Alan Rowan – The brain is political!


At the beginning of the 1970’s the phrase “the personal is political” served as a rallying cry for feminists who argued that many of the ways in which women felt dissatisfied with their lives could not be reduced to “personal problems” but were related to the unequal position of women within society, and co-terminously its system of power relationships. The upshot of this was the realisation that many of the lived problems inhabiting women’s lives could not be changed by personal solutions, but required, in addition, socio-political change.

Today, almost 50 years on, our symbolic world has substantially altered, arguably for the worse. Global levels of poverty and war may have lessened but accumulative capitalism and its ideological partner, neoliberalism, have free reign, far-right nationalism and discourses of hatred gain ground and our eco-system is everywhere threatened, most particularly by climate change. Unstoppable scientific and technical advances occur in this context, many of which increase our subjective isolation (e.g. our “screens”), creating a world where subjects, reduced to individual consumers, can no longer find a way to care for what is common. Marking a distance from the 70’s, this manifests today as a difficulty in engaging with forms of collective action in favour of wider communities.

Here, brain research absorbs enormous financial resources and is part of “big science” – promising untold advances in terms of understanding “objectively” what it means to be human. But science, even as it seeks to uncover the real of our universe, impacting thus and fundamentally our known “way of life”, is never value free, especially where the so-called “human sciences” are concerned.  This is evident, firstly, in terms of the sorts of research questions neuroscience asks – ones that invariably focus on isolating and mapping brain activity rather than seeking more multi-layered accounts of complex real-world human experiences. Secondly, a value bias emerges in terms of how its findings are expressed, transmitted and deployed – so often dramatically – and with what consequences.

However, what neuroscientific research here systematically ignores is the fact that the brain has an “owner”, and in doing so, quietly instantiates a form of “disciplinary power” that thus seeks to take possession of how we see ourselves. This happens in the way it inscribes our “lived experiences” into its network of meanings or “structures of sense” (Foucault, 1995. P.65), a form of power that operates, not through prohibitions, but by forming a horizon of sense – presented as taken-for-granted understandings. Thus asserting the brain is political, operates as a challenge, shifting discourses and offering a way one can “seize oneself” from what otherwise threatens to become a hegemony that goes without saying.

The main ways, in which today, the culturally pervasive appeal to brain-based explanations of human behaviour disenfranchise us as subjects are the following:

  1. By denying or downplaying the fact that in understanding ourselves as human we use explanations based on reasons, intentions, purposes, values, imaginings and perceptions that cannot be reduced to brain-based phenomena but rather represent emergent psychological levels of explanation that can apply only to whole persons (and not localised parts of brains). This explanatory tendency of neuroscientists has been called the mereological fallacy.
  2. By denying or downplaying the fact that social phenomena, such as a sudden increase in suicide rates or acts of racism, cannot be explained by changes in the human brain but rather require us to formulate explanations at sociological, societal and political levels that reference factors such as discrimination, social marginalisation and/or ideological influences.
  3. By denying or downplaying our responsibility and sense of agency in relation to what “forms of life”, and co-relatively suffering, we individually and collectively make possible and may thus need to seek a solution or “cure” for. In other words, to say it is all fundamentally caused by brain states means that any form of better life or “cure” requires, not our agency, but ultimately biological and neurochemical adjustments in our brains.
  4. By denying or downplaying what we know, as knowing is not an activity of the brain but of human beings. For example, as the philosopher Nagel (1974) puts it, one thing we do know about self-conscious experience is that there is something, it is like to have it, or be in it. This “qualitative feel” or private/subjective ownership of experience marks, additionally, a fundamental contrast to the actions, programmed and performed, by ever more sophisticated so-called “AI brains”.

Of course in stating the above it is important to make a distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions. The brain is obviously and undeniably a necessary condition for mental life but this is not the same thing as saying it can give a satisfactory account of the conditions sufficient for such processes to occur, and it is in this very gap, that as psychoanalysts, we place language and the “speaking-being”.


Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. A. Sheridan. Palgrave, Macmillan.

Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, 83, 435-450.

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