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Archive for July, 2008

Wednesday Round Up #22

Posted by dlende on July 30, 2008


Open Anthropology, Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, among Top 10 of World’s Public Intellectuals
A true public intellectual, as considered by the journal Foreign Policy

John Hawks, How to Blog, Get Tenure, and Prosper: Starting the Blog
A leader in anthropology blogging brings us his advice in the start of his series on blogging as a university professor

Open Anthropology, Doing Calypso the Right Way in the USA
Nice consideration of cross-cultural influences, complete with You Tube videos

LL Wynn, Cuisines of the Axis of Evil
A culturally informed and funny discussion of the same-titled book.

Mind Hacks, The Implicit Association Test: the basics and on suicide
Any use for this approach to examine culture beyond the cultural consensus/sharing model?

Ed Yong, Language Evolution Witnessed in Lab Experiments
Tracking people’s progress in artificial languages, and the structuring of language


David Brooks, The Biggest Issue
Technology and education race each other in the US’ economy—education progress has slowed, and technology has not. Decline and inequality appear as the result.

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Habits to Help

Posted by dlende on July 29, 2008

Val Curtis

Val Curtis

Warning: Habits May Be Good For You highlights the anthropologist Val Curtis’ work to synthesize anthropology, public health, and consumer behavior. She has a simple problem, how to teach children in sub-Saharan Africa to habitually wash their hands, thus lowering significantly the risk of many diseases. As Charles Duhigg writes, Curtis turned to consumer-goods companies for insight into her work.

She knew that over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.

“There are fundamental public health problems, like hand washing with soap, that remain killers only because we can’t figure out how to change people’s habits,” Dr. Curtis said. “We wanted to learn from private industry how to create new behaviors that happen automatically.”

The companies that Dr. Curtis turned to — Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever — had invested hundreds of millions of dollars finding the subtle cues in consumers’ lives that corporations could use to introduce new routines.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that many of the products we use every day — chewing gums, skin moisturizers, disinfecting wipes, air fresheners, water purifiers, health snacks, antiperspirants, colognes, teeth whiteners, fabric softeners, vitamins — are results of manufactured habits. A century ago, few people regularly brushed their teeth multiple times a day. Today, because of canny advertising and public health campaigns, many Americans habitually give their pearly whites a cavity-preventing scrub twice a day, often with Colgate, Crest or one of the other brands advertising that no morning is complete without a minty-fresh mouth…

“Our products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble, the company that sold $76 billion of Tide, Crest and other products last year. “Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.”


Habitual behavior is one topic that concerns brain science, psychology, economics and anthropology, each with disciplinary specific ways of trying to explain these everyday patterns. However, most of those explanations have two flaws: some variety of rationality as the way to understand habits, and some causal force (e.g., genetics, reward, subjective utility, culture) as forming the pattern. But things are not quite so simple, as “Habits May Be Good For You” shows:

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Posted in Applied Anthropology, Decision Making, Education, Medical anthropology, Psychological anthropology, Skill acquisition | 1 Comment »

Philosophy’s Other

Posted by dlende on July 28, 2008

Philosophy’s Other is a blog that provides abstracts, excerpts and other materials from a wide range of material online. Always something interesting every weekday.

Just today they link to “Darwin to the Rescue,” on the emerging trend to use evolutionary theory in literary criticism.

On Friday they had “Against Theoretical Archaeology,” debating the role of science in archaeology.

They also gave us “Negotiating Diversity” on how reason can still play a role in a multi-cultural society.

And more like that almost every day.

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The Three Aspects of Critical Neuroscience

Posted by dlende on July 28, 2008

During the Critical Neurosciences Workshop in Montreal, one of the main questions we addressed was, What exactly do we mean by critical neuroscience? What is this field going to be?

Various analyses were presented: Is it the five varieties of the cultural brain? How neuroscientists and psychiatrists play to the popular press and get played by Big Pharma? Pointing out how the media can get neuroscience so wrong while reinforcing stereotypes? A round-up of the growing pains and inevitable limitations of science, and its emerging connections to the business world?

But in taking a larger look at the conference, I see a set of admirable characteristics in the young scholars there. Interdisciplinary. Not ready to accept the status quo of either just-do-lab-research or criticism-deconstruction-interpretation. Ready to take risks to work towards something that offers more possibilities than doing “good science” accompanied by the inevitable stereotypes and business applications.

And these scholars are working in three broad areas, which if developed together, will strengthen and enrich each other.

The first area is the obvious one, the emphasis on critical. Drawing on the Frankfurt school and its analysis of science as a core part of modernization and on Foucault and how ideologies and power shape the practice of science, a major theme of the overall conference was to examine how political economy and societal ideals shapes both neuroscience and its impact on society. Neuroscience can reinforce stereotypes, offer tools to companies who seek only profit, and rarely question its own assumptions as it proudly proclaims some aspect of human nature confirmed by its science.

It is not a lily white science, protected from the world by the boundaries of lab, producing knowledge unsullied by outside interests. The images of brain, the proclamations of hard-wired differences, its use in law and in advertising—these are things that fall squarely in the public domain.

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Carnivals at Pharyngula

Posted by dlende on July 28, 2008

PZ has hosted two great carnivals over the past days. First he filled in for The Tangled Bank, compiling a collection of evolution-related posts. And up last night is the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards, celebrating – obviously – elitist bastardry among people who believe in ideas, science, and the like.


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Fun and Humor Category

Posted by dlende on July 27, 2008

I’ve created a new category “Fun” which gathers together our humorous, amusing, and otherwise entertaining posts. Below I’ve listed the collection at present, starting with one of our most popular posts overall.

Psychopharma-parenting    Stephen Colbert brings us his Word, and the latest on modern parenting techniques

“Ooh Girl” – An Honest R&B Song    This one gets it right about love and sex

The Allegory of the Trolley Problem Paradox    Laughing all the way to the moral dilemma

Evolutionary Psychology Bingo    Ah, the options. Capable of solving any problem

Spore and the Obvious    Sporn hits the Internet

Grand Central Freeze    A massive improv in the NYC train terminal plays with people’s minds

Sing along with the Brain    Pinkie and the Brain bring you the brain’s anatomy in just over a minute

Free Running and Extreme Balance    Parkour and free running videos taken to amazing heights. And drops.

Dickie Dawkins, He’s Smarter Than You Are    The latest rap from the great evolutionary master

Paintball Sentry Gun    Experience the brilliance of engineering geekdom

Ants Eat Gecko    Watch it just like it reads

New Yorker Cartoons     Iconic classics brought to life in short videos

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Neurocriticism Round Up

Posted by dlende on July 25, 2008

Greg and I have featured plenty of neurocriticism recently. Neurotosh, Neurodosh, and Neuordash, Psychiatry Affects Human Psychology, and Pop Goes the Media are three recent pieces. But I have also been gathering critical pieces from other places, so here they are.

The place to start is with two entries discussing the Critical Neurosciences conference I recently attended, both written by attendees.

Stephan Schleim at Brainlogs, A Critique of Neuroscience
Stephan provides us the overview: the introduction by the organizers, Cornelius Borck’s history of neuroscience’s ever-receding explanatory horizon, Laurence Kirmayer on neuroimaging and the DSM, and Ian Gold on what counts as good reductionism.

Eugene Raikhel at Somatosphere, Critical Neuroscience and Anthropological Engagement
Eugene gives us his general take: critical approaches to the culture of neuroscience and to how culture gets “encoded in the brain”. Then he considers why this critical neuroscience movement is happening in this historical now.

And now for your typical round-up from me. I’ve focused more on the neuroscience side, less on the social science side.

On Industry

Furious Seasons, The Zyprexa Chronicles: Zyprexa Judge Slams FDA, Eli Lilly
“the FDA has arguably failed consumers and physicians by over relying on pharmaceutical companies to provide supporting research for new drug applications; by allowing them, through lax enforcement, to conduct off-label marketing; by acquiescing… [and on and on]”

The Neurocritic, Coming to a Marketer Near You: Brain Scamming
Neuromarketer’s dreams and the neuroscience fallout

Natasha Mitchell, Studying the Species—Beyond the Neurobabble
Tempering the hype to find the good stuff

David Duncan, The Ultimate Cure
CondeNast takes on the neurotech industry for mixed results (it’s CondeNast, after all…)

Ape, Neuromarketing + Ads = Duh, Again
Neuromarketing BS rather than actual confidence and creativity

Mirror Neurons Hype

Social Mode, Mirror Neurons: A Fictionalized Interview
A funny take on Marco Iacoboni and the hype of mirror neurons

Neuroscientifically Challenged, Mirror Neurons May Be Responsible for Global Warming and US Economic Woes
The fanfare about mirror neurons is overblown—the challenge is to put it out

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Psychiatry affects human psychology: e.g., ‘bipolar’ children

Posted by gregdowney on July 24, 2008

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Although I really enjoy psychology, like many anthropologists, I feel a deep ambivalence about some contemporary psychological theory and research.

Some of these problems are trivial and tendentious, to be honest, more the effects of pushing our own disciplinary preferences in the way research is presented or semiotic hair-splitting in theoretical terms than substantive concerns. But there are some more profound issues, touched on in recent posts like Daniel’s Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash and my post, Bench and couch: genetics and psychiatry. Ironically, I was reminded of one of the more serious issues while reading a piece a few weeks ago by psychologist and psychologist-sceptic Bruce Levine on Alternet, The Science of Happiness: Is It All Bullshit?

In a meandering way, this post is a reflection on one of anthropology’s consistent criticisms of psychology; the often unacknowledged role of psychiatry in shaping psyches. That is, the difficulty of studying a phenomenon when one is helping to create it and one’s theories influence your subjects’ accounts. When psychology is successful in breaking through into popular awareness, it becomes entangled with its subject, a kind of folk theory operating in the same space that psychologists seek to study. So this post is a kind of neuroanthropological reflection on clinical psychology as both research enterprise and world-making project, and the way the two come into conflict.

Specifically, Daniel’s post on Neurotosh and Levine’s story of John Stewart confronting Harvard happiness researcher, Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, reminded me of the recent scandal surrounding psychiatrist Prof. Joseph Biederman. Biederman took large unreported consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies who manufactured anti-psychotic medicines while he was simultaneously encouraging psychiatrists to diagnose children with bipolar disorder, and then to prescribe their young patients anti-psychotic medicines. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) held hearings on the financial conflicts of interest as reported in The New York Times in Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay, by Gardiner Harris and Benedict Carey. (For an earlier critical article, see the Boston Globe piece, Backlash on bipolar diagnoses in children.)

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Posted in general, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Neural plasticity, Psychological anthropology | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash

Posted by dlende on July 24, 2008

Neurotosh. The best word from the entire Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference! There was Cordelia Fine, capturing perfectly her frustration at the manipulation of data and science in the service of stereotypes. Just pure neuro-nonsense.

The neurotosh in question was Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, an excellent representative of the neurosexism sold in recent popular books. It is popular, a bestseller translated into many languages, and it is simply bad science. In Nature Rebecca Young and Evan Balaban describe the book as “dressing the [gender] myth up in new clothes” and selling a “melodrama,” noting that “The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance.”

Cordelia Fine took us step-by-step through several passages, examining the supposed citations and supporting evidence. Gender differences were confirmed by (a) studies with only women, (b) studies on a different topic entirely, and (c) personal communication. Ouch.

Plenty of other people have gotten on the bash-Brizendine-bandwagon, helping to undermine the moral authority that Dr. Brizendine wields through her academic credentials and “scientific” claims. Language Log has several critical analyses of the gender difference claims about language (see here, here and here). Mother Jones takes Brizendine to task on her approach to medicine. The most popular Amazon reviews of the book lead with titles calling The Female Brain disappointing” and “nonsensical.” Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks gets in on the pile-on-party as well.

Still Simon Cohn, a British anthropologist at the meeting, was rather nonplussed at Cordelia’s agonizing over the data and methods and claims made by Brizendine. As Simon said to me, “It’s called ‘The Female Brain.’ Doesn’t that tell you everything right from the start?” His point was that knowledge gets turned in the service of ideology and profit and power all the time.

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Posted in general, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Politics | 16 Comments »

The Immanent Frame on the Cognitive Revolution

Posted by dlende on July 24, 2008

The Social Science and Research Council hosts a group blog called The Immanent Frame. There they have been hosting an excellent series called A Cognitive Revolution?

The two most recent posts have been Which Cognitive Revolution?, a reflection that builds off David Brooks’ neural Buddhism essay to examine the rise in cognitive research on religion, and The Aesthetics of Neural Buddhism on the aesthetic impulse (even impossible dream) behind the desire for these sorts of “theories of everything.”

Earlier posts include Medical Materialism Revisited, A Religious History of American Neuroscience, and Cognitive Machinery and Explanatory Ambitions. Plus a few more.

SSRC has also started a series of podcasts entitled Societas. They are up to four now, mostly on politics, including Breaking Out of the Iron Cage on Barack Obama, Max Weber and charisma and All Politics Are Identity Politics? on the relationships between politics, possible identities and the search for and imposition of social categories.

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