Mapping Consciousness: Neuroscience Within the Body Social
By Nayleth Lopez
In “The German Ideology,” Karl Marx (1978), one of the fathers of modern sociology, remarked that “the individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think” (p. 173). In saying this, Marx positioned consciousness as the prerequisite to every social revolution that has shaped human history, inadvertently contributing to the mystery that lures so many students to the emerging field of neuroscience, a discipline officially established only 54 years ago at Harvard Medical School. Anybody studying neuroscience will probably tell you that they want to uncover the mysteries of what makes us human beings with consciousness as opposed to animals ruled by our instincts. With such a lofty goal in mind, it can be either comforting or anticlimactic to learn in Neuro 80 lectures that every thought which comes out of our heads can be traced back to the activity of (more or less) four ions: potassium, sodium, chloride, and calcium. As Professor Jeff Lichtman once said, our brain is “complicated, but it’s not infinitely complicated.” But if unlocking the secrets of human behavior is only a matter of time, why do we act like neuroscience is starting from scratch when it comes to studying behavior? The social sciences have long theorized and classified forms of human behavior, and their efforts can provide useful insights into the field of neuroscience. Indeed, while neuroscience prides itself on being interdisciplinary, I argue that we won’t fully reap the benefits of that title until we include more of the social sciences in our field of study.
We should not continue to place neuroscience on a pedestal that separates it from psychology, sociology, and other social sciences in unlocking the answers about the mind, brain, and human behavior. Professor Yael Niv of Princeton’s Neuroscience Department explains that conferences, journals, and funders “all share the implicit or explicit assumption that behavior, on its own, cannot lead to valid neuroscientific findings, and therefore are irrelevant to understanding the brain” (Niv, 2020, p. 7). Additionally, neuroscientists seem to place inordinate amounts of faith into the use and validity of neuroimaging techniques, going down the slippery slope of deductive rather than inductive reasoning to prove new theories: “a given neuroimaging technology builds ‘assumptions into its architecture and thus can appear to confirm them, while … reinforcing them’ (Dumit, 2004: 81)” (Pickersgill, 2013, p. 325 - 326). We can learn from one of the founders of American sociology, W.E.B. Du Bois, who emphasized the use of empirical data from which to inductively arrive at theories of society in order to refute the deductive and self-reinforcing theories of the mainstream eugenicists of the time. Science has never been the pure, unbiased school of thought that we hail it to be. Neuroscience has the chance to uncover human biases and behaviors in a way that other applied sciences have excused themselves from exploring and to show that interdisciplinary fields do not cloud scientific advancements but rather elucidate them like never before. And we must start by questioning our own methods.
But we will not succeed if this is not a reciprocal effort. Historically, when sociologists first sought to define and differentiate the field of sociology, they did not turn to the finite structure of the brain to understand the myriad of behaviors that build our societies. Instead, they drew a line between the mind and society. Georg Simmel (1971) and other early theorists believed that “these psychological categories, although indispensable for the description of facts, remain outside the purpose of sociological investigation … its purpose is not to study psychological conditions but to examine the syntheses which result” from them (p. 35). In other words, just because everything has its basis in mental processes, that doesn’t mean that we should study everything through a psychological lens. And I agree — a purely neuropsychological lens will not help us understand the complexity of human behavior, even if we someday understand all the intricacies of ion flow through neuronal membranes. But rather than use this as an argument for separating the social sciences and neuroscience, we should embrace it as an opportunity for our fields to collaborate. We must expand our methods and clearly define our goals, with interdisciplinary efforts being at the core of our discipline, since, as we can learn from the fathers of sociology, it is the societies that we live in that make us human.
We know that our brains use retinotopy to map neighboring signals we receive in our retina onto adjacent neurons to create a literal mental map of visual space on our brains. We have studied how our own bodies are mapped onto our motor cortex in order to provide each muscle with a specialized brain region. In the same way, all the regions in the brain work together to create a map of the world that we experience and transform into a unique perception of reality greater than the sum of its parts. For this reason, neuroscience is simply incomplete without the social sciences, and vice versa. Sociologist Julian Go emphasized the concept of perspectival realism when speaking about how to decolonize and rebuild the sociological canon: “Scientific knowledge is always partial and incomplete, because it is always perspectival” (Go, 2020, p. 91). Go cited maps themselves as the perfect example of perspectival realism: depending on your mode of transportation, the map of any city will look drastically different. Trying to create a complete map of a city will only result in a map as big as the city itself, which is helpful to no one. Neuroscience will only succeed when it realizes that it needs the additional “maps” of the social sciences to be superimposed on top of itself in order to create a revelatory map of consciousness, in the same way that the regions of our brain work in parallel, simultaneous processes to synthesize our different sensory maps into one experience.
Neuroscience must emerge as a field dedicated to building an interdisciplinary map of the factors that unite in tandem to create our perspectival realities. A first step that Harvard’s own Neuroscience Department can take is to include sociology and other social science classes as part of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior electives. The Neuroscience Department can and should incorporate social theory classes into its range of acceptable courses, since social theory can illuminate different ways of seeing — the different maps that compose our world — and therefore help us gain a deeper understanding of how the brain experiences and interprets social behavior. Even though Simmel tried to set a clear boundary between the social and life sciences, his own theories were based around the fact that interpersonal interactions are the foundation of society, and that we can classify social phenomena by how we influence and are influenced by others. As neuroscientists, we know that we’re wired to learn from others, with mirror neurons that fire when we imitate others. Emile Durkheim, on an even larger scale, posited that societies are larger than the sum of their parts, with a mind greater than the sum of individual consciousness that held a persuasive force of its own. He believed in a “body social,” where societal ills such as suicide — typically studied under the realm of neuropsychology — could be explained by the greater problems plaguing not only individuals, but society itself. Both of these sociologists implicitly understood that our brain processes the sensory information we receive from our environments and internalizes it in order to produce our reality. Now it is time for us, the next generation in this fledgling field, to make this understanding explicit and forge connections with the social sciences in order to truly illuminate the inner workings of the mind and enrich neuroscience beyond our wildest dreams.
About the Author
Nayleth Lopez is a sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Neuroscience with a secondary in Sociology.
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