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Technology and culture determine our view of the brain

09 February 2010

What does the brain look like? What do we really know about our brains? For centuries, we’ve been telling ourselves time and again that we now have an objective view of our brains. However, objectivity depends on technological developments, human actions and social and cultural factors, to name but a few. This has been revealed by research by Sarah de Rijcke, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 18 February 2010.

In her research, De Rijcke charted how over the past four centuries humans have regarded the brain. She studied numerous documents from all over Europe and the US – illustrations, manuals, atlases, articles, lab reports, diary fragments, correspondence between researchers, manuals of image technology, lab setups, microscope instructions, scan technology, print technology, etc.

Human contribution

Nowadays, we consider knowledge objective if it has been created with the best equipment, supported by statistics, and without too much human contribution, De Rijcke has established. Current brain scans thus appear to be the apex of objective registration of both neuroanatomy and brain function. This is despite the fact that contemporary scans are not static photos but actually interactive tools – researchers use computer software to examine the information in scans in more and more new ways.

Drawings are better than photographs

The idea that scientists are not allowed to personally ‘colour’ their research material and have to behave with reserve emerged in the nineteenth century. The Spanish Nobel prizewinner Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is illustrative for this transitional period. Cajal continued to draw nerve cells by hand for his entire career, even though photography had been invented and he was also a successful amateur photographer. Cajal thought that neurons could not be depicted in photographic images – he thought that a complete picture could only exist in the head of the researcher. By drawing them, a researcher could make them abstract and isolate meaningful details.

Channel from God

In addition to Cajal’s research and registration methods, Rijcke also concentrated on the work of several members of the seventeenth-century British Royal Society. Sixteenth-century scholars had still regarded themselves as channels from God, and wanted to display the beauty of God’s creation in their work. In the seventeenth century, true-to-nature acquired a different meaning; the members of the Royal Society no longer wanted to ‘polish away’ irregularities in the brain. Their research emphasized the importance of experiments and the presence of witnesses at experimental demonstrations, among other things.

In fifty years’ time

The aids and technologies used over the course of the centuries, from the microscope to colouring techniques, photography and contemporary PET and CT scanners, have strongly influenced how we regard the brain. And the process remains ongoing. De Rijcke: ‘In fifty years time we may well scoff at the enormous scanners we use today. Scans may well not make as much noise as they do now; and perhaps you won’t have to lie in a scanner at all. By that time we’ll probably have a completely different view of objectivity as well.’

Curriculum Vitae

Sarah de Rijcke (Hoorn, 1976) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen and conducted her PhD research at the Research School for Science, Technology and Modern Culture. Her supervisor at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences was Prof. D. Draaisma. The title of her thesis is ‘Regarding the Brain. Practices of Objectivity in Cerebral Imaging. 17th Century-Present.’ De Rijcke currently works as a researcher at the KNAW institute the Virtual Knowledge Studio in Amsterdam. She is conducting research into the creation of knowledge via digital images on the web.

Note for the editor

Contact: sarah.derijcke@vks.knaw.nl, +31208500225 (work)

Last modified:04 January 2018 3.33 p.m.
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