How do Narratives and Brains Mutually Influence each other? Taking both the ‘Neuroscientific Turn’ and the ‘Narrative Turn’ in Explaining Bio-Political Orders


Introduction: the neuroscientific turn in political science The observation that brains and political orders are interdependent is almost trivial. Obviously, political orders require brain processes in order to emerge and to remain in place, as these processes enable action and cognition. Conversely, every since Aristotle coined man as “by nature a political animal” (Aristotle, Pol.: 1252a 3; cf. Eth. Nic.: 1097b 11), this also suggests that the political engagements of this animal has likely consequences for its natural development, including the development of its psychological functions. Given these mutual interdependencies, it is remarkable that only since the 1960s, the more general domain of ‘biopolitics’ has attracted attention though first particularly in the form of behavioral politics (Alford and Hibbing). Since then biopolitics has gained in interest, so much so that different subdomains can be identified. Indeed, a 2008 review of the field of biopolitics identified five ‘headings’ of it: “(1) the case for a ‘more biologically oriented political science’, (2) ‘biologically related’ public policy issues, (3) physiological measures of political attitudes and behaviour, (4) the influence of physiological factors on actual political behaviour, and (5) the manner in which our species’ evolutionary history has left homo sapiens genetically endowed with certain social and political behavioural tendencies” (Somit and Peterson 43). Striking is how the relation between biology and politics is taken here in a rather unidirectional way, emphasizing particularly the decisive power of biology upon politics. The reverse relation is not mentioned specifically, reflecting the field of biopolitics, perhaps until quite recently. This absence of studies of political influences on our biology may have to do with the difficulty in investigating such influences. Empirical studies in biopolitics have two foci, broadly speaking: genetics and the brain, both of which have turned out to be complex and dynamic phenomena (Alford and Hibbing). Yet the studies of genetics and brain processes have made much progress in the last few decades, thanks to the development of research instruments - like fMRI brain scanners and TMS brain stimulation instruments - and of computational tools for data analysis and the simulation of explanatory models. For the field of biopolitics it is particularly relevant that within cognitive neuroscience the study of social and political issues has witnessed an increasing interest of researchers even more recently. Indeed, aware of the enabling and mediating role of the brain regarding those issues, a truly ‘neuroscientific turn’ can be observed in the social sciences, testified for example by the emergence of the field of ‘neuropolitics’ (Connolly; Vandervalk). Developing a systematic neuropolitics or biopolitics in general is a difficult challenge because of the wealth of causal influences on and interdependencies between biological, brain, cognitive and socio-political factors. Taking a somewhat more abstract perspective, this paper focuses on the process of emerging complexity in adaptive systems, enabling those to conduct ever more complex processes. Yet, parallel to that development can be observed that such systems, or organisms, are also capable in reducing the complexity of the information they are to process. Once they’re capable of developing and adjusting such compressed and complex representations of information, those systems or organisms can handle more information faster and more efficient and adaptive, yielding important benefits to the organism in navigating its environment (Halford, Wilson and Phillips). Before focusing on the role of narrative as a cognitive strategy for such a reduction of informational complexity, I will discuss the development of stable structures and increasing complexity in dynamic systems. Such a more general perspective prepares our discussion of the structures of both narratives and politics and in doing so contributes to the explanation of their interaction.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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