From the Globe to the Brain and Back

October 1, 2015   •   By Larry S. McGrath

FEW SUBJECTS SEEM, at first glance, as detached from historical study, or indeed from one another, as globalization and the neurosciences. Both have revolutionized our world, the former by forging distant bonds of interdependence and the latter by unlocking the connections among the brain’s 100 billion neurons. Yet neither appears to be relevant to the study of the distant past. Both, after all, are modern inceptions. And their ongoing processes of integration and discovery are by no means behind us. Surprisingly, however, globalization and the neurosciences have furnished numerous historians over the past decade with the tools to reinvent their discipline and even overhaul what counts as historical evidence. Global history and neurohistory now constitute two subfields at the forefront of academic history. One probes events, communities, and ideas unbound by national boundaries, while the other builds on brain imaging technology to peer inside the heads of historical actors. When combined, they promise to revolutionize our understanding of the past.

Global history has overthrown the discipline’s long relation to nationalism. Such, at least, was the task of history teachers when public high schools expanded in early 20th-century America, premised on the belief that democracy hinges on a shared sense of past. And neuroscientific methods have undermined another basic premise of historical writing: that the past is dead. Neurohistorians assume that that human neural architecture has remained constant enough over time to establish a biological bridge connecting history with the present. In her concise yet wide-ranging Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt, a history professor at UCLA, proposes a model to unite these two revolutionary subfields — too often kept separate in accord with the demands of academic specialization — into a unified global-neuro approach. Such an approach aims to rejuvenate what Hunt sees as historians’ stale methods of writing about the past.

Hunt’s appeal should come as no surprise to those who have followed her work. Alongside the historians Daniel Lord Smail, Edmund Russell, and others, Hunt has spearheaded neurohistory as a means to uncover how people experienced history. The neurosciences, she believes, hold the promise of unlocking the interior dimension of the past as it was lived, distinct from the external dimension conveyed in the fossilized words of textual documents. She and her colleagues are having an impact: neurohistory was the subject of a high-profile panel at this year’s meeting of the American Historical Association, and its journal, the American Historical Review, recently devoted an entire issue to neuroscientific methods.

When it comes to global history, however, Hunt is less of a trendsetter. Over the past two decades, historians’ geographic attention has shifted from nation-states to borderlands, trade routes, deserts, and rivers. The landscape of history, as a result, looks quite different today than it did in the early 1970s when Hunt wrote her doctoral dissertation on the revolutionary period in France. It has since become démodé to study the French Revolution of 1789 in isolation from the 1791 revolution in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) or the American revolution of 1776. While Hunt has thoughtfully explored such connections in her 2008 book, Inventing Human Rights, her writing belongs to a broader trend in global history evident in new journals such as Diaspora and Journal of Global History.

Despite global historians’ intention to liberate their work from what they see as the limitations of national narratives, it is worth scrutinizing whether the borders of nations ever proved so limiting. Nations not only delimit geography; they also delimit scholarship. The historian must choose what to include and exclude when writing a book. National boundaries offer a pragmatic tool to do so — they were perhaps rarely more than such.

The value of global history, however, ultimately depends on what is meant by “globalization.” From one angle, globalizing processes resemble a verdant wave of Norse mermaids uprooting any local coffee shops that stand in the path of Starbucks’s march toward market dominance. In whatever locale, latté-sippers can expect the same barista garb and same bossa nova playing in the background. But globalization, as Hunt points out, isn’t necessarily a homogenizing process. She wants to look at globalization from below, an angle that instead reveals a process toward heterogeneity. Migration, social media, tourism, and trade have furnished webs of cultural interaction transforming what it means to be American or European (as much as some might insist otherwise). Globalization injects new and hybrid identities into previously uniform communities. And global historians have fittingly integrated the stories of previously excluded groups. Look again at the clientele of Starbucks: perhaps they now appear far more diverse than the regulars at most 20th-century neighborhood coffee shops.

Once understood as a cultural process (that is, not an exclusively economic one), globalization’s affinity with the neurosciences follows. In their aim to discover the cerebral bases of mental life, neuroscientists rarely identify discrete centers in the brain. They instead study the interconnections among overlapping neural networks. For example, fMRI machines trace the path of oxygen traveling in blood cells to uncover the mobile pathways of neurotransmission. Research in brain plasticity tracks the synaptic connections between neurons as they form in accord with our social activity, indicating that changes during the course of life alter the brain’s organization: it is a hybrid of nature and culture. The dynamism of brains and markets both trend toward incessant reinvention. Their alliance, according to Hunt, betokens the promise of a new history from below.

But how might globalization and the neurosciences substantively inform history writing? Hunt reminds us that writing history, though perhaps a neural affair, is not a neutral affair. Although loyal to the past, historians must be accountable to the present. So they rely on and debate theoretical frameworks — what Hunt calls “paradigms” — in order to determine which questions are worth asking, what periods are worth investigating, and what kinds of evidence are worth using.

But are globalization and the neurosciences sufficiently robust to furnish a new paradigm? Hunt’s answer unfolds in her survey of the paradigms that historians have employed over the past century. Before the Second World War, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre steered history toward the social dimension of the past. Their studies of the geographical and economic contexts of medieval and early modern Europe crystallized in the Annales School, which laid claim both to a journal and to a distinct method for addressing the macroscopic transformations — what the journal’s subsequent editor Fernand Braudel called the longue durée — that overwhelmed discrete events and individual agents. By the 1960s, E.P. Thompson catapulted social history to the top of historians’ agenda with his classic study of the formation of English working class consciousness, focusing on neglected groups such as Luddite croppers and stocking knitters. And Albert Soboul demonstrated that more could be learned about the French Revolution by studying artisans’ guilds rather than the court of Louis XVI. Instead of writing histories about great political leaders and their wars, social historians shifted the focus outside elite circles.

Yet the stories told about commoners too often depicted their lives as dependent on the economic motors of historical change, a bias predicated on the forward march of modernization and a healthy dose of Marxism. The new cultural history — propelled in part by Hunt’s 1989 anthology of the same name — pivoted away from workers’ relation to their means of production and toward the symbols, rituals, and experiences that shaped quotidian life. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued, kinship relations, the foundational cultural bonds determining who is a possible and prohibited spouse, are structured in language. Rejuvenated by this and other anthropological methods, cultural historians from the mid-1970s through the 1990s duly set about deciphering the codes that structured communal living. The prominent role of language was epitomized in Joan Scott’s work, in which she argued that impersonal linguistic rules condition the primary sources that convey, to historians, the personal experience of people in the past.

But language’s role has since come under scrutiny. As Hunt asks, “how can individuals entirely conditioned by social forces act in such a self-conscious fashion?” She doesn’t find a satisfying answer in the menu of options, leading to her unequivocal assessment: “The social and cultural theories that stimulated much history writing from the 1950s onward have lost their vitality.” The path forward, she suggests, should revive the embodied, and not only linguistic, conditions of experience, and thereby ensure a sense of individual agents’ (at least partial) freedom to determine their lives. But Hunt confesses that the prospect of revitalizing history on the basis of a global history alone is not promising because globalization is generally understood as a macro-economic process — precisely what cultural historians had targeted as reductive before the turn to the history of everyday life.

Enter the neurosciences. Hunt finds in their research programs, especially in the biochemistry of emotions, the tools to integrate cultural historians’ attention to everyday life with the dynamic and heterogeneous interconnections of globalization. The proposal is curious, particularly because Hunt had once herself campaigned in favor of culture’s autonomy from nature, part and parcel of her critique of biological reductionism: the belief that personal identities as well as racial and gender differences are physiological functions. Reconciling culture and nature is no easy task. It is not clear at first blush, for instance, how to incorporate agency within the biochemistry of the emotions. How, in other words, are peoples’ desires, beliefs, and judgments not simply the result of but integral to the brain’s neural networks? Absent a satisfying account of the continuity between culture and nature, Hunt’s global-neuro paradigm risks construing biochemistry as a historical cause operating, as it were, behind the backs of individual actors. But as with all historical methods, the success of the paradigm ultimately depends on the story it allows Hunt to tell.

The 17th and 18th centuries offer Hunt fertile case studies. The age of European expansion brought exotic drugs, spices, and stimulants to the continent, and spread cross-cultural contacts. When tobacco and chocolate arrived, traders in Spain and Portugal asked concubines, nursemaids, and even Indian healers how to use the foreign substances. The French diplomat Jean Nicot (to whom we owe the eponymous “Nicotine”) initially grew tobacco seeds shipped from Florida in order to treat common ailments such as ulcers and ringworm. Chocolate from Central America prepared Europeans’ palates for the bitter flavor of coffee brought from the Middle East. And once Jewish entrepreneurs set up coffeehouses in Britain, an addicted clientele generated demand for sugar, tea, and porcelain pots from China. These early instances of globalization were the cultural background against which consumers acquired new preferences. By 1700, there were 500 coffeehouses in Europe where people read newspapers, debated politics, and experienced what Hunt claims was a seismic biochemical transformation.

Her point is that global markets only took off once a taste for new goods developed. And changes in taste depended on changes in the brain. Chocolate triggered dopamine production and coffee inhibited adenosine receptors. These neurotransmitters, largely dormant in Europeans until the 17th century, had profound effects. People became addicted to new stimulants. What follows from Hunt’s focus on biochemistry is a novel — though by no means innocent — story about European expansion. Wars of conquest forged trade routes and cleaved markets from the lands of native peoples. The physiology of dependence alongside the economics of demand fueled the early stages of globalization.

Hunt’s provocative claim is that a biochemical revolution paralleled a revolution in European ideas of selfhood. The revolution brought about, according to Hunt, “the transition from an embodied self oriented toward equilibrium in bodily fluids and emotions to an embodied self looking for increased stimulations and participation in shared spaces, including politics.” New stimulations induced people to relinquish their ties with the Church, monarchs, and feudal lords, and forego their prior ideas of what it means to be a person. Her claim echoes Daniel Lord Smail’s argument in On Deep History and the Brain (2008), in which he traces a similar transition: “where individuals once relied on religion and ritual as sources of dopamine and other chemical messengers, they turned increasingly to items of consumption, giving up God in favor of mammon.” Both Hunt and Smail assert, moreover, that the transition — at once cultural and conceptual — took place below the register of consciousness.

Hunt’s paradigm proves even more provocative when she applies it to the revolutionary upheavals of the late 18th century. Hunt suggests that democracy and capitalism took the place of kings and seigneurs thanks — in large part — to a colossal release of dopamine. Stimulants lent affective force to the Enlightenment ideas marshaled in support of the French Revolution. “These various experiences and events,” Hunt claims, “had somatic impacts that translated into new thoughts and conceptions of the individual, society, and politics.” Revolutionaries channeled the biochemical energy imbibed in the market to galvanize their political energy in the streets of Paris. Revolutions were fought on the terrain of armies, ideas, and neurons.

That is why coffeehouses are integral to the story. They open a window onto an era in which people criticized the monarch at the same time as they activated hardwired pleasure centers. “New kinds of energy,” Hunt asserts, “were tapped in the emotionally charged spaces of interpersonal interaction.” It was in coffeehouses where people read periodicals, exchanged pamphlets, and distributed satirical broadsheets. It was where Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Paul Marat argued about science, literature, and political philosophy. Historians have already recognized coffeehouses as an important cultural marker. Their patrons were the bourgeois, while workers thinned their coffee with milk purchased from street merchants. Of course, historians have also examined salons, Freemason lodges, and debating and political clubs, all of which were equally important in the formation of a public sphere, and the history of coffeehouses is itself not new. But only recently do historians have at their disposal neuroscientific research to register the biochemical effects of what was consumed therein. We now have the key emotional ingredient that animated coffee-drinkers’ political conversations — and with it, the paradigm for a globalized neurohistory of the birth of Enlightenment ideas of selfhood and society. Yet it is difficult to make sense of just what biochemistry might contribute to our understanding of such ideas over and above the mere prestige historians hope to garner by investing their work in the sciences of the brain.

The risk is that neurohistory loses sight of what is significant in writing history. After all, it is people, and not brains, who read and argue. More importantly, what people argue about — especially when stimulated by coffee, tobacco, and the like — turns on the meaning of ideas. The challenge facing Hunt and other historians is not merely to describe the biochemical forces stimulating peoples’ loquacious moods, but to draw from the neurosciences new approaches to reveal what people meant by their ideas, especially Enlightenment ideas such as political representation, civil liberty, or private property. Although loyal to the past, historians best serve the present by showing the resonances, ruptures, and revisions of ideas whose nuances have gone lost beneath the accumulated assumptions lodged in the present. Until more of its synapses fire together, neurohistory will remain a promise, not a program.


Larry S. McGrath teaches modern European history and the history of science at Wesleyan University.