As mentioned in a previous blogpost, I’m currently doing a ph.d.-project here at Medical Museion concerning the history of the concept of successful aging in neuroscience and its relation to ideas about cognitive enhancement.
Part of my work, therefore, is going to conferences like this one, held in Copenhagen last week:
The conference was arranged by the Danish research center GNOSIS, and featured both neuroscientists and philosophers – as an attempt to bridge the disciplinary boundaries and maybe produce some kind of synergy.
The first day especially had that feeling. Themed under the headline ‘Brain Plasticity’ and featuring, among others, the English philosophical-minded neuroscientist Steven Rose, German phenomenological philosopher and psychiatrist Thomas Fuchs, and Danish biologist and anthropologist Andreas Roepstorff, there was a real feel of cross-disciplinary science communication. A science communication which was also a communication of the immense complexity of the brain and of the production of knowledge concerning it.
As Steven Rose pointed out, neuroscience is ‘data rich, but theory poor’, needing some theorizing on how best to manage the complexities of the huge amount of collected data. One common perspective to most of the talks at the conference were that the brain’s workings can best be understood viewed as a complex, irreducible and indeterminate, continuously developing process. This was conceptualized from both phenomenology, developmental systems theory (or autopoiesis, as Rose termed it), and biosemiotics – all in one way or the other emphasizing the brain as embodied (or the body as ‘embrained’, as someone smartly put it), and emphasizing the body’s embeddedness in the world (emworlded). Dichotomies and dualisms, determinacy and reductionism were (with maybe one exception) not only forcibly opposed, they were long left behind, it seemed.
But still there was a sense that, despite agreement on the general perspective, this did not solve the concrete methodological challenge of, for instance, going from correlates to causality, inducing from the particular to the common, or explaining the relationship between brain and mind/consciousness/awareness/attention etc. Neuroscience, it seems, brings new attention to a lot of old philosophical problems. The multidisciplinary collaborations within the field of neuroscience, and the demand for new theoretical developments and new conceptualizations, may not find a solution to these problems, but it sure sets the stage for interesting theoretical developments in the years to come.
As for the link to my project on successful aging, this development in neuroscience seems to run almost parallel to the overall development of the field of gerontology and aging research in the last couple of decades from around the time that the concept of successful aging was introduced. Many of the same philosophical problems are also seen in other parts of aging research than the parts including the neurosciences.
Aging research (as well as maybe most other fields in the health sciences?) is becoming a multidisciplinary field where dichotomies and dualisms between brain-mind, body-world, and individual-society are being tested and challenged.