“Why do we persist in our belief that the brain is purely and simply a ‘machine,’ a program without promise? Why are we ignorant of our own plasticity?” That question is raised by Catherine Malabou in her book, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, which in part explores how the ways in which we think about our brain influences our creative potential.
In this article, Dr. Jan Slaby explores Malabou’s book and the questions of creativity and neuroplasticity. Check it out:
“Why do we persist in our belief that the brain is purely and simply a ‘machine,’ a program without promise? Why are we ignorant of our own plasticity?” asks Catherine Malabou in her book What Should We Do with our Brain? (p. 9). In it, the French philosopher undertakes nothing less than to articulate a “consciousness of the plastic brain” – trying to open up a fresh perspective on the potentials of the developing, transformative, enabling nature of our central nervous system and thereby attempting to supersede the pervasive, thought-numbing talk of rigid mechanisms and neural determination that still dominates much of the discourses in and around today’s neurosciences.
Malabou’s central claim is refreshingly simple: Current research in neuroscience increasingly reveals that the human brain is plastic and malleable in ways previously unthought-of. In effect, this insight reverses the signature claim of the champions of cerebral subjectivity, transforming the merciless “You are your brain!” into the encouraging, empowering “Your brain will become what you are!” It puts the person back in charge – both of their lives and of their nervous system’s organisation. However, this message has, so far, largely failed to reach an audience, both in science or academia, and in the wider public. “Humans make their own brain, but they do not know it” (p. 2). There is yet no consciousness of the brain’s plasticity and thus no awareness of the potentials for development, reorganization. ‘Neuronal man’ has yet to gain a sense of his own freedom.
In times where much of philosophy is lacking both a critical spirit and an energising vision, Malabou’s book is a much-needed manifesto coming at the right time. However, in the end it is little more than a manifesto – it is no worked-out study, it does not present much of an argument. Still, this might be what this branch of philosophy is in urgent need of. How long have we waited for sentences like this one: “Even if it is fascinating to observe aplysias, we cannot spend our time in ecstasies over slugs.” (p. 67)? Malabou dares to articulate powerfully an inchoate feeling that many share, but few have so far given sufficient expression: the sense that, despite all the exciting advances and insights into the functioning of the brain, the predominant narratives that are routinely spun, the stories that are being told about neuronal organization are remarkably lacking in spirit, creativity, possibility. Instead, what we are presented with, over and over again, are variations of the same sad tales of rigidity and determination, of stable traits and hard-wired routines, of dumb mechanisms programmed in stone age by the unrelenting imperatives of natural selection. This virus has infected philosophy, as expressed in the lingering-on of the lame spirit and boring habitus of 19th century materialism and early 20th century scientism, superficially ‘fancied up’ with borrowings from modern technoscience with its futuristic machinery and colourful images of “the mind at work.” In short, we live in an academic environment hostile to creative thought, hostile to the new.
For the complete article see, The Brain is What we Do with It.