Beyond the Neuro-Realism Fallacy

From John R. Mallard’s Hand-painted MRI Image of a Mouse to BioArt Scenarios

in Nuncius
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This article examines visual practices inside the laboratory and in the arts, highlighting a problem of reductionism in the transformation from data to images and in the visual incarnation of the neuro-realism fallacy, that is the extreme images of brain scan. Neurosciences are not inherently reductionist. John R. Mallard’s work around data visualisation problems in the development of biomedical imaging shows how scientists themselves can be attentive to the construction of visual practices and their meaning. If neuro-realism is a fallacy within the neurosciences, are art-neuroscience collaborative projects reproducing this fallacy at visual level? The article analysis how neuroscience-art projects can enable us (or not) to foster and maintain a stereoscopic vision in the way in which we approach the conundrum of what it is like to be both a biological organism made up of molecules, neurons, cells, and an entity equipped with intentionality, desires, thoughts, values.

Beyond the Neuro-Realism Fallacy

From John R. Mallard’s Hand-painted MRI Image of a Mouse to BioArt Scenarios

in Nuncius




Soraya De Chadarevian Nick HopwoodModels. The Third Dimension of Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press2004). On the enactment of models in molecular biology laboratories see Natasha Myers Rendering Life Molecular. Models Modelers and Excitable Matter (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2015). On the history of the different models and metaphors used to represent and investigate the brain see Cornelius Borck “Toys Are Us. Models and Metaphors in Brain Research” in Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience edited by Suparna Choudhury Jan Slaby (London: Blackwell 2011) pp. 111–133.


Giovanni Frazzetto Suzanne Anker“Neuroculture,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience2009 10:815–821 p. 819. On neurocultures see also Francisco Ortega Fernando Vidal (eds.) Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang 2011).


Fernando Vidal“Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity,” History of the Human Sciences2009 22/1:5–36 p. 6.


Joseph Dumit“How (Not) to Do Things with Brain Images,” in Representation in Scientific Practice Revisitededited by Catelijne Coopmans Janet Vertes Michael Lynch Steve Woolgar (Cambridge and London: the MIT Press 2014) pp. 291–313.


See for example Cornelius Borck“Recording the Brain at Work: The Visible, the Readable, and the Invisible in Electroencephalography,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences2008 17:367–379.


Wilfrid Sellars“Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science Perception and Reality (New York: Humanities Press 1963) pp. 1–40.


John R. Mallard“The Radionuclide Imaging Process and Factors Influencing the Choice of an Instrument for Brain Scanning,” in Progress in Nuclear Medicineedited by James Potchen Ralph McCready (Baltimore: University Park Press 1972) pp. 1–114: 6–7.


John R. Mallard“Radioisotope Imaging – the End of the Beginning,” Separata do Arquivo de Patologia1974 46/1: 3–26 p. 13.


See Drew Leder (ed.)The Body in Medical Thought and Practice (Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publisher1992).


Anne Beaulieu“A Space for Measuring Mind and Brain: Interdisciplinarity and Digital Tools in the Development of Brain Mapping and Functional Imaging, 1980–1990,” Brain and Cognition2002 49/1:13–33.


Eric Racine Ofek Bar-Ilan Judy Illes“fMRI in the Public Eye,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience2005 6:159–164 p. 160.


Ibid. pp. 291–313.


Dumit“How (Not) to Do Things” (cit. note 9), p. 304. Other scholars pointed out at the flaws in functional neuroimaging. See, for example, Edward Vul, Harold Pashler, “Voodoo and Circularity Errors,” NeuroImage2012 62/2: 945–948; Cornelius Borck “How to Do Voodoo with Functional Neuroimaging” (accessed 1st October 2016).


Ibid. p. 5. Sellars always uses the locution “man-in-the-world” to highlight that the image is that of the position of man in the world not of man and of the world as two separate entities.


Ibid. p. 32.


Ibid. p. 19.


Ibid. p. 5. Stereoscopic photography interestingly was a mean to achieve realism in science and medicine. For example Joseph Towne one of the most skilled makers of wax moulages in the nineteenth century used the new technology of stereoscopic photography for constructing his three-dimensional anatomical models. On stereoscopy as an embodied form of vision in contrast with the detached and distant model of vision put forth by the camera obscura see Jonathan Crary Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge and London: the MIT Press 1990).


Donna HarawaySimians Cyborgs Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free1991) p. 163.


Luciano Floridi“The Informational Nature of Personal Identity,” Minds and Machines2011 21/4:549–566 pp. 561–562.


Javier DeFelipeCajal’s Butterflies of the Soul: Science and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press2010).


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    Figure 1

    The first-ever MR image of a mouse displaying relaxation time information, Aberdeen 1974. In Jim M.S. Hutchison, “Imaging by Nuclear Magnetic Resonance,” IEE Medical Electronics Monographs 28–33, Medical Imaging Techniques, 1979: pp. 79–93.Image courtesy of the University of Aberdeen (Special Collections Centre)

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    Figure 2

    William Edelstein poses with Mark-I, world first whole-body MRI scanner. Jim M.S. Hutchison lying in the position of the patient, Aberdeen 1980.

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    Figure 3

    Artist (unknown), Artist’s Impression of the improved diagnostic situation as a result of special views, data processing and optimization of display! In John R. Mallard, “Radioisotope Imaging – the End of the Beginning,” Separata do Arquivo de Patologia, 1974, 46/1:3–26, p. 25.Image courtesy of the University of Aberdeen (Special Collections Centre)

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    Figure 4

    Susan Aldworth, Cogito Ergo Sum 3.14, 2006, archival digital print, 50 × 50 cmsImage courtesy of the artist

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    Figure 5

    Marta de Menezes, Functional Portraits: Martin Kemp Looking at a Painting, photograph and fMRI scan printed on canvas, 2002–2003Image courtesy of the artist

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    Figure 6

    William Kentridge, Still image from Weighing … and Wanting, multi-media installation, 1997

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    Figure 7

    Guy Ben-Ari (with SymbioticA), Silent Barrage, detail of neurons growing on a multi-electrode array, 2009Image courtesy of the artist

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    Figure 8

    Guy Ben-Ari (with SymbioticA), Silent Barrage, detail of the robotic body (installation view), 2009Image courtesy of the artist

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