, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 67–93 | Cite as

Social Brains: On Two Neuroscientific Conceptions of Human Sociality

  • Laurence Anne TessierEmail author
Original Article


Based on an ethnographic comparison between a US clinic and a French clinic, both specialized in the diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases, this article describes two different understandings of the pathology of the social brain. From the diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), I describe the variabilities in local knowledge and practices, and I analyze the relationships they have to different historicities and to an assemblage of judgements and values connected to ideas about the social being. I first describe how the neurologists in the American clinic highlight the loss of emotion, care, and empathy in FTD symptomatology, whereas in the French clinic, it is the loss of motivation, will and élan vital which particularly catches their attention. I further inquire into how these two 'clinical styles' are historically connected to specific modes of description of the frontal lobe pathology, which outline and presuppose particular figures of the social and of the individual: one, in the American context, that indexes a valorization of social mimetism, whereas the other, in the French context, is guided by a desire for freedom and resistance.


Frontotemporal dementia diagnosis Comparative ethnography Neurosciences The individual Social mimetism Empathy 



My deepest thanks to the patients and to the medical team at the Memory Clinic without whom this work could not have come into being. I am indebted to the Wenner Gren foundation for anthropological research and to the Fondation Plan Alzheimer for supporting this inquiry. I am also grateful to Anthony Stavrianakis, Bharat Venkat, and three anonymous reviewers at BioSocieties, for their criticisms and suggestions.

Ethical Approval

This study is subjected to ethical review.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre d’étude des mouvements sociauxEHESSParisFrance

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