Modelling the Vital Brain

Interdisciplinary Engagements between Social Science and Neuroscience

Professor Nikolas Rose
King’s College London

The Research Idea

NSN is an interdisciplinary group of social scientists and neuroscientists from across Europe committed to advancing understanding of human behaviour and society through conceptual innovation in the social sciences and interdisciplinary engagement with other disciplines in the life sciences.

The NSN aims to: 1) explore the conceptual and social implications of neuroscientific research for individuals and society, and 2) build the capacity of early-career and established social scientists to become skilled in such interdisciplinary analysis. The first meeting of the NSN took place in London on December 11, 2014 under the title “Towards Neuro-Social Science: The Politics and Pragmatics of Collaboration”.
One of the take-home messages of the symposium was that the NSN is a timely and important initiative, and that it should engage with the large neuroscience initiatives being launched in the European Union and the United States. These initiatives promise to develop better models of the human brain to better understand how it works, leading to better treatment of brain disorders and illnesses.

However, these models ‘abstract’ the brain from its context, largely ignoring the bodies and worlds that they occupy. Social scientists have much to offer in understanding these inter-linkages between brains, bodies and world but they are ignored when it comes to developing models of the brain. This workshop will seek the contributions of social scientists to collect these much-needed perspectives, working towards models of the brain that are ‘vital’ – connected, alive, and embodied – rather than ‘abstract’ – detached from their bodies and contexts.


Neuroscience is said to be changing how human behaviour is understood, how society is organized, how public policy is justified, and how lawmakers administer justice (Gazzaniga 2009). For some, neuroscientists are fast becoming the new experts in the management of human nature and behaviour (Rose and Abi-Rached 2013). This growing influence has helped to grow collaboration between social scientists, humanities scholars, and neuroscientists (Callard and Margulies, 2011; Roepstorff and Frith, 2012), which have proven capable of deepening our understanding of human life and behaviour (Malabou 2012). However, as the recent European Science Foundation (ESF) report, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (2013) shows, demand and interest in integrating social scientists into domains traditionally occupied by the life sciences is strong, but the infrastructure to foster it is weak.

Unsurprisingly, then, outstanding interdisciplinary social scientific research on the relations of neuro-scientific research, brain and society is in rather short supply. Three of the main reasons are: 1) There is no interdisciplinary network in Europe or beyond with scholars and policymakers exploring the practical and theoretical implications of neuroscience for individuals and society; 1) Knowledge and understanding of how interdisciplinary collaboration can or should be done, or what makes it successful or not, remains limited; and 3) There is no mechanism in Europe or beyond building the capacity of social scientists to become skilled in the interdisciplinary study of ‘brain and society’.

The Focus

The award will address these limitations by turning the social scientific gaze on the emerging focus on brain modelling in the neurosciences. Using ‘models’ to understand the human brain is hardly new. The practice has been used widely in the natural and life sciences since the 1800s, and continues today. Yet very little study by social scientists has been dedicated to how the neurosciences develop and use ‘models’ to better understand what the brain is and how it works, including the complex entanglements between brain and society.

The Human Brain Project in the European Union and the BRAIN initiative in the United States are aiming to develop new models of the brain over the next decade, and social scientists should be shaping these ideas. As with other ‘big science’ initiatives, the ambitions of these projects has been met with considerable controversy. Brain models are seen as necessary to develop better understandings of mental disorders, and of human uniqueness.

However, many disagree as to what a realistic model of the brain is, given that knowledge of the brain itself is limited. Social scientists studying the brain sciences have been arguing for over two decades that ‘abstracting’ the brain from the wider nervous system and body on the one hand and from society and culture on the other, as brain modellers in these projects do, will always deliver limited practical and intellectual benefits. The award will address these concerns around brain modelling, by exploring the concept of the Vital Brain.

Theoretical Novelty

Conceptual innovation is at the heart of the award. The impetus behind it comes from this. The workshop will attempt to develop conceptual capable of critically examining neuro-scientific research and its implications for how we think about and investigate the living human animal. The two new concepts at the centre of the award are: the ‘Abstract Brain’ and the ‘Vital Brain’.

The ‘Abstract Brain’ is one that is ‘abstracted’ – inside and out – from ‘vital conditions’ necessary for any living organism: the wider nervous system and body on the one hand, and from society and culture on the other. By contrast, the ‘Vital Brain’ is an ‘image’ of the brain as living matter which is intimately entangled with society and culture, and the wider nervous system and body. If the ‘abstract brain’ is marked by divisions, the ‘vital brain’ is marked by ‘connectivity’.

The award will enable us to do more than develop concepts. It will allow us to test the conceptual and empirical value of these concepts. It will do so by investigating the extent to which the concept of the Vital Brain (and ‘Abstract Brain’) can help social scientists (and philosophers of science and neuroscientists themselves) to assess the problems and merits of brain modelling in neuro-scientific research. Indeed, the NSN Workshop that this award will fund asks the following question: How can the brain can be modelled as a ‘vital’ rather than ‘abstract’ system?


The methodology will be a one-day interdisciplinary workshop: Modelling the Vital Brain. The workshop will bring together ten social scientists with philosophers and brain scientists – and their different conceptual and experimental systems – in a shared project: To examine how the brain can be modelled as a ‘vital’ rather than ‘abstract’ system.

To do this, the workshop aims to understand the problems associated with modelling the brain by inviting talks that explore the history and use of physical models of the brain, the development of digital models and simulations of the brain, and the development and use of animal models in neuroscience in attempts to understand the human brain. The Workshop will tackle four key questions: 1) How are brain models created and used in teaching and research? 2) What are the conceptual benefits, and limits of abstracting the brain from its context? 3) What would a ‘vital’ model of the brain look like? 4) What are the implications of brain modelling for society and culture?

The detailed ‘format’ of the workshop is outlined in the proposal attached.

Work Plan

The award we be overseen by Professor Nikolas Rose (KCL). It will be delivered by the Department for Social Science, Health and Medicine based at King’s College London (KCL) in partnership with Max Plank Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences (MPI) and the Free University of Berlin (FUB).

The plan is to hold the NSN Workshop Modelling the Vital Brain in Berlin at the Max Planck Institute in October 2015.

We anticipate the following being key dates:

February 2015: Award decision
March 2015: NSN Working Group meeting to agree on the design of the Workshop Programme
April 2015: Start arranging logistics (contact external speakers, book venue)
July 2015: Finalise the Workshop Programme
October 2015: Workshop
November 2015: Summary Report to ISRF
2016-2017 Edited Book / Special Issue

If successful we will provide a detailed timeline for delivery.

A Summary Report (SR) of the event for the ISRF. Additionally, the award will produce: 1) an edited book consisting of the papers presented, with an Introduction and Conclusion (co-written by NSN Working Group figures), and a Foreword from an established figure, such as Professor Nikolas Rose; or 2) a special issue in a high-profile, impact journal (e.g. BioSocieties or History of Human Sciences). Discussions are already underway.


The ISRF would be funding much more than a workshop. The funding will deliver the following outcomes: 1) help to establish an innovative new network (which is proving hard-to-fund due to its interdisciplinarity and ambitious aims); 2) build the capacity of emerging and established social scientists to critically examine the implications of neuroscientific research for society; 3) foster interdisciplinary working across the social sciences, and humanities and brain sciences; an 4) produce cutting-edge research published in either an edited book or high-impact social science journal.

  • Jan Slaby Freie Universität Berlin
  • Sam McLean King’s College London
  • Tara Mahfoud King’s College London
  • Philipp Haueis The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences