Professor Traces History of ‘Hardwired’ Metaphor in Brain and Behavioral Sciences

Giordana Grossi, Professor of Psychology, presented “Hardwired: History of a Misleading Metaphor” at “NeuroGenderings III: The 1st international Dissensus Conference on brain and gender” in Lausanne, Switzerland (May 8-10, 2014). NeuroGenderings is an interdisciplinary network of neuroscientists, social scientists, and cultural scientists which “aims to elaborate innovative theoretical and empirical approaches for questions of sex/gender and sexuality for neuroscientists; to analyze the social and political underpinnings of the ongoing “cerebralization” of human life and especially of sex/gender, and to discuss the impacts of neuroscientific sex/gender research in sociopolitical and cultural fields.”

“Hardwired” is a term borrowed from the field of engineering and refers to the fixedness or unchangeability of a structure or function. In her presentation, Grossi argued for the need to critically analyze how the concept of “hardwired” is used in brain and behavioral sciences, as its meaning is opaque and typically not defined. Indeed, its meaning shifts when used in different contexts, even within the same text. This lack of precision leaves the door open for misinterpretations, especially in works written for the general public, in which information on how the brain develops and changes with experience is rarely discussed.

In her lecture, Grossi explored how the hardwiring metaphor moved from the field of engineering into the brain sciences at the beginning of the 1970s, and showed how such transition was soon accompanied by the reframing of the term’s meaning in terms of origins (i.e., from fixedness to innateness and genetic determinism). She also discussed why the use of the term in brain and behavioral sciences should be discontinued.

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