On the (pre-)judicial brain

The brain, we are told, acts first, thinks later–literally, by a factor of milliseconds.  That is, according to the kind of research David Eagleman summarizes in his Incognito: The secret lives of the brain (Pantheon, 2011), initial neural responses are faster than “conscious” ones.  This is the kind of research which, as I mused about earlier, confirms methodological individualists’ understandings.

That the brain should be so swift to act is actually essential to our surviving such tasks as, to pick up a recently evolved challenge to human survival, driving a car down a highway.  It is also problematic given that initial responses are easily correlated with various “biases.”  Brain researchers are getting quite good at devising subtle experiments to show how these biases might operate, at the millisecond level, even when the finalized act is non-biased (or biased in the correct direction).  I particularly “liked” (because of its extra-vagance) the experiment that depended on the trajectories of mouse movements towards “White people liking ‘Black People’” (Wojnowicz, Ferguson, Dale, and Spivey 2009).

All this could be used to confirm perennial working hypotheses about the relationship between strongly “learned” responses (probably because they happened repeatedly in early life) and later pre-judicial acts.  Such hypotheses have made sense to many Boasian “culture and personality” anthropologists, to sociologists and others following Bourdieu, and to a host of others over the past century.  In this perspective, the “judicial” brain literally does not, and indeed cannot, know what the larger brain gets the body to do.

For the critics among us, there is work to do here to challenge the neuroscientists on the implication of their altogether wild experiments.  At the simplest level, the point of having a “judicial” brain is precisely to control and repair what the pre-judicial brain may attempt to do, or has done.  The judicial brain might say “drive home” and then leave the pre-judicial one to do the driving.  At night, in Riverside Park, a white man’s pre-judicial brain may tighten muscles at the sight of young black man walking towards him, and it is probable that the black man will notice this tightening and this may produce a pre-judicial triggering of “racism.”  As they move away, each man may feel stressed and unhappy and actually review the encounter with their judicial brain—and then even perhaps blog about it.

But this last classic example raises an issue that neuro-scientific work appears very specifically to ignore: what are the implications of pre-judicial brain activity for routine social interaction?  Take driving down a highway.  Neuro-science tells us that we cannot describe in detail the sequence of muscular acts necessary to change lanes.  What it does not consider is that the first act when changing lane is figuring out whether there is another car in that lane and, if there is, whether one should accelerate or break before starting the change, and whether one should change an initial decision given what the other car is now doing as it noticed what we are doing.  Garfinkel (2002: 92-93) has made much of such joint activities across many bodies assembled on the highway that are required for the necessarily always emergent and yet “immortal” ordering of “driving down the highway.”

All sociologists working at the level of the “adjacency pairs” (and I include here interactional and conversational analysts, ethnomethodologists, etc.) should be the first to confront the neuroscientists since they work at very similar time scales but with radically different understandings of the units needed to analyze the same overall act at the next time scale when the act is concluded.  Other sociologists and anthropologists will have an easier time since we are almost always working with “consciousness.”   After all, our task is not to explain the tightening of muscles or the flashes of stress and anger black and white men passing each other may experience, but rather the evolution of the machineries (vocabularies, discourses, practices, laws, etc.) which make identify human beings as different from each other (from 19th century slavery, to early 20th segregation , to late 20th century civil rights and various kinds of resistances to it to any of these classificatory assemblages.

How the these assemblages influence the struggles within brains as persons ad-judicate each others pre-judicial movements, and change this adjudication as they find out what others have done, or what consequences they are drawing, should remain an open question that will not be answered by experiments that segregate human beings from human beings, and their pre-judicial movements from the delayed judicial ones.


Garfinkel, H. (2002).  Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism .  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wojnowicz, M. T., Ferguson, M. J., Dale, R., & Spivey, M. J. (2009). The self-organization of explicit attitudes. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02448.x

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