And then it hit me in the stomach – on the affective and emotional qualities of neuroscience

Des Fitzgerald writes:

“I thought I knew a lot about autism, because I’d read a lot about autism, I’d heard a lot about autism – actually I was utterly unprepared for it […] here was thing I was really passionate about and interested in intellectually. And then it hit me in the stomach.”

This quote comes from an interview that I did with a senior autism researcher a couple of years ago. We were sitting in a coffee-shop in north London, more or less at the start of my PhD, and I was vaguely trying to steer the conversation around to my research questions – while trying, as you do, not to just ask them outright (although in my case this was more from embarrassment at how vague the questions still were, and not the product of any kind of methodological commitment). I was basically interested in the ways that cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists had come to understand and do research on a thing called ‘autism.’ I wanted to know how they conceived of it, and talked about it, and worked on it – and what difference this made anyway. My problem, neither new nor original, is that I had really no idea how to bring this up in conversation. And so, to buy time as much as anything else, I began starting interviews with an autobiographical opener: tell me how you first got interested in autism research.

Lots of people, of course, talked about books they’d read, or courses they’d taken, or questions they’d always had, and so on. But other people – and the quote at the top was one such – didn’t at all recall their entry into autism research as a basically intellectual inquiry. Their stories, in fact, were much more emotionally and affectively committed, much more entangled with feelings, and bodies, and intensities. There was the young researcher who told me a long story about a mother and son who had participated in her research – an interaction that she found ‘heart-breaking,’ and that she had really tried not to take home with her. Another talked about the role of empathy in her work, and the importance of her ‘love’ for the children and the families she worked with. A medical imager told me that what distinguished his work was worrying about ‘the way people feel,’ while another said, ‘it’s not just a job, you’re dealing with people’s lives’ – before telling me: ‘I hope I have a purpose in life.’

I was really struck by this way of talking about the basic work of autism neuroscience. I went on to write about these accounts in much more detail in a recent paper, where I argued that ‘thinking about, the neurobiology of autism is often an emotional and an affective labour too.’ Of course, I don’t think anyone would be especially shocked by this suggestion. And I am not trying to perform any kind of ‘gotcha’ about the emotional commitments of neuroscientific researchers. But I think there is a lot more to be said, in general, about the traffic between states that we might variously understand as cognitive or affective, and the degree to which, in scientific spaces too, thinking something is not so easily separable from feeling it. It’s certainly true that my paper is based on after-the-fact interviews, tangled not so much in mundane laboratory practice, but in the work of memory, and autobiography, that help to bring that practice into understanding.  But I think there is still some room to wonder how much of our intellectual labours are actually bound up in these exchanges between thought, feeling, and memory – and I also want to know why we don’t talk about them more often, or more openly, or in more formal spaces.

This last point is important. If researchers were fairly forthcoming with me in an anonymous interview, still these emotional and affective qualities receive little attention in the broader public discourse about cognitive neuroscience. And yet, as the historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison remind us, the imagination of good scientific work as always impersonal and distanced is not particularly old, nor is it an ever-present. How does this help us to re-consider more public arenas, and especially those that address the neuroscience of psychological and psychiatric categories, in which neuroscientific work is sometimes authorized through a rhetorical move that distances it from the vagaries of the soft and the subjective? I wonder if instead we could begin to imagine a different way of authorizing neuroscience, and if we could think more about some of the (good and positive) ways that researchers use their subjectively-experienced bodies and feelings to come to understand, and to interact with, the objects of their research.

I think there are possibilities here: there has been talk, lately, about the emergence of the ‘affect wars‘ –  between (I put this very crudely) social scientists and humanists moved by the possibility of a felt, embodied layer of knowledge, deeply entangled with what we understand as a conscious awareness, and colleagues who remain sceptical of (what they see sometimes see as) older biological-essentialist rhetorics, now dressed in new theoretical clothing. In a recent intervention, the anthropologist Emily Martin suggests that allying cultural theory with neuroscience might miss what we have long known about the problems and contestations of psychological experiment. I am no affect theorist, but I wonder if these stories offer a different possibility: they ask us to remember that neuroscience too, and as much as any other human endeavour, is bound up in exchanges that are at once cultural and biological, articulated and embodied; that neuroscience is thus not outside of, but (sometimes) acutely sensitive to, the emotional and cognitive commerce that makes up so much intellectual labour; and that, finally then, affect’s invitation might be not so much to think from a neuroscientific research practice, but in a much more complex and interesting way, to think through and with it. Isn’t that where the conversation should be going?

Des Fitzgerald is a sociologist of neuroscience, autism, affect, science & technology studies. He is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at Kings College London – working on an ESRC-funded project on urban life, mental health, and the complex transactions between a sociological and biological research-practice. His article “The affective labour of autism neuroscience: Entangling emotions, thoughts and feelings in a scientific research practice” was published in Subjectivity (2013) 6, 131–152, and is available here.

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