History and Science

Website with Track Requirements: Department of the History of Science

Advising and Assistance: Allie Belser

The Intellectual Basis: Efforts to study the human mind and brain are filled with high intellectual adventure, while being simultaneously fraught with important historical, ethical, existential and policy questions. Too few scientists feel they have the means or competence to address the latter issues, while too many social scientists feel inhibited from entering into significant critical dialogue with the mind sciences, because they lack a competent knowledge of the technical aspects of such research. The Mind, Brain, and Behavioral Sciences track offered within the History and Science concentration aims to offer students an opportunity to integrate serious study of the brain with thoughtful attention to the human and social context and real world questions raised by its study. The primary focus is on training scientifically-literate social scientists, but it will also appeal to students considering future careers in medicine or in the brain and behavioral sciences proper who would like to establish a broader framework for their future inquiries and practice. Students successfully completing this track will receive their degree in History and Science and a Certificate in MBB from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Mind, Brain, and Behavior.

The methodological heart of the MBB program in History and Science is historical and draws on the full resources of Harvard’s History of Science faculty. To understand the making of mind, brain, and behavioral science, one needs to study not only the history of neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry, but also the history of medicine and the life sciences, and the historical establishment of science generally as a social institution and set of metaphysical commitments in Western culture. Some students in this concentration track may choose to combine historical studies with perspectives from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature, medical ethics or science policy (see Requirements).

Research possibilities within this plan of study are wide-ranging. Students may find themselves looking at how new kinds of imaging and recording technologies change our understanding of what mind is or what is important to know about it; looking at the emergence of Darwinian perspectives on human nature and the challenges they raised; probing interactions between genetic research and the behavioral sciences in their ethical and social contexts; examining ways in which concepts like consciousness and selfhood, traditionally the domain of philosophy, are currently being taken up and reconceived by the neurosciences; asking about the relationship between psychopharmacology, biochemical understandings of mental illness, and first-person narratives about being mentally ill; looking at the ideas about psychosomatic disorders from an historical or cross-cultural perspective.