Professor of History, Theory, and Ethics of Medicine and the Sciences; Director, Institute for the History of Medicine and Science Studies, University Lübeck
When Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke recorded what they labeled Bereitschaftspotential in the mid-1960s, they regarded this as clear evidence for the neurophysiological processes underlying voluntary action and the initiation of movement. Their findings relied on new electronic methods to retrospectively analyze stored data. A few years later, Benjamin Libet repeated their experiments in modified form, but now the data furbished his conclusion that, neurophysiologically, volition and freedom of decision making were an afterthought, created by the nervous system in addition to the action programs already initiated. Libet, though, left a small window for conscious interference, his famous vetoing function, belated for any real action but not too late for stopping ongoing preparations. With this idea, he shifted the belatedness from the side of the technical analysis to the brain, but he revived, at the same time, the old concept that interference, protraction, and inhibition qualify actions as human – in contrast to the automatic functioning of animals. Another three decades later and after further repetitions of similar experiments with more modern methods in a changed cultural setting where the neurosciences enjoyed a massively fostered position, a radical interpretation gained momentum, declaring volition a mere illusion and expurgating any freedom from the human realm by means of the experimental evidence. Have the neurosciences finally arrived at the real meaning of the data? Instead of debating once more the possible significance of Libet’s experiments, the presentation focuses on the different layers of belatedness that characterize the various stages of the experiments, the time course of their repetition, their materiality as well as their belated public resonances.
Cornelius Borck is a historian of science and medicine and Director of the Institute for the History of Medicine and Science Studies of the University Lübeck, Germany. Before coming to Lübeck, he held a Canada Research Chair in Philosophy and Language of Medicine at McGill University, Montreal. Earlier appointments include the research group “Writing Life, Media Technologies, and the History of the Life Sciences 1800–1900” in the Faculty of Media at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and a Karl-Schädler-Research Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. His research topics cover mind, brain, and self in the age of visualization; the epistemology of experimentation in art, science, and media; and sensory prostheses and human-machine relations between artistic avant-garde and techno-science. Selected publications: “Interpreting Medicine: Forms of Knowledge and Ways of Doing in Clinical Practice,” in Peter K. Machamer and Gereon Wolters, ed., Interpretation: Ways of Thinking About the Sciences and the Arts (2010); “Through the Looking Glass: Past Futures of Brain Research,” Medicine Studies (2009); “Recording the Brain at Work: The Visible, the Readable, and the Invisible in Electroencephalography,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences (2008); “Blindness, Seeing, and Envisioning Prosthesis: The Optophone between Science, Technology, and Art,” in Dieter Daniels and Barbara Ulrike Schmidt, ed., Artists as Inventors – Inventors as Artists (2008); “Sound Work and Visionary Prosthetics: Artistic Experiments in Raoul Hausmann,” Papers of Surrealism 005; Psychographien (co-edited with Armin Schäfer; 2006); Hirnströme: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elektroenzephalographie (2005); Maß und Eigensinn: Studien im Anschluss an Georges Canguilhem (co-edited with Volker Hess and Henning Schmidgen; 2005); Mindful Practices: On the Neurosciences in the Twentieth Century (special issue of Science in Context, co-edited with Michael Hagner; 2001).