NESSHI - The 'Neuro-turn' in European Social Sciences and Humanities: Impacts of neurosciences on economics, marketing and philosophy


Social sciences and the humanities (SSH) are transformed by the rapid multiplication of new neuro-fields: neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neurophilosophy. This neuroscientific turn in SSH has generated hope, hype and even a degree of fear among scientists and in the wider society. Yet, it is not yet known how this transformation actually will shape the future of the social sciences and humanities. This ORA project is the first sociological investigation of this "neuro-turn" in SSH, and its subsequent impact on society.

Decision neurosciences, concerned with the elucidation of how humans make their choices, are changing the practices of SSH. Since a decade, researchers in marketing have performed experiments in partnership with neuroimaging teams from the hospitals affiliated to their business schools, while classic debates in the philosophy of mind are now discussed with references to the latest neurophysiological results published in Nature or Science. Recently, economists have started considering the possibility to implement neuroeconomic policies. In each of these disciplines, the practices of the researchers have evolved markedly. New technologies, new standards of proof, new legitimate sources of scientific literature have emerged, adding up to or displacing traditional practices. Inevitably, this transformation has had an impact on the role of SSH in society, through the creation of new industries, policies, regulations, and cultural representations.

The common element in all applications of neuroscience in the social sciences and humanities is the, often implicit, redefinition of what "autonomy" means at the individual, institutional, and societal level. This will have deep impacts on the social and legal fabric of society, and these effects may already become clear in the next decade. A thorough understanding of these transformations is therefore quite urgent.

Our sociological investigation will cover the three essential angles of this transformation:
Component a) Overview.
What is the scope of the "neuro-turn" in SSH? Using techniques from scientometrics, we will provide the first map of the interrelations between decision neuroscience and SSH, as represented by the evolving patterns of citation and co-authorship at the fluctuating border between these two broad fields.

Component b) Empirical investigation of the new practices of "neuro-SSH".
Neuromarketing, neuroeconomics and neurophilosophy will be studied with field work (ethnographies and programs of in-depth interviews, in the line of laboratory studies) to achieve the first close-up sociological study of how academics in SSH modify their practices in contact with decision neurosciences.

Component c) Social impact.
For each of the three disciplines in "neuro-SSH" studied in component b), this project will analyse their modified imprint on society, according to the methodological framework which considers that SSH have a performative action on their subject-matter.

To realize this ambitious program, we have assembled a team of researchers experienced both in the social studies of science and in neuromarketing, neuroeconomics and neurophilosophy. The results of the project will be valuable to the researchers of the fields under study, to the neuroscientists who disseminate their results in SSH, and to the public anxious about the practical impact of decision neurosciences on their daily lives.


Scientific article

  • C Levallois, J Clithero, A Smidts, P Wouters, S Huettel(2012): Translating upwards Nature Reviews Neuroscience pp. 789 - 797
  • C Levallois(2012): Review of Paul Glimcher?s Foundations of Neuroeconomics (OUP, 2010) Journal of Economic Methodology pp. 81 - 84
  • C Levallois, A Smidts, P Wouters(2015): The neuro-turn in science and society: investigating the birth of neuromarketing through traditional and new media (2002-2008) Biosocieties pp. xxx - xxx

Publications for the general public


Project number


Main applicant

Prof. dr. P.F. Wouters

Affiliated with

Universiteit Leiden

Team members

Dr. C. Levallois


01/06/2011 to 23/04/2015