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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-02202017-004031

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
Thesis title
A Brave New Science. On some historical and epistemological aspects of contemporary neuroscience (1945-1976).
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof. Pogliano, Claudio Sergio
commissario Prof. Barsanti, Giulio
commissario Prof.ssa Continenza, Barbara
commissario Prof. Plebe, Alessio
  • contemporary neuroscience
  • historical epistemology
  • history of science
  • neuromorphism
  • reverse engineering
Graduation session start date
Release date
The central goal of my doctoral thesis is the historical reconstruction of early research in neuromorphic technologies and in the development of a “reverse engineering” approach to the brain as they coalesce as a research trend in contemporary neuroscience. Neuromorphism and engineering-based are the main topics for this work because of their centrality within 21st century “big brain science” projects –– especially the European Human Brain Project (HBP), launched in 2013. Framing this issue in present-day cultural and scientific discourse on neuroscience, I provide a first reconstruction of the historical origins of these cornerstones of contemporary neuroscientific practice. My research originates from a shared concern in historiography of science and technology, i.e. the underreporting of historical inquiries on the relationship between a specific episteme (the technoscientific paradigm of late 20th and early 21st century) and brain sciences. By this work, I aim to offer a modest contribution to the wider field of the historiography of brain research, as well as to lay the foundations for further historical and epistemological studies on the technoscientific trends in post-WWII neuroscience.
The thesis is articulated through the following outline. The first chapter of the work is devoted to the presentation of some peculiar aspects of our “neuroscientific age” –– that is, the scientific and cultural horizon from which the questions at the core of my research stem –– and offer a first framing of the status questionis. My first goal is to extrapolate some significant characteristics of present-day neuroscience — the Jetztzeit of contemporary neuroscience, borrowing Walter Benjamin’s terminology — in order to provide a frame for the inquire of its historical background. In the sections of Chapter I, I introduce a short preliminary reflection about the relationship between neuroscience, history and historiography of neuroscience; then, I provide a historical review of one the “big brain science” projects of 21st century, the Human Brain Project, following its fortunes and difficulties from its launch to present-day. Thus, examining the case of the so-called “neuro-turn”, which occurred in the humanities, the social sciences and Western culture since the 1990s. I provide an outline for advocating the existence of some ideological traits of contemporary neuroscience, both in relationship to its material (that is, technological) history of our recent times, and later in the light of the reflections on what has been defined as the “postmodern” age of science.
In turn, the second chapter exposes the core of my research, concerned with the historical development of an identity between the brain and electronic technologies between the 1940s and the 1970s. The historical inquiry is led from the starting questions originated by present issues –– that is, the contemporary simulative and technological trend in neuroscience. Thus, after a brief reflection on the relationship between scientific inquire and technological development, together with a review of the most recent literature on some technical keywords of 21st century “big brain projects” (i.e. “simulation”, “reverse engineering” and “neuromorphism”), I provide a historiographical reconstruction of the epistemological background of the US neuroscience immediately before and after World War II. In this section, the historical connection between early neuroscientists and the development of computational and electronic devices is underlined, highlighting the adoption of a shared conceptual jargon from both neuroscientists, computer scientists and engineers. The historical reconstruction is also framed in the context of the British-American network of scientific relationship of the 1940s, in which neurophysiology and electrophysiological technologies entangled constituely, and it follows the intertwinement of neuroscience with the material and cultural panorama of 20th century United States of America. Hence, I outline some of the most important figures in the development of our contemporary technological perspective on the brain, by following their works from the end of WW-II to the 1970s. All through the second chapter, pivotal moments in the early development of the simulative and neuromorphic approach in neuroscience system are investigated in order to underline epistemological lineages (or discontinuities) that characterized the history of this research trend.
Finally, in the conclusive chapter I draw together my findings and relate them to my initial problem presentation. Some reflections on the rhetorical discourse of contemporary international collaborative neuroscientific projects are offered, which stress the role of historical and philosophical knowledge for neuroscience in the development of a critical thinking in-and-of neuroscience and neurotechnology.
The appendix to this work contains bibliographical references and the presentation of a digital database that I have developed during the course of my doctoral research. The database, operationally called “the Neuroarchive,” contains several hundred bibliographical records, which I scheduled and collected from the scientific literature used in my research work. By some functionalities of the database –– i.e. form records for authors’ affiliation, classification of economical sources, animal model –– I have been able to track back several connections between scientists and scientific ideas of 20th century neuroscience, as well as the institutional and private stakeholder for the research and development activities related to them. Finally, further developments of the Neuroarchive database are discussed, in order to suggest interesting possibilities of collaboration between historians of science, technology, engineering and medicine interested in further investigations on contemporary neuroscience.