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Cognitive Neuroscience and the Experimental Theater of Other Minds

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Science and technology studies (STS) have long demonstrated how laboratory experiments are shaped by their political, social, and interactional conditions. Only recently, however, has a collaborative turn advocated for bringing STS perspectives to directly bear upon scientific practice. I take up these literatures from the perspective of experimental theater, an approach rooted in the historical co-articulation of theater conventions and experimental science. “Going experimental” entails reflexive engagement with laboratory encounters as both staged and lived. Drawing on theater and centering ethnomethods, I embed myself in sites of cognitive neuroscientific practice, working with researchers and research subjects to collaboratively reconsider how experiments are conceptualized, enacted, and interpreted. More broadly, I argue that engagement with the interpretive practices of both scientists and subjects in the doing of experiments allows for STS to productively reconfigure science’s “replication crisis” as a crisis of interpretation, a move that aims to recognizes broader challenges to science’s epistemic supremacy from marginalized communities.

I focus primarily on a collaboration with a cognitive neuroscience lab that was interested in designing a novel way to investigate autism and creativity. Our collaboration began with close readings of previous creativity studies. Thinking of these previous studies not as simple tests of a hypothesis but as complex unfolding events shifted our shared attention from experimental data to the ways that data was produced. Taking up lived perspectives of experimental subjects challenged how these previous studies interpreted their data, and contested the claims of autistic deficits that rested upon such interpretations. Incorporating such critiques in the design of a novel experiment was an opportunity to collaboratively grapple with staging an experiment outside of a deficit framework that configures autistic minds as lacking. In response to previous research that used animated geometrical figures based on Heider-Simmel animations (1944) to demonstrate a mentalizing deficit in autistic children, we designed and conducted an experiment that asked autistic and typically developing children to create their own animated films. This experiment serves as an empirical case to consider the challenges and promises of critical collaboration in expanding interpretive possibilities in the cognitive neuroscience lab.

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This item is under embargo until June 18, 2023.