Targeting brains, producing responsibilities: The use of neuroscience within British social policy

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In a range of areas, the neurosciences have been described as influential – changing, it seems, policies, ideas on mental health, and our notions selfhood more generally. In a Leverhulme Trust-funded project we are looking at the way the neurosciences are (and are not) adopted in policy, the media, and family life. In a recent paper in Social Science & Medicine, we report on the first part of this study. We analysed whether and how a range of policy documents engaged with the neurosciences. The documents were focused on one of three different stages in the life course: the early years, adolescence, and older adulthood.

Responsibility came up as a key theme in our analysis. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and more extensively on that of Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller, we studied how the neurosciences can be and are employed in order to stimulate certain types of responsibilities for citizens. We present the results in terms of three (overlapping) discursive themes relating to responsibility.

The first is that of optimisation, by which we mean a focus on the practicalities of maximising a broadly-understood human ‘potential’. Especially in documents regarding the early years, an implicit or explicit imperative is presented for individuals to meet their potential and to help others achieve theirs. This potential is frequently described in terms of optimal brain development of young children. At the same time, some of the policy reports we analysed are more critical of the optimisation discourse or of the neurobiological idiom underlying the discourse.

The second theme is that of self-governance. Here, individuals are urged to take care of themselves, or others are urged to facilitate self-governance. Where young infants are not seen as able to govern themselves, their caregivers are urged to self-govern in ways that will ensure the development of a (often cerebral) platform from which children will eventually learn this skill. Moreover, people are seen as primarily responsible for self-governance in such a way as to reduce the chances of dementia and ‘ensure’ cognitive vitality.

The last theme is that of vulnerability. Perhaps surprisingly, teenagers and their brains are more likely to be explicitly framed as vulnerable than infants. Vulnerability is related to the ‘risky’ behaviour of teenagers but also to the idea that the risks that they take can have more impact on their still developing brains.

Thus, reports discussing policy across the life course ascribe specific social problems to the functioning of brains, yet the solution that they plea for is often a relational one, where parents have a more loving relationship with their children and understand their teenagers better, and where people care for and understand the behaviour of those with dementia. Our analysis, moreover, indicates the import of neuroscience to UK social policies, whilst simultaneously suggesting the importance of being mindful of the limits to which a neurobiological idiom is deployed in policy settings (and elsewhere). As well, we show how critical discourses may proliferate even within the terrain where the terms and concepts of the neurosciences occupy space.

Tineke Broer

Centre for Population Health Sciences/Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh, @tineke_broer

Martyn Pickersgill

Centre for Population Health Sciences/SKAPE, University of Edinburgh, @PickersgillM


Paper: Broer, T. and Pickersgill, M. (2015) ‘Targeting brains, producing responsibilities: the use of neuroscience within British social policy’, Social Science & Medicine, 132, 54-61.

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