Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

The Encultured Brain – Part Two on the San Francisco AAA Conference

Posted by dlende on December 7, 2008

The question of What is neuroanthropology? arose for me in thinking about the Encultured Brain session. This query harkens back to Naomi Quinn’s comment that we lack a common language. I think a common language will come; at this point I am more focused on agreement about the endeavor itself. So what is it?

Is neuroanthropology the consideration of neurobiological mechanisms, within a biocultural framework, as Ryan Brown approaches his work?

Is it the critical take on neuroscience, a frequent theme on this blog? Or going further, and building frameworks through evolution or culture to provide critical input to the human sciences?

Is it somewhere more in the middle, the synthesis of neuroscience and anthropology while examining problems like balance and autism, as reflected in the work of Greg Downey and Rachel Brezis?

Is it the focus on questions like theory of mind, intersubjectivity and dissociation, psychological phenomenon that can be illuminated through the combination of neuroscience and anthropology?

Is it work like Peter Stromberg and Cameron Hay’s that focus on experiential and behavioral phenomena through interdisciplinary ethnography?

In all likelihood, it is all five of these things, with a core focus on the middle synthesis. Certainly directly and indirectly measuring neurological and physiological phenomena must be a part of any robust neuroanthropology. But the pull on this work is so strong towards psychobiology, towards a more reductive and causal approach through mechanism, that it does not strike me as providing the necessary synthesis.

The recent counter to this neural mechanisms approach has been biocultural anthropology. The biocultural approach examines systemic aspects of culture and inequality in conjunction with a populational sense of biology. Its consideration of the individual is abstract, an epidemiological individual or an individual in the sense of evolutionary biology, computational rather than embodied. Neuroanthropology, by taking on the “black box” of the person and by using ethnography as a core method, makes actual individuals more central to its project.

The critical take on neuroscience has attacked both the mechanistic biology and the depersonalized individual, while also examining how the brain has become a central metaphor and even ideology in how we understand, manage and damage ourselves. Like mechanistic biology and the biology-culture systemic view, this approach draws on past decades, in this case work that comes out of post-modernism and textual readings of culture. Each of these represents a “levels” approach, rather than a synthetic approach. This abstract view is rather good at capturing large-scale phenomena, but has two failings.

First, it misses the complexity and the importance of the everyday life of people in contexts. This is my frequent refrain to focus on experience and behavior, rather than on biology and culture.

Second, the levels view cannot understand its own systemic attributes. Put differently, by focusing on specific levels or on populational dynamics, it cannot understand how you get from everyday life to emergent phenomena. This would not be a problem if, as Durkheim long ago posited, social facts are different from biological or psychological facts.

But as Greg has argued repeatedly, understanding how culture emerges from neuroanthropology will bring theoretical insights that present culture theory (say, Bourdieu) misses by remaining in Durkheim mode. I believe the same process will happen with evolutionary theory as well (Agustin’s niche construction, embodied cultural evolution, and a AAA paper I gave last year on evolutionary choice). But that still leaves the middle out, the world of balance and autism, of theories of mind and dissociation, of engagement in consumption and the links between memory and healing.

So here is what I see the panel doing best: (1) building new neuroanthropological approaches to phenomena often left untouched even in interdisciplinary research; (2) providing neuroanthropological takes on problems previously considered in both anthropology and neuroscience; and (3) bringing a grounded focus to areas more frequently addressed in the humanities and arts.

Here are some specific on-site examples: For the new neuroanthropological approaches, we have balance. For the synthetic takes, we have PTSD. And for the grounded focus, we have, well, camping perhaps.

Let me explain more what I mean by the third option. Rather than producing yet more analyses within standard or even interdisciplinary academic frameworks, we can study what life shows us. Literature and film and theater dwell on concrete details and interactions, and show narratives in action rather than simply analyzing them.

Academics generally fall on the wrong side of the famous novelists’ dictum, Show, don’t tell. Unlike the arts, academics too rarely try to show life. Maybe it’s time for some lights, camera, action.

2 Responses to “The Encultured Brain – Part Two on the San Francisco AAA Conference”

  1. Wow, this post has blown me away. I’m all for lights, camera, action in anthropology. What strikes me is how the berth of anthropology is becoming wider and wider which I think is a good thing.

    I first become interested in anthropology after watching Micheal Wesch “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube”. Since then I’ve been following anthropological blogs like yours and I’m very happy with what I’m reading. I think humanity will be better off when we have a better understanding of two things: 1) how or mind works, and 2) how relationships work. I think the Encultured Brain takes us one step closer to that reality.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it’s a pleasure to read your blog.

    Steven

  2. [...] are, it seems, two kinds of brains. The brain that’s cultured and the brain that’s innate. Which one of the two will be used to ground a newly given fact [...]

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