Camping on the Brain
Posted by dlende on August 9, 2008
We all slept in one tent. We shared our meals, went to the beach together, and followed each other on hiking trails. Conversation, laughter, flare ups, it was all non-stop between us. No one off at work or at school. All the time, us.
The noises of the night surrounded us through the fabric walls of the tent, the wind amid the leaves, the lap of waves, a nightly fight between two raccoons, the birds in the morning. Smoke from our campfire filled our nostrils and stung our eyes, the warm and slightly acrid smell of burnt wood clinging to our clothes and our hair. The sun poured down on us, turning my boys nut brown and myself a reddish brown. No walls to shut nature away; my first night back I woke up feeling odd, realizing that it was too quiet, too enclosed, too soft.
I walked from the moment I woke to the moment I went to bed. Every morning I took our dogs through the campsite. We had to move to get to the bathroom or to go for fresh water. The beach was down a long boardwalk, the fallen firewood in the nearby woods. But walking was only the background. I ran down 400 foot sand bluffs with my boys and then made the agonizing climb back up in the shifting sand, pay back for the exhilarating speed down. I swam in crisp and clear waters, rollicking around near shore or diving to investigate shells and fish skeletons in deeper water. No sitting at the computer, not too much driving, no need to set aside special time to “exercise.” It was all the time there, part of what I was doing.
What does this have to do with neuroanthropology? First let me say that a US camping site is as culturally constructed as any place else—the ability to drive in and park next to a site, the prototypical picnic table and firepit, the placement in scenes of natural beauty. It is not a natural environment.
Indeed, I have felt a similar sense of stimulation and involvement in big cities, for example, Bogotá, where walking was the norm, intense social interaction marked everyday life, and the sights and sounds and smells and even the language all were potent and different.
Rather, I came back from Michigan thinking about neuro-anthropology as too split. Even if we know better most of the times, we fall back on the brain as center—the thing that does the processing, the thing involved in senses and experiences and doing. It is too analytical a view. Camping, it was senses and experiencing and doing that mattered. These were the things that integrated the brain and the local environment, not the brain itself nor the constructive power of culture.
After more than a decade focused on modules and functional specialization (on “nature”), the pendulum seems to be swinging now towards plasticity, where the brain can do and be anything. Nurture is coming back into view.
Yet both plasticity and specialization are hallmarks of the brain. It is finding a middle space between those two that is the difficult task. It is not easy, since there is not much to latch onto. Hence, modules and plasticity become causal explanations and ideological arguments—in other words, a brain-centered view that missed completely what my camping trip was about.
Senses and environment, activity and the body, the role of relationships and social interactions—these are the things that jump out at me. If I were to think about Bogotá, I would add in language and meaning. Given that I came back with a bad infection from my camping trip, the role of disease and immunology and illness have struck me since my return. With Bogotá and camping, food—what a person eats and when and how and the impacts those can have—is another integrative area. After a week away, I was struck by the image and manipulation built into the television imagery when I turned on to watch a favorite show; very different from a fire, which was our nightly entertainment that we watched almost as avidly.
So, there are seven things—senses, activity, relationships, language, disease, food, and technology—that have struck me since my return. Seven things without once mentioning the brain or culture. Seven things that compromised much of my everyday life, whether in Michigan, here in South Bend, or down in Bogotá.
What is clear to me is that these seven things match imperfectly with brain theory and cultural theory. Certain the neurosciences and anthropology have examined these areas, but their explanations often come back to a brain-centered or a culture-centered view.
That underlying view is generally about explaining difference or commonality, not both. Functional specialization and modules implied a common brain, a common human nature; now with plasticity, difference is coming to the fore. Anthropology had its roots in explaining difference, culture as a surrogate for an entirely different way of life as Europeans and their cultural influences spread over the globe. Now power, structure, inequality and globalization are marked by commonality.
Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel came to mind as I assembled my list of seven areas. After all, he is focused on local ecology, the rise of technology, the impact of disease. Anthropologists don’t much like Diamond’s work, because of its sweeping generalizations, its lack of cultural and historical particularity, its claims of scientific objectivity.
As the historian Gene Callahan writes, “While Guns, Germs and Steel offers many interesting and plausible suggestions as to how geography may have influenced human history, his apparent ignorance of the discipline of history leads him to propose replacing true historical inquiry with a ‘scientific’ hunt for the ‘ultimate causes’ of historical events… Diamond’s central conception is that the course of history, broadly speaking, is not determined by individual actions, cultural factors, or racial differences, but by the environmental circumstances into which different groups of people accidentally wandered.”
Indeed, that is Diamond’s style of explanation. But I am struck now by his focus on patterns around the world—patterns in disease and animal geography and technological development. In other words, patterns in our interactions with the world, the same thing that struck me as so different about my camping trip.
Biological anthropologists have much to say about relationships, local ecology, disease, and nutrition and development. From there, they often want to jump to explaining “culture” in the same way that Diamond jumps to an ultimate cause for history. Cultural anthropology can easily defend its domain—language and symbolism and the role of power and inequality are so blindingly obvious. On neither side is the explanatory view challenged: commonality and difference, nature and nurture, retain their underlying place.
In the end, I am not quite sure what I want to say. Originally I had thought the one point of this piece would be to say that specialization is as much cultural as anything else, whether it’s how we think about the brain to how we live our lives. Put differently, as globalization and technology and policy increasingly specialize, we are more apt to break our own explanatory views down into specific components. In such a social environment, the “brain” functions marvelously well as a metaphorical device, whether in the public domain or in academic debates. My camping trip stood against that sort of assumption—the brain is not the center. Rather it was what I experienced, did and related over that time.
But in thinkingmore broadly about what domains comprised the patterns of difference and similarity, I came up with my list of seven—senses and environment, activity, relationships, language, disease, food, and technology. Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel brought in some of those elements above (e.g. immunological and technological), but then did not extend those into a useful historical or cultural theory. They became causes, rather than interactions; they remained ecological, rather than also being human.
Neuroanthropology, to the degree that it embraces the explanatory power of the brain or of culture, will likely suffer a similar fate to Diamond’s book. Catchy at first, a good read—well, we hope so!—but not ultimately human.
The patterns compromised by the seven areas generally lie outside mainstream neuroscience and anthropology. But after my camping trip, they seem to be the areas of interaction that compromise much of my everyday life.
In Bogotá or Nigeria or Belgium, the patterns of similarity and difference in each area marked a good deal of what I lived there. Patterns of similarity and difference that were elaborated in historical and cultural and individual and ecological ways; elaborations that matter, elaborations that cannot be reduced to an underlying cause of language similarity or disease difference.
Common types of interaction, patterns of difference and similarity, historical and individual elaborations. I didn’t mention culture or the brain once…