Theses Doctoral

Brain Waves, A Cultural History: Oscillations of Neuroscience, Technology, Telepathy, and Transcendence

Shure, Caitlin

This project proceeds from a narrow question: What, if anything, is a brain wave? Beguiling in its simplicity, this question prompts a cultural-historical investigation that spans over 150 years of science, technology, and society. Proposed in 1869, the original theory of brain waves cites etheric undulations to explain reports of apparent thought transference. Though most modern thinkers no longer believe in outright telepathy, I argue that dreams of thought transmission and other mental miracles subtly persist—not in obscure and occult circles, but at the forefront of technoscience.
A hybrid of science and fiction, brain waves represent an ideal subject through which to explore the ways in which technical language shrouds spiritual dreams. Today, the phrase “brain waves” often function as shorthand for electrical changes in the brain, particularly in the context of technologies that purport to “read” some aspect of mental function, or to transmit neural data to a digital device. While such technologies appear uniquely modern, the history of brain waves reveals that they are merely the millennial incarnation of a much older hope—a hope for transmission and transcendence via the brain’s emanations.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Gitlin, Todd
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 23, 2018