Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Brain as plain as spleen?
A fieldwork-oriented consideration of Brainhood and Selfhood in neuro-oncology
Over the last decade, fascinating work has been accumulating on the ways neuroscientific research defines and alters our own definitions of personhood and cultural legacies of the notion of the self. Yet beyond these historical and philosophical analyses, surprisingly little research have been actually conducted on the ways people – lay, professional, ill, well- assimilate neuroscientific knowledge in different manners in different contexts, or on their explicit and implicit views of the brain and its relationship to both their lived experience and their notions of the self. This lacuna is quite astounding, considering the multitude of ways the brain is conceived even within neuroscience: if neuroscience is a mosaic of fields of knowledge, one must regard 'the brain' as a mosaic of images: chemical, electrical, biological, anatomical, and so forth. Approaching this multiplicity with the tools of the sociology of knowledge illuminates the disciplinary dynamics, but does not bear significantly on actual clinical realms.
This paper presents a rather different approach. By drawing on a six-month ethnographic work conducted in a brain-cancer patient unit in a large hospital, the research follows knowledge translation from the bench to the bedside. Clinical practice as observed in the study suggests that the clinic seems to replicate the place of the 'neuro' in the scientific (and often the philosophical and ethical) field, namely, as distinctive and requiring special attention and particular disciplines. Still, once looking beyond institutional dynamics, individual patients actually voice such a distinction in much more obscure and ambiguous terms. To a large extent, the patients view their selves' very existence as threatened primarily by virtue of the brain cancer being cancer rather than concerning the brain. The brain is as plain as a spleen. This raises questions as to the ways neuroscientific claims about the brain as seat of the self gets translated into actual understandings of self and illness.