Welcome to new readers: Why brain science needs anthropology

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAfter a couple of really welcome links at places like Mind Hacks (from Vaughn) and at Dr. X’s Free Associations, as well as references from our friend Prof. Sue Sheridan at Life of Wiley (Home of the Daily Skeleton Action Figure), we at Neuroanthropology find ourselves with a lot more visitors over the past few days. Thanks to all of you who are checking us out for the first time and please consider yourself welcome at any time! As a way of welcoming our new readers, I want to reflect on what anthropology is, in my opinion, and why brain science needs it (a later post will discuss why anthropology needs the brain sciences, especially right now in the field’s development).

I was working on this piece before I saw Daniel’s most recent post, but I think it’s a good idea, especially considering the attention we’re getting from the neurosciences blogosphere.  Ironically, we’re probably getting more attention from brain scientists than from anthropologists.  The reasons for this seem to me to be complex, both a sense in the brain sciences of curiosity for things like ‘neuroanthropology,’ or ways of dealing with developmental, social, cultural, ecological, and evolutionary factors in the emergence of the human brain, but also an avoidance trend in cultural anthropology of dealing with psychology, neurology, and biology.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, fears of ‘reductionism’ in biology in brain sciences and human biology among anthropologists seem to me to be exaggerated, mostly based upon the popularizers of brain sciences (like Pinker, who we’ve taken to task, but others as well) rather than on the more careful and interesting scientists working on the brain (we’ve discussed many examples in previous posts).


But let me get back to why neuroscience needs anthropology, rather than my usual internecine criticisms of anthropologists. A little while back, Daniel posted ‘Wending between Faust and Wimsatt,’ a piece that I found very provocative, although I didn’t respond publicly at the time (I was still working on building stone walls at the gate to our farm). Daniel reflected specifically on Wimsatt’s assertion that ‘reductionist’ explanations need not be seen as dissolving away larger-scale dynamics, and how this resolute recognition that multiple explanatory levels are legitimate generates a ‘multi-perspectival realism anchored in the heterogeneity of “piecewise” complementary approaches.’ If you haven’t read it already, please check out ‘Wending between Faust and Wimsatt,’ and not just because Daniel says some nice stuff about my research in that post. He does a really good job of articulating the need for heterogeneity in analytical scale, something I think that is characteristic of neuroanthropology.

But one of the questions that springs from this is, what is the potential role of anthropology in this heterogeneous project? One way to respond to this question is to consider a recent book that I quite like: Bruce Wexler’s Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (MIT/Bradford, 2006). I finished reading it while building the stone walls, so I have heaps of notes and passages underlined, but I haven’t yet written a coherent response to it. This will not be the place to give that holistic review, but rather to consider one problem with the book that anthropology might help to redress.

The problem is a relatively simple one: when dealing with the relationship between culture and brain, not just any phenomenon makes a good case study or foundation for the argument for a ‘multi-perspectival realism.’ Some problems are actually quite simple, or so complicated that they quickly foul up the case we can make for a holistic neuroanthropological (or neurosociological, or neuropsychological approach — any holistic approach).

In the first half of his book, I think Wexler chooses his examples very well and puts together a compelling case for the relationship between brain and culture. In these chapters, he looks at the ‘transgenerational shaping of human brain function’ in relation to sensory deprivation and enrichment and in small-scale social environment, such as the family and educational social settings. Although I think that the ‘deprivation/enrichment’ scorecard does a lot to erase a whole lot of interesting cultural differences. For example, are boys’ or girls’ rearing environments deprived or enriched in relation to each other? Or my favourite examples, sports: is a child raised with baseball deprived in relation to one raised with soccer or rugby? The point is just that cultural difference, as a cultural anthropologist will argue in his or her sleep, too often gets put onto a deprivation-enrichment scale, with idealized Western bourgeois childhood, with no work, sexuality, privation, etc. as the supremely ‘enriched’ environment, unless we want to talk about childhood obesity. So here, even in the very strong chapters at the beginning of the book (which I recommend strongly), Wexler could use a bit of the anthropologist’s touch. He gets so much right, but he falls into one of the theoretical tiger traps that surround culture, pits that we know all too well as a discipline because we’ve spent so much time trying to climb out of them on different occasions.

(By the way, I will come back for a further consideration of Wexler’s book when I’m not grinding a single axe. It’s too good on its own terms for me to treat it simply as a stepping stone to talk about anthropology. That sort of review would be profoundly unfair, especially because I am so impressed with the breadth of material he has drawn together and his deftness in doing so — so come back to the site in a few days for a longer review.)

The real difficulties arise when Wexler turns to a discussion of ideology, inter-cultural contact, and the difficulty people have in taking up new perspectives, ideas, mores, and the like. In some ways, Wexler is discussing ‘culture shock,’ a topic I have discussed elsewhere and lectured on, especially to students involved in international study programs and service learning. I used to do a course especially for students returning from long-term sojourns in the developing world and worked very hard to convert emotional and personal upheaval, angst, and change into intellectual motivation. But that’s neither here nor there…

Wexler discusses the idea that, ‘perhaps for the first time,’ a ‘single human culture’ may be arising, an idea that makes anthropologists cringe, not least because it would signal our intellectual extinction. Of course, we also have some more substantial rationalizations…. errr, reasons, for our aversion to this idea, including that the folks proposing the ‘single world culture’ typically have no idea just how large-scale and fast-developing are non-Western popular culture spheres. So even if there is an emerging world culture, which I doubt, it’s likely to have a hell of a lot more Bollywood, Korean pop singers, Japanese animation, Mandarin- and Spanish-speakers, and Christian evangelicals, Mormons, and Muslims than their models usually account for. And like Wexler, many of those who discuss the emergence of a global culture also argue that cultural communities ‘like Darwin’s finches, existed largely in isolation from one another for tens of thousands of years, and distinct languages and cultures evolved’ (Wexler 2006:185). He even argues that, ‘three generations ago most inhabitants of the technologically relatively advanced European land mass spent all but a few days of their lives in their own village’ (ibid.:186).

Now any anthropologist will take a deep breath as he or she reads these arguments and think, ‘uh-oh…’ What comes next is a brief reflection on cultural differences among people — diet, dress, habits of gesturing, theatre, attitudes toward authority, gender, community participation, and other values — that lacks any real direction or organizing structure. Which differences are really relevant to the brain? Is mode of dress and gesturing the ‘same’ as attitudes toward authority or themes in theatre in that they are both equally ‘culture’? Does everyone in the same ‘culture’ have the same values, and what if they don’t? These are really difficult questions, and it will take more cultural modeling, social theory, and dynamic systems analysis to be able to fit a model of culture to Wexler’s theory that is as sophisticated as his examples of malleability in brain structure.

I agree profoundly with Wexler as he starts out this main point for the book:

Differences among cultures abound. It is a more difficult matter to determine in what ways and to what degree these differences are important. [Amen, Brother!] One thesis of this book is that the developing human brain shapes itself to its environment, and that the particular form of that environment (i.e., culture) is relatively unimportant [this reader’s jaw drops]… (ibid.:191, emphasis added)

errr… ‘un-important’? But isn’t the whole book a discussion of how the brain is shaped by the environment? Wexler goes on: ‘Indeed, the range of cultural variation despite a common human biological substrate is evidence that the particulars of cultural variation are not biologically important’ (ibid.). Ummm… how do I understand this? Ironically, Wexler goes on to give examples of evidence that suggests our brains are, in fact, profoundly affected by culture; our amygdalas respond differently to the colour of faces in photographs depending on our upbringing, patterns of perceptual distortion are affected by pre-existing beliefs, even ‘the sad case of Captain James Cook,’ a favourite of anthropologists.

Why this dissonance in the book? Well, there are a lot of things I could write, but I think that two really significant points need to be made because they go directly to the contribution that anthropology might make to this project. The first is that anthropologists have long struggled with the issue of ‘the psychic unity of mankind,’ a phrase originally used by Adolf Bastian but popularized in the US by Franz Boas. The postulate of ‘the psychic unity of mankind’ states that humans are fundamentally the same, psychologically, no matter from which ‘race,’ ethnic group, or culture they come. We’ve had to come to grips with how one deals with variation without tumbling into racism, stereotyping, and other dubious, evidence-starved forms of thinking. The answer is not to discuss all kinds of ways in which environment affects neural development and then suddenly, when approaching the issue of cultural differences in the brain, veer to the safe ground of ‘psychic unity.’ No, there is no safe space in this discussion, only patient, careful discussion of the processes involved, the limits of our ability to know, the difficulty of modeling psychological states from sociological data, and the like.

As an earlier discussion of race and IQ suggested, the answer is not to run from the data, but to better understand it, including its assumptions, limits, and real significance. Even large scale patterns of difference may be the effect of very subtle causes, working indirectly or in fragile constellations (that’s code for saying, even clear-cut evidence of difference is not proof that difference is essential).

But the second thing that anthropology can help with is that we’re accustomed to dividing up ‘culture’ into much more manageable objects of study, so we’re less likely to fall into the bad example of a kind of over-arching, everything-at-once über-culture, which assumes that the Japanese do one thing, the Americans another, and that’s part of a grand pattern of opposition between the two. That is, I think we’re better at choosing examples for neuroanthropology to grapple with on the cultural and social scale of things. For example, to even deal with ‘ideology’ as a shaper of the brain, you have to suspend a lot of thorny questions about what ‘ideology’ is, who has it, how much, is it the same thing in all people, what relationship to practice, explicit or implicit… etc. I think we can give folks like Wexler much better cases to look at, ones that won’t make him suddenly veer away from describing the complex relations of culture and brain because they are less sweeping and perilous.

To give just a couple of examples from our work at Neuroanthropology, I think physical education differences between different groups are an incredibly good example to work with for a lot of reasons: not everyone in a culture participates equally and this is obvious, the effects are more clearly measurable than ‘ideology’ and more tangible on things like motor learning, perception, emotional self-management; and its simultaneously more manageable and less controversial (‘how does Islam shape the brain differently than Christianity?’ v. ‘how does training to box affect one differently than training to balance on a beam?’). The point is not to run away from controversy; alleged racial, ethnic, and sexual differences in athletic ability are bread and butter discrimination issues, profoundly important for shaping who we are and our stereotypes.

Or another example is Daniel’s PhD research on patterns of addiction (and non-addiction) in Colombian youths; it turns out to be a really concrete set of questions about patterns of use, rituals of taking, social supports, as well as effects of the drugs on the brain. This kind of close study is diametrically opposed to just comparing the percentage of drug-addicted ‘anglos’ and ‘Latinos’ and then positing some biological difference (in Australia, it would be white Australians and Aborigines). (By the way, Daniel can certainly correct my broad gloss on his research because I’m reaching back to his papers I read a while ago, and I’m sure his thinking has changed.)

In summary, anthropology can help brain science by offering more sophisticated ways to talk about variation and universal traits (including the universal trait that development is affected by one’s cultural environment) and by offering much better, finer, more material and research-able examples than broad ‘civilization’-scale differences between cultures. To the brain scientists, we can help you with research design as there’s some really fascinating naturally-occurring experiments running out there around the world on how one can grow brains differently. You just have to know where to look, and what you’re seeing when you do find the differences.

5 thoughts on “Welcome to new readers: Why brain science needs anthropology

  1. Pingback: David Brooks Bonus « Neuroanthropology

  2. Pingback: Cultural Neuroscience « Neuroanthropology

  3. Culture is refelectio of Brain. It remind me the Pattre of Culture are the Pattren of the Brain. Uderstnad the Culture we will uderstand the Brain. Anthropology is must for uderstanding the Brain its function.

  4. Culture is what man create for its survival and Brain is the diemension which constantly accumulate and pass down to next progeny and it became the “Culture” as learned entity! Toady Anthropology is very much relevant in understanding why people do? What they do? Recent episodes of Mumbai attack can be analysied if we inderstand the human mind and its cultutre of terriroism. Medical Anthropology can further reveal intricate pictures of their action in the mind or brain we have common brain but diffrent mind of action?

  5. Norman Doidge, M.D., in his best selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007) makes the case that brain and culture is like the two way traffic. Brian and genetics produce culture and culture changes the brain. The brain is a physical organ like heart is also a physical organ, but neural wiring and rewiring inside of our brains is the work of culture: language,music,dance,religious beliefs, rites, rituals, sexual taboos and ideas, marriage traditions, reading, writing, arithmetic, and the whole lot.

    It has been proven that the generation of people that master reading, writing and arithmetic would be smarter and intelligent but not necessarily wiser from the generation of people that is illiterate. In the case of cultures that are literate, the later generations of people have something to build on the accumulated knowledge that has been documented and prserved for the posterity. What kind of research an illiterarte person could undertake to discover new findings if he/she has to depend on oral tradition?

    Just because the modern brain is adapted to living in scientifically advanced cultures does not mean it is functioning in a sober, calm, and wise manner. Just think of tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. The tsunami killed thousands of people. However, a group of tribal people that live on Andaman and Nicobar islands depended on the stories, legends and myths passed on from one generation to another. They saw dolphins swimming for deeper water; observed elephants stampeding, and they heard cicadas fall silent. The tribal people remembered the ancient story about “The wave That Eats People.” As they watched the signs and remembered the ancient story, men along with their wives, children, chicken and dogs moved to the higher ground, and they survived. In fact they carried a pregnant woman from their community to a higher ground. When they came down a week later after the water had receded, the woman had delivered the baby, adding another member to their community.

    What we have to remember is the fact that when a generation of people passes the culture to another generation, literally, in one sense, both brain and culture are transferred as one package. The generation that receives this package revises it; produces new ideas, new technology, and so on. This is an ongoing cultural process.

    Our brains in the twenty-first century, in the words of Michael Merznich, a leading neuroscientitsit, ” are vastly different in fine detail from the brains of our ancestors.” Carl Zimmer, an expert in the field describes this era of ours as a kind of “Second Copernican Revolution, one inside the body.” Richard Restack, M.D., author of 18 books on the subject of brain, including, The Nacked Brain (2006), says that we are already living in what he calls the “neurosociety.” In the words of Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, we are entering into the era of “Singularity” when non biological machines invented by human brains and human ingenuity are going to outsmart human intelligence billions of time.

    Something to think about.

    Charles Mark

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