Over the past several decades, the field of cognitive neuroscience has drawn with increasing frequency on the figure of the “neural orchestra,” a metaphor mapping the activities of localized cortical areas onto sections of a musical ensemble. Popularized by (among others) the neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, the trope is often hailed by contemporary scientists as a new invention—a modern alternative to computational paradigms of cognition. And yet, as I argue here, the concept of the brain orchestra is far from new. Neural-orchestral cartographies originated in the phrenological theory of Franz Joseph Gall in the 1810s, then threaded through medical, ethnographic, anthropological, and pedagogical writing of the later nineteenth century, from the phreno-magnetic tracts of Mariano Cubí y Soler to the psychiatric diagnoses of Théodule-Armand Ribot. Fusing metaphysical concepts of harmony with theories of hierarchical cerebral organology, symphonic minds were products of an epistemological overlap between neural and musical discourses. Crucial to both domains was the newly powerful figure of the podium conductor, conceived as an overarching form of attentional control yoking players into powerful cognitive, musical, and political wholes. The result was a musical neurophysiology refracted through the lenses of imperial technocracy and authoritarian forms of centralization. Today, the historical and neuropolitical forces that generated the Romantic mind orchestra have been largely forgotten, but they continue to exert a spectral influence, hovering behind our conception of the “well-conducted mind,” our descriptions of “orchestrated” attention, and our psychopolitical fear of distraction.

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