Plasticity and the Social Brain

Kill or Cure by Amanda Doidge

Last weekend I went to see my good friend Ben Dalton‘s exhibition at Kings College London: Narrating Plasticity: Stories of Transformation between the Plastic Arts and Neurosciences.

The exhibition was the result of a collaborative project exploring the different ways that French philosophy, neuroscience and ceramics think about the concept of plasticity. Sounds barmy, but trust me, once I got my head around it this was a fascinating exhibition and one that has kept me thinking all week. Whilst I cannot ever hope to emulate Ben’s cerebral prowess on this topic, here is my take on what I learnt and how it has made me reflect upon environmentalism…

Plasticity, in general terms, is the quality of being easily malleable but able to hold a form once moulded, thus differentiating it from elasticity or fluidity. The material of plastic, my pet hate and current environmental scourge, gets its name from this very ability to be moulded into infinite different forms. Similarly pottery, ceramics and sculpture are known as the plastic arts.

In neuroscience, plasticity refers to the brain’s amazing capacity to transform throughout life, adapting in response to experience or damage. The philosophical implications of plasticity (e.g. fluidity of gender, sexuality) have been developed by contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou, and this is also forms the basis of Ben’s PhD research. In his words:

Malabou argues that scientific discoveries, particularly in neuroscience, show that biology and thus life itself is plastic, and that we should take these discoveries as a cue to think about the mutability of many of the structures we previously assumed to be fixed.

Ben’s aim in coordinating the project was to get these various conceptualisations of plasticity in conversation with one another. The exhibition included the work of Amanda Doidge – an artist who experiments with the medium of ceramics.

Kill or Cure by Amanda Doidge
Kill or Cure by Amanda Doidge. Picture credit Ben Dalton.

By displaying her cups as a series, Amanda highlights the temporality inherent in the concept of plasticity: it is a process of change and development over time. Considering each cup in isolation give a different impression than considering the development of the series as a whole. Alone, it looks like a weird cup. In series, we understand it is a form in flux.

Relating this back to a clinical context, the exhibition invited us to consider a patient with cerebral trauma. Such a person had pre-traumatic identity that may be now unrecognisable from their current self. Likewise, they may develop a post-traumatic identity as the trauma heals. How this full narrative is communicated, as well as its philosophical implications, is potentially of clinical relevance to the patient’s treatment and recovery.

Ben and his team made a 10 minute documentary explaining this fascinating arts/science collaboration, that I have embedded at the end of this post – I urge you to watch it!

As for me, I left the exhibition with my mind buzzing about how all these plastic brains and cups relate to the problem of tackling climate change. As anyone who worries about this stuff like I do is well aware, we are currently on track for +5°C of temperature warming by the end of the century – the speed and magnitude of which has historically been associated with mass extinction events.

Yet most of humanity blithely plods along, heads either totally in the sand or dithering around with well-meaning concern, ultimately (and frustratingly) distracted by comparatively insignificant issues like Brexit or Donald Trump.

I sometimes think that society has its own sort of brain. Collective norms, histories, ethics, ideals, tastes, narratives that shape how we interact with others; and that give us another identity, a collective identity, beyond our individual selves. This social brain is also plastic: it has been moulded by experiences and traumas that span history.

This should seem obvious – we no longer wear corsets, burn witches at the stake or tolerate slavery, for example. Yet in the daily humdrum, it is easy to believe that the way we live now is just the way things are. We will always drive cars, we will always eat meat, there is no point recycling ‘cos we’re all screwed anyway.

Such a view (which I hear depressingly often) is akin to staring just at the one weird cup. Perhaps thinking “this is a weird cup”, but drinking out of it anyway. A more enlightened approach, in my opinion, would be to “zoom out” to try and understand society as a form in flux. How did we get to where we are today? Where can we go tomorrow?

We have to remember that we can change because we will soon have to change whether we want to or not. The social brain, just like the rest of the planet in which it is embedded, is beginning to suffer from the biggest ecological trauma in civilised memory. Mitigating its potential impact will require a remodelling of how society currently functions. Leaving it too late will see us forced to react to the consequences, transfiguring humanity as we’ve ever known it.

The narratives we chose to navigate such transformations, as the Narrating Plasticity exhibition so poignantly demonstrated, are crucial to better understanding ourselves. Not only as biological beings and reflective individuals, but as a society too. It is my view that the stories Western societies currently employ to narrate environmental concerns are faulty and ineffective – but that is a topic for a future blog post!

To finish up, here is a particularly apt quote by the incomparable Ursula Le Guin:-

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable.
So did the divine right of kings.
Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Watch more about plastic brains and cups and French philosophy in Ben’s excellent documentary…

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