May 4, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

Brains, organoids and cultural narratives

For a while now I have been observing developments in neuroscience, stem cell research and tissue engineering, in a rather desultory fashion. Behind my back things began to happen and grow.


In 1989 the journal Science reported on research into ‘organoids’ (or, as the OED defines them, the “growth of cells or tissue in culture that resembles an organ; an artificial organ, esp. one consisting of cells derived from a specific organ in an artificial matrix”). It stated: “With little more than some strands of Gore-Tex finer than an angel’s hair, a supply of collagen, and a dash of heparin-binding growth factor-1, John Thompson and Thomas Macaig have what Thompson calls ‘a cauldron of all the right stuff to create an organ’. An ‘organoid’, really.” Magic!

In the early millennium (magic) stem cells and tissue engineering began to be discussed in popular media and Martin Döring and I convened a workshop on ‘Stem cell cultures’. Around 2013, stem cell scientists started to talk about developing organoids in earnest (see e.g. the work by Madeline Lancaster, featured on BBC Radio 4 Inside Science last week). Then, in 2016, The Economist talked about ‘the year of the organoids’ (see also here). In 2017, organoids, or the “ability to prod stem cells into three-dimensional tissue models”, were named the Nature Method of the year. “Organoid models have now been grown for many organs: brain, liver, kidney, breast, retina, and organs of the gastrointestinal tract, among others.”

At the same time, Philip Ball, the science writer, started to tweet about the growth of his own cerebral organoid structures, colloquially referred to as “mini-brains” (see here), and I pricked up my ears. In his case, this meant growing a mini-brain from tissue he had donated, and the whole thing is for dementia research. This ongoing project is nicely summarised in his article for The Guardian entitled “Why two brains are better than one” (31 March, 2018).

So, I was not surprised when Nature recently published an article (25 April, 2018) looking into “The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue” which lays out in great detail the difficult questions that will be raised as models of the human brain get closer to replicating its function – and questions loom over the issue of consciousness.

Then Ed Yong wrote a piece about it all for The Atlantic! Oh, I thought, something is really going on here! And while digesting that insight with my own mini-brain, I saw an article by Åsa Alftberg and Peter Bengtsen in the academic journal Culture Unbound (in a thematic issue on the brain) entitled “The Sci-Fi Brain: Narratives in Neuroscience and Popular Culture”. That was a bit like the spark that jump-started Victor Frankenstein’s creature into action. Narratives, metaphors, popular culture, I thought: c’est moi!

Brains and popular culture

I read the article with great interest and gleaned some interesting information. I also wondered about a few things. The authors, like many other social scientists interested in neuroscience and society, start with the assumption that “current developments in biomedicine and neuroscience, with new technological and therapeutic possibilities, have transformed the view of the self from personhood to brainhood”. As I have done before, I asked myself whether there was any evidence for that. Are there any surveys out there documenting this shift of self-understanding?

Be this as it may, one thing is certain: popular culture and popular cultural narratives provide people with ways of thinking about self and society. They shape our expectations, our hopes and our fears. Some of these ways of thinking are very old, such as the narrative of the ‘mad scientist’ explored in the article; some are more novel, mainly proposed in scifi stories and films. Such narratives, in this case Dollhouse by Joss Whedon, are explored in the article alongside others that emerged from focus groups with working scientists. In the article the authors explore some overlaps between these two ways of talking about brains – in scifi stories and in scientists’ talk.

Cultural precognition

The article made me think about something that Robert Dingwall and I discussed almost twenty years ago (initially in the context of cloning and Dolly), namely what we then called ‘cultural precognition’. I included some thoughts on this in articles on nanotechnology and genomics, but never really published much about it beyond that.

However, Robert summarised our thoughts nicely in a talk he gave in 2011: “When scientists develop a new technology, they tend to think that this is a genuine novelty, rolling out into a society that has never encountered anything like it before. Frequently, of course, they are surprised by the reaction: the technology has indeed been encountered before, in the imaginative worlds of that society as these have been conceived by creative artists. The world of the imagination is, however, the source of the interpretive frames that ordinary members of the society invoke to make sense of the new technology. A framing already exists before the technology comes into the world and shapes its entry and its reception.”

Brains in scifi

I am actually not an avid scifi reader, I have to admit. So, when probing the cultural precognition of brainoids, I have to rely on other sources. I first googled around a bit and found that scientists and science writers refer to Frankenstein (of course), but also to the Island of Dr Moreau, and one science blogger even mentions Futurama. The Futurama (1999-2003, 2010-2013) series featured many talkative heads in jars – mostly celebrities, ranging from Abraham Lincoln via Orson Welles to William Shatner (see here). The same blogger also alludes to “a certain popular 80’s Japanese anime series, or that Michael Bay film series featuring intergalactic mecha-wars”. I have watched Futurama, but I would need some more info about the last two references and their links to organoids! (For some info see here)

I then asked some younger people whether they knew of some scifi stories about organoids and they said basically ‘no’; but one threw in the remark: “If you are writing scifi why stop at an organoid when you could have a whole brain in a jar”?

That also seems to be what scientists interviewed for the brain and scifi article seemed to say, at least one of them: “For us it’s never been an aim to make a full size adult human brain [laughing]. But I know that’s the kind of association people would get, when you say that you’re growing a brain in the lab. […] It’s not a huge leap forward but it can look like that for non-scientists. That’s why they normally react stronger. I mean, I think people imagine that we can build a whole functioning brain that can think and … Which is not at all our… well it’s not at all where we are and it’s not at all where we’re going to because that’s not possible (Laura)”. But, of course, the impossible is familiar stomping ground for scifi.

Brains in jars

One enduring sci-fi image is that of the brain in a vat or jar* or dish or even box. It’s therefore not surprising to find that organs in a jar illustrated the 2016 Economist article with which I started this blog post. One of the pioneers of brain organoid research, Madeline Lancaster, didn’t shy away from entitling a scientific article: “Dishing out mini-brains: Current progress and future prospects in brain organoid research”. Others even talk about diseases in a dish, as organoids can be used to study cancer or Zika. Other scientists distance themselves from this type of discourse and point out that brain organoids “don’t sense, learn, or make memories. They are emphatically not brains in jars. They’re not mini-brains either, in the same way that a leaf is not a mini-plant and a doorknob is not a mini-building.” (For some discussion about these issues see here)

Brains in a vat or jar have a very long history in scifi, especially the horror genre, and they will not easily go away – they are part of our cultural precognition. Here you find a whole long list of scifi stories using that trope; and here is one on TV tropes! Stories about brains in vats began to be written around 1860 it seems and were later popularised by H. P. Lovecraft and others. All this would need further study!

This scifi history is intertwined with stories about babies or people in bottles, which began with Denis Diderot and his 1769 Dream D’Alembert. It intersects too with dreams of artificial intelligence, and artificial or synthetic life, of course. To trawl through all that history would take some time and effort.

To get a quicker grip on current cultural precognition regarding brainoids, I dipped into Google Images, as their algorithm also does a bit of thematic analysis, so to speak, and that turned out to be quite interesting….

For ‘brains in a vat’ I got lots of cartoons and references to philosophical thought experiments as well as to philosophers such as Hilary Putnam (are we just brains in a vat?). For ‘brain in a jar’ I got lots of brains in jars (such as this beautiful one), some of them quite creepy. More importantly, I also found references to ‘scifi’, ‘steampunk’ and ‘cyberpunk’ amongst others. For ‘brain in a dish’, I got lots of science images and references to animals, such as cows, goats, chicken, monkeys, but also to offal and ‘fried’ and ‘French’. And finally, for ‘brain organoids’ I got references to ‘human brain’, ‘mini brain’, ‘lab grown’, ‘stem cell’, ‘neural’, ‘cortical’, ‘mouse brain’ etc. Most of the images represent slices of brain glowing in fluorescent colours.


Surveying these ‘results’, one can say that the brain on a dish and the mini-brain discourses (verbal and visual imagery) seem to mediate between the core science discourse of brain organoids and the core science fiction discourse of brains in a jar. This allows people to navigate the jump from organoids to full brains (from part to whole) and from there to speculations about full sentience and consciousness, as well as brain transplants, mind control and much more.

But what kind of evaluations and expectations are embodied in discourses of brains on a dish, mini-brains and brains in jars – are they framed as a good or bad thing; do they evoke hopes or fears? A website called TV Tropes (which could be mined for further in-depth study) has a page on the brain in a jar trope and rightly points out that in scifi stories, the “[w]onders of Science can keep a human brain alive in a plastic fishbowl with a few wires and doo-dads running into it. Sometimes this is benevolent, but usually it’s nefarious (it may count as a Dark Lord on Life Support, or be the first step towards Unwilling Roboticisation).” There thus seems to be rather dystopian slant to our cultural precognition regarding brainoids – which is not surprising, as most scifi is dystopian.

Scientists and ethicists are aware of ancient tropes like Frankenstein and the Island of Dr Moreau, but they might also want to get acquainted with more modern ones, as their research will not play out in a cultural void. The framing that already exists might have to compete with scientists’ attempts to frame organoids as valuable and beneficial for science and society. Scientists should also be aware of this cultural background when navigating between hope and hype.

*I just learned that “In 1860 we find the very first example of the ‘brain in a jar’ trope, courtesy of ‘Le Prince Bonifacio’ by author Louis Ulbach. In this satire, the eccentric Dr Marforio claims he can remove brains with a spoon and keep them alive in jars to extend life and promote rest.” (see tweet here) And a bit later I learned “Science fiction had the brain in a vat trope long before Putnam. Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik is all about it. It was published in 1969. The Star Trek pilot episode (1966) had a version of it.” (see comment here)

PS 3 September: There is a nice article in The Washington Post….

PS 16 November: headline in Nature: Lab-grown ‘mini brains’ produce electrical patterns that resemble those of premature babies

Image: Pixabay

Posted in LanguageNeuroscienceScience