What is Neurohistory?
Neurohistory is a perspective on history that draws on the findings of the cognitive sciences. It proceeds from the understanding that the brain is relatively plastic and therefore open to the things we experience as children and adults. We take plasticity for granted in our everyday lives. It is the thing that explains why children learn in the classroom, why practice makes perfect, and why occupational therapists can help people overcome aphasia and learn to talk again. But plasticity is not just a thing of the present day. It can help us understand cultural formations and cultural transitions in the past.
Both history and anthropology accept the general principle that each human population is patterned by its own distinctive set of traits or behaviors. Neuroscience suggests that if those traits play a role in determining synapses and receptors in the brain, then the aggregate features of the brain of one population will be different from those of another population.
By way of example, we should expect to find that the aggregate brain of population groups that teach their children to read texts will be slightly different from the aggregate brain of population groups that emphasize different skills, such as non-verbal communication. Some of these aggregate patterns may apply to whole cultures. Others, however, may be particular to smaller groups, including groups defined by social roles and genders.
Neurohistory suggests, in short, that cultural formations have a tendency to “tune” the brains of the people within those formations. We should of course expect to find considerable variation, in part because of the unique nature of individual experiences, and in part because people have genetic predispositions for certain psychological traits that aren’t overridden by cultural “tuning.” This is why neurohistory speaks of widespread or aggregate patterns rather than universal patterns. A corollary is that the neurohistorical perspective is fairly coarse-grained. It is better suited toward explaining large patterns and generally unhelpful when it comes to explaining the behavior of individuals.
One of the most important features of neurohistory is that it can offer explanations for certain kinds of historical change. In particular, the introduction of a new behavioral pattern can spur the development, in the aggregate, of different brain structures (synapses or receptors). These new aggregate structures, in turn, could have the unintended second-order effect of inclining the population toward new behavioral patterns
It is highly unlikely that neurohistory could generate hypotheses that are testable in a manner that would satisfy the protocols of the cognitive sciences. Like most historical argumentation, neurohistory is an inferential approach, and proceeds by teasing out evidence that is related indirectly to the subject of inquiry.