Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

Complete this quote: “There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…”

Posted by Paul Mason on February 14, 2010

Complete this quote:

“There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…”

The above quote comes from Anina Rich and Jason Mattingley’s chapter in Synesthesia: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Both Anina and Jason have an indirect link to the field of neuroanthropology. Jason provided guidance and advice on neuroscience related matters to Juan Dominguez during the early stages of Juan‘s PhD research at the University of Melbourne. Anina, then Jason’s student, gave me helpful feedback during my honours year (2004) when I had difficulty analysing the data from one of my research participants who was a synaesthete. Anina’s kind assistance gave me confidence about my analysis of some fascinating data from a synaesthete who, unlike the other participants, was unable to discriminate novel chromatic stimuli presented for short periods of time (125ms), but able to discriminate between novel chromatic stimuli at longer periods of exposure (500ms).

Synaesthesia is a phenomenon of cross-modal sensory mixing where stimulation in one modality gives rise to anomalous sensations in another. It can take many forms and is expressed highly idiosyncratically between synaesthetes.

“Synaesthesia appears to be a fundamental cultural and linguistic entity, whose expressions go far beyond sensory experience into the structures of collective memory and social cohesion” (Hertz, 1999:403).

Bradd Shore, author of Culture in Mind, believes that “synaesthesia represents the most elementary cognitive process underlying meaning construction” (1996:357). Meaning construction requires the derivation of salient correspondences during ongoing experience. It involves the continual adjustment of socio-culturally orchestrated and socio-historically instituted artefacts and neural processes. This neuro-cultural system is constantly adjusting its internal combinatorial possibilities to the external socially distributed cultural milieu. The construction of meaning is an environmentally situated intersubjective activity arising from socio-cultural interactions between embodied brains (Cornejo, 2006). Among distributed populations of brains, the construction of meaning is a socio-cultural event propagated over successive generations. This propagation is constrained by the limitations of the embodied brain. The study of meaning construction, as an embodied socio-cultural activity, is one avenue of research into the reiterative causality between brain and culture. Indeed, meaning construction is fundamental to grounding culture in neurology (Shore, 1996).

Michael Winkelman refers to the process of meaning construction as the symbolic capacity. “Symbols are arbitrary linkages created within a community that program other areas of the brain with the assistance of the prefrontal cortex (2003:277). The representational capacity of symbolic reference allows humans to recognise the combinatorial rules between objects, events and behaviours and thus replicate and propagate cultural information between actors. Symbolic capacities, Winkelman argues, emerged from neurologically driven social dynamics and the necessity to form and maintain social bonds.

Symbols cannot exist in isolation; they can only exist in relation to other symbols. “Symbolic thought and language are inherently network phenomena. Thus their existence cannot be explained in a solipsistic manner” (Donald, 2001:252). Meaning construction, and our symbolic capacity, lies at the intersection of neuronal, social and environmental processes, and is subject to historical influences and change over time.

Based on physical experiences, the brain forms metaphors (heteromorphic, isofunctional, relational patterns) to understand one kind of experience in terms of another. The perception of deep links between objects, events and experiences, may “begin with detection of salient initial correspondences, followed by the construction of others” (Glick & Holyoak, 1983:6,fn). Culture emerges when the recognition of these correspondences is replicated across individuals. Such a process is dependent on a system that can draw high-level analogies from the relations between elements. The sense of each element is derived from the context-driven relationship it has to other elements. Only if the pattern of relationships has been successfully replicated is the identity preserved.

Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001) have proposed that synaesthetic mechanisms underlie the human capacity for metaphor. They suggest that a facility for metaphor provides a key seed for the eventual emergence of language, and argue for a synaesthesia-based theory of language evolution. But, they may be selling themselves short (that might be the first time that anyone has ever suggested that Ramachandran is selling himself short). What are the potentials for explanation if we were to extend Ramachandran & Hubbard’s theory into a synaesthesia-informed theory of the evolution of culture?

Food for thought (metaphorically speaking, unless you’re a synaesthete of course).

Jason Mattingley has appeared in last week’s post: SlowTV: Mind & its Potential
Merlin Donald appears in these posts: What makes humans unique, Cultural Evolution
Vilanayur, Ramachandran appears in these posts: Colour, is it in the brain? ,  Synaesthesia & Metaphor, TED talk, Wednesday Roundup #8, Wednesday Roundup #14, Wednesday Roundup #44, and  Wednesday Roundup #66, Ramachandran, Phantoms in the Brain, Neurons that shaped Civilisation, Famous Neuroscientist, Minsky on Sacks & Ramachandran,  What is Self? , Creativity & the Brain, Creating the Flow Zone, Ramachandran’s mirror and Capgras Syndrome among many others.
Bradd Shore has appears in these posts: Realy Beauty, Caught in PlayLCM IV, and Climate Change Series.

If you enjoy our weekly « Complete this quote » you might be interested in looking at our responses from previous weeks. We always love it when someone adds another witty reply to our older posts!
“The convergence of neurology and cross-cultural research provides…”
“How does this cultural memory work ? The answer…”
Finissez cette citation : « Comment s’effectue cette mise en mémoire culturelle ? La rèponse… »
“Of course, there remains a yawning chasm between present knowledge and any actual understanding of…”
« Bien entendu, il y a encore un gouffre béant entre ce que nous savons actuellement et la compréhension réelle… »
“Before any attempt is made to hypnotize a Subject for the first time it is highly desirable that the Hypnotist…”
“In a small, dark room at the lab of a large university hospital…”



“…the theories, technologies and findings of molecular biology, evolutionary developmental biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, linguistics and anthropology can be productively combined to…”


“If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it…”
“Shaped like a little like a loaf of French country bread, our brain is…”
“There is no scientific study more vital to man than…”
“You have brains in your head, you have…”

In other news, “Complete this quote” was recently featured in a Science Daily article about modelling the brains of chickens.

Please leave a reply below and let us know how you would complete the following quote:

“There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…”

6 Responses to “Complete this quote: “There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…””

  1. Excelent post, lots of interesting things to read!
    Hope you do not mind if I complete in a grotesque and ironic way to the sentence, but I think is not that far from the truth: Who has the best boobs

  2. Dirk said

    …allow me to finish the quote with half another quote from that book:

    “There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…” …how… “…the blind workings of chance–natural selection–transform the emotional grunts and howls of apelike ancestors to all the linguistic sophistication of Shakespeare or even George W. Bush”

    (Rich & Mattingley, 2005:108) + (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2005:176)

  3. Janis said

    ” … considered debate.”

  4. anon1 said

    “… the role of synaesthesia in sensitivity to poetry.”

  5. Paul mason said

    …pickles in sesame seed buns.”

  6. [...] Complete this quote: “There is considerable debate surrounding the issue of…” [...]

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