developing brain scanners as lie detectors, for example, that might
be able to tell us whether someone’s lying when they didn’t commit a crime. But also
about whether we’re morally culpable – to what degree can we make responsible for ourselves,
so might there be reasons why we’re not able to make those decisions, and what does
it mean to say that we have responsibility and free will in what we do anyway.
The other side of my research is about how everyday people living their everyday lives
think about themselves in terms of their brain. There’s a kind of neuro-economy now. You
can buy drinks that are designed to help you improve your brain. And that brings on a certain
idea of responsibility – a kind of neural responsibility – we have to take care of
our brains. So there are brain games, brain training games to stave off the decline of
brain illnesses. I got interested in this question of neuroscience
because for a long time I’ve been interested more generally in what kinds of subjects we
are, what kinds of statement it is to say that I’m a human being. What does that imply
my relationship to other human beings and the way in which society is organised?
I’ve been interested in the sociology of neuroscience as part of the broader story
of the sociology of the human subject, in particular because my work is interested by
the status of science and technology in contemporary society, so we’re increasingly techno-cultures:
moderated, mediated and facilitated by different kinds of technologies, whether that’s the
internet or whatever. And also we make government decisions increasingly
based on scientific expertise and evidence. Neurological evidence started to figure in
discussions about education and policy, and economics, and law, and so I became more interested
generally in how neuroscience might be reshaping the way that we think about human life and
social interaction. My research involves doing interviews with
neuroscientists and observations of them in their laboratories. So trying to understand
the way in which neuroscientists actually produce information about social life. When
they slide somebody into a FMRI scanner and then they get lots of pictures of bloodflow
and they turn that into information about whether somebody’s lying or telling the
truth, how does that process happen. How do we get from some individual person in a brain
scanner, to the data about their brains, to the general data about being able to determine
whether someone’s lying or not when they get to the court room.
And then in trying to understand how people use brain terminology and neuroscientific
information in their everyday lives – that involves ethnographic methods of interviewing
and observing, focus groups, out with people who are not neuroscientists.
My next project is about Alzheimer’s or, more generally, dementia and the way in which
neuroscientists are trying to describe the failure of the self. So what we see is sort
of the loss of our memories of our lives and the changes that occur as one suffers dementia
in the way that we relate to each other socially. So I’m intrigued by the way in which neuroscientists
might account for social behaviour and the self in that context, and what that means
for people who are suffering from dementia. And in that respect I’m interested in how
people who have been diagnosed with memory diseases in terms of their brains live with
that information. How do they make sense of the failure of their brains in their everyday
lives and care?