Neurocultural Feedback Loops

The senses (… depicted by examples of vision, balance, smell, touch, taste and hearing) provide an interface between the external world and its internal representation in our minds.

— Vosshall and Carandini, (2009, Current Opinion in Neurobiology)


Free will is not something that’s spontaneous.  It’s the product of the biology of the brain.

— Nora Volkow (2011, The New York Times)


As a feminist science studies scholar trained in molecular neuroendocrinology, I have worked side by side with neuroscientists who have very different ways of looking at the world around them, and in turn, very different ideas of our place in that world as humans beings who have brains.  Many of these neuroscientists — but not all — believe that “we are our brains” and that by studying the biology of the brain, we are doing the most important work of our era.  Others have spent their entire careers examining the signal transduction mechanisms through a single G-protein coupled receptor on the membrane of a single type of neuron, in hopes of understanding a small piece of what they know to be an enormous puzzle that extends beyond the human brain.


At the same time, I have worked with colleagues in the social sciences and humanities who display a mistrust of the neurosciences and express what may border on pity for those neuroscientists who claim to be pursuing all we need to know by approaching the brain through the biological sciences alone. Some of these colleagues however are searching for a different mode of engagement with the biological or “hard” sciences.  As the pieces in this Neurocultures dossier reflect, many of these colleagues are in pursuit of creating new assemblages where the contours of their practices can come into closer zones of contact with the practices in the neurosciences.  Victoria Pitt’s “Neurocultures Manifesto” highlights the most critical interventions needed at this time so that social and cultural perspectives on the brain are not overlooked, or worse still, provided solely by neuroscientists themselves.  Pitts suggests that cultural theorists need to “be as empowered to speak about biology as biologists are about culture.”  The tricky part, as all readers of Social Text will be well aware, is to do this while fostering moments of shared perplexity and gestures of reciprocity (Stengers 2010) such that we do not end up once again with vindictive critique from both sides.  Feminist science studies scholarship has been down that road before.  New (and some old) feminist materialists want to rethink or reorient their relationships with organic matter, including the intra-actions of neurons, hormones, and ion channels (Coole and Frost 2010; Bennett 2010; Barad 2007).  The four essays in this dossier help to maneuver us into these new positions.  The next step is to search out those practices in the neurosciences that reach across and come into closer contact with these reorientations.


At the 2011 World Science Festival event entitled “The Great Pheromone Debate” held recently in New York City, Leslie Vosshall (a neurobiologist who studies the molecular mechanisms of olfactory neurons) as well as an entire festival audience were shocked by the admission made by “scent psychologist” and author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life, Avery Gilbert.   Arguing that the concept of pheromones is not scientifically viable in humans and that what works for male wasps, does not work for male humans, Gilbert shouted out, “I believe in strippers! I believe!  But it’s not a pheromone.”  Gilbert revealed his strong faith in male strippers while responding to a huge image projected onto the stage screen of a young woman nuzzled up close against the exposed armpit of a bare-chested young man in a crowded nightclub.  Gilbert’s point was that unlike the one or two molecules that have been identified as pheromones and shown to initiate copulatory responses in the male wasp, no such molecule has been specifically identified to mimic this behavior in humans.  According to Gilbert, then, the male stripper is working outside of this pheromone paradigm in neurobiology to produce a behavioral modification in the female counterpart of his species.  In a way, this is interesting, because we are forced to question current theories of neuroendocrinological feedback mechanisms.  But according to Gilbert, who is trained in evolutionary biopsychology, there is more than likely some other “hard-wired” neurobiological factor at play.  The idea is that the female brain is programmed to react to this situation with nothing other than sexual desire.


As Alyson Spurgas highlights for us in her piece in this dossier on female sexual dysfunctions, the embedded belief here is that there is a primitive sexuality that is hard-wired into our brains such that “men are hard-wired to spread their seed” and women have a “rudderless system of reflexive arousal” whereby “they are turned on by everything.”  In what I would refer to as a neurocultural feedback loop, Spurgas asks a deceptively simple question: “[I]s there something about the world that interacts with the plasticity of the body, of the brain — a spasmodic and iterative interaction that has always brought the normative to life?”  A biocultural approach to the query above, as advocated by Pitts, would force us to examine more closely the embodied effects of not just the armpit sweat, but also the nightclub environment that interacts with the plasticity of the female human, including perhaps the heavy dance beats, alcohol induced euphoria and likely one too many episodes of HBO’s Entourage. As indicated by the quote above, Vosshall would agree with the complexity of the situation and might suggest that we not only look to the brain’s response to pheromones, but also to “something about that outside world” mediated by other senses such as smell, touch and taste.  In contrast to the demand for neurobiological evidence that promotes the one molecule or one gene to one function paradigm, my sense is that Vosshall wants to keep the “it,” that contributes to a noted outcome, more open and flexible.  Her work in sensory stimulation and olfaction has led her to study the molecular signaling mechanisms of extremely complex behaviors including courtship rituals in drosophila (Vosshall 2008). She and her colleagues have also found ionotropic glutamate receptors on the antennae of drosophila. These receptors are generally known to “mediate neuronal communication at synapses throughout vertebrate and invertebrate nervous systems” but their unexpected localization on fly antennae and their prevalence in bacteria, plants and animals have led Vosshall to suggest “that this receptor family represents an evolutionary ancient mechanism for sensing both internal and external chemical cues” (Benton et al. 2009).  No doubt the brain plays an important role in Vosshall’s work, but I think we have an example here of how practices in the neurosciences can come into closer proximity with practices in the social sciences and humanities that aim to connect biology to the external world. Vosshall’s scientific approach is receptive to not fixing our biology to our human brain alone and is at ease with not yet knowing exactly what that something is in that outside world.


From time to time, however, we also get statements from neuroscientists like Nora Volkow, who suggests for instance that something like free will can be reduced to a product of the biology of our brains (  Volkow, who is an expert on addiction, is no doubt very much aware of that “something in the outside world” that mingles with the inner worlds of our biology.  As director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, expert on the neuroscience of addiction, and great granddaughter of Leon Trotsky, Volkow admits to her own set of addictions, which include dark chocolate.  She might even say that the mere mention of the words ‘dark chocolate’ act as a “trigger” for her, activating her mesencephalon, where dopaminergic cells are located (Goldstein et al., 2009).  For Volkow, “addiction is all about the dopamine” (Zuger 2011).  One way to reorient ourselves to these statements so that we might try to come into closer zones of proximity with Volkow’s practices in the neurosciences for instance is to recognize that this “reduction of mentality to biology” as Jesse Prinz states in his piece “Locating the Moral Brain,” has a history rooted in the Enlightenment.  Volkow has gone deep into her art of tracing the neurobiology of addiction, where the human brain is the canvas. Of course dopamine is involved, but to consider the role of dopamine alone in addiction, as Prinz might suggest, is to decontextualize the brain.  As we know, this decontextualization has deep ontological and epistemological consequences.  Cunningham for instance, in her essay “Should we be Triggered? NeuroGovernance in the Future/(Tense),” alerts us to the development of new neurotechnologies such as EMDR that are being used to modulate memory and affect in entire populations.  These technologies are premised on the belief that we are our brains.  They also rely on the belief that a “trigger” is singular in its character.  As Cunningham points out, the science built around this belief does not recognize that the trigger is not the cause but “simply the assemblage, the connective tissue… which extends beyond the body’s bounds.”


As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) suggest, we need to make maps, not tracings.  Indeed, studying the brain in the context of Cunningham’s concept of triggers would be very useful in this regard.  None of the contributions in this dossier aim to dismiss the work of neuroscience.  They all suggest however that critical social inquiry can help the neurosciences to turn towards richer and more complex questions of repetition, difference and variation.  Both Prinz and Cunningham encourage neuroscientists to extend their research questions and draw upon social contexts so that they may once again “locate the brain” in these new maps.  They may not be the ones making the headlines, but many neuroscientists are coming from another end of that assemblage, also in search of complexity. Neurocultures might be about the brain taking over but it also about what we might come to know about a many different number of things when we learn to approach the brain as a shared object of knowledge.


Deboleena Roy is Professor in the Departments of Women’s Studies and Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University


Barad, K.  2007.  Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J.  2010.  Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Coole, D. and Frost, S.  (2010).  New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics.  Durham: Duke University Press.

Benton, R., Vannice K.S., Gomez-Diaz, C., and Vosshall, L.B.  2009.  Variant ionotropic glutamate receptors as chemosensory receptors in Drosophila.  Cell 136(1): 149-162.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F.  1987.  A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (translated by Brian Massumi).  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Goldstein, R.Z., Tomasi, D., Alia-Klein, N., Honorio Carrillo, J., Maloney, T., Woicik, P.A.,Wang, R., Telang, F., Volkow, N.D.  2009.  Dopaminergic response to drug words in cocaine addiction.  Journal of Neuroscience 29(18): 6001-6006.

Stengers, I.  2010.  Cosmopolitics I (translated by Robert Bononno).  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The Great Pheromone Debate.  Accessed on July 15, 2011.

Volkow, N.  2011.  The New York Times.  Accessed on July 28, 2011.

Vosshall, L.  2008.  Scent of a fly.  Neuron 59(5): 685-689.

Zuger, A.  2011.  A general in the drug war.  The New York Times.  Accessed on July 28, 2011.

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