The Neurological Turn at The Future of Medical History Conference

The Future of Medical History Conference, Mary Ward House, Bloomsbury, Hosted by The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, 15th – 17th July 2010

The Neurological Turn, Friday 16th July.

Last summer I attended this conference with a particular interest in the panel entitled The Neurological Turn which was to be held on Friday 16th July and chaired by Prof. Sonu Shamdasani (The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL). As my research focuses on neurology, psychological medicine and modernist literature I was hoping for some illuminating remarks, and was not disappointed. I attended along with a neuroscientist friend who also found much of use in the panel, which also featured Prof. Roger Cooter, Dr. Stephen Jacyna, Dr. Fabio de Sio  and Sarah Marks who are also all based at The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

The conference in general was a well attended, engaging and sociable affair, with drinks and food consisting of a barbeque in a nearby Bloomsbury square. This is a time in which The Future of the History of Medicine is something that really is in question, so it was heartening and inspiring for someone beginning a PhD in this area to see so many academics gathered to consider and discuss the topic.

The Neurological Turn panel focused on some of the sites of neural production and consumption, past and present and was devoted to exploring and discussing some of the pretensions and problems involved, as well as possible methods and directions.

The panel explored how in contemporary society a tendency has emerged to answer all questions of identity in terms of neurology, just as one hundred years ago there was a similar turn towards psychology.

The concern highlighted here was that if the neurological turn becomes the overwhelming focus behind our identities, could this mean that other types of subjectivity are overlooked? This is a repeated worry mentioned when brain scans and descriptions of neural processes are called upon to explain aspects of our subjectivity, and is called up as dangerously reductive by a number of contemporary writers such as Jonah Lehrer. The question the panel asked is that if the neurological turn has become so dominant, how is it possible to denaturalise it? This is perhaps something more easily considered when we compare it to the ‘psychological turn’ which they placed as happening roughly one hundred years ago and ask ourselves how easy it is to consider ourselves now without considering psychology?

There were some further contentious discussions on topics such as the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and whether or not the ‘neurological turn’ is or is not a limited perspective. The highly problematic question was also addressed – but by no means answered – concerning whether there had been a neurological turn in the humanities due to ‘discipline envy’, and whether humanities scholars are losing faith in their own methodologies and so turning to neurology and other sciences as a prop.

However, these contentious issues aside, the most exciting part of the discussion for me was to think about how and if the neurosciences may be opening up new stories and identities to us today in a similar way to what the emergence of psychology did for subjectivity around the turn of the last century.

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About Susie Christensen

Susie Christensen is a PhD student in the English Department and Centre for the Humanities and Health at King's College London. Her research concerns modernist literature and late nineteeth/early twentieth century neurology and psychological medicine.
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