Neuroanthropology

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Archive for the ‘Human variation’ Category

Your Great x 2360 Grandpa was a Neanderthal!

Posted by Paul Mason on October 26, 2010

Is your Dad the descendent of a Neanderthal? Visit our PLoS website to find out more. 

Recent evidence has shown that a small percentage of human DNA is Neanderthal. This Neanderthal DNA entered the human gene pool between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago.

While human DNA may contain traces of Neanderthal ancestors, mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals has not been found in humans. Mitochondrial DNA comes uniquely from your mother. Is it plausible that male Neanderthals were able to mate with female humans, but that the reciprocal cross was unable to occur?

Analyses of the Y chromosome suggest that we share a common male ancestor 59,000 years ago. Could this male ancestor have possibly been Neanderthal?

If our common male ancestor is neanderthal, and considering that the Y chromosome is transmitted uniquely through the paternal line, could it mean that men are more closely related to Neanderthals than women? Have men and women truly come from two different species?

Visit the full post on our PLoS website for the full explanation of this intriguing hypothesis.

Posted in Evolution, general, Genetics, Human variation | 8 Comments »

Carol Worthman: From Human Development to Habits of the Heart

Posted by dlende on August 29, 2010

Carol Worthman, a mentor of mine at Emory University and a real leader in doing neuroanthropological research (even if she might call it “biocultural”), has two recent articles out that I really want to highlight.

The first is The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology. Here is the abstract, part of a whole special issue in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology on the work of the husband-wife team John Whiting and Beatrice Whiting:

The Whiting model aimed to provide a blueprint for psychocultural research by generating testable hypotheses about the dynamic relationships of a culture with the psychology and behavior of its members. This analysis identifies reasons why the model was so effective at generating hypotheses borne out in empirical research, including its foundational insight that integrated nature and nurture, its reconceptualization of the significance of early environments, and its attention to biopsychocultural dynamics active in those environments.

Implications and the evolution of the ecological paradigm are tracked through presentations of three current models (developmental niche, ecocultural theory, bioecocultural microniche) and discussion of their related empirical literatures. Findings from these literatures converge to demonstrate the power of a developmental, cultural, ecological framework for explaining within- and between-population variation in cultural psychology.

The figure above is from this paper, and represents Carol’s own model for understanding human development. But the real point that Carol wants to make in emphasizing these three models goes as follows:

All of these models share a concern for how the cultural ecology of affect and affect regulation drive psychobehavioral development, competence, and well-being or health. Whoever has looked has found linkages among cultural practices, stress physiology, and emotion regulation. Note that each of these models foregrounds the development of emotion and emotion regulation and de-emphasizes classic knowledge acquisition. Although there are important reasons for this emphasis (Damasio, 2005), a reconsideration of what constitutes “knowledge” and more systematic investigation of the linkages between emotion and knowledge might prove valuable (588).

The second article is Habits of the Heart: Life History and the Developmental Neuroendocrinology of Emotion. This article was part of a special issue on Advances in Evolutionary Endocrinology in the American Journal of Human Biology. Here is Carol’s abstract:

The centrality of emotion in cognition and social intelligence as well as its impact on health has intensified investigation into the causes and consequences of individual variation in emotion regulation. Central processing of experience directly informs regulation of endocrine axes, essentially forming a neuro-endocrine continuum integrating information intake, processing, and physiological and behavioral response. Two major elements of life history—resource allocation and niche partitioning—are served by linking cognitive-affective with physiologic and behavioral processes. Scarce cognitive resources (attention, memory, and time) are allocated under guidance from affective co-processing. Affective-cognitive processing, in turn, regulates physiologic activity through neuro-endocrine outflow and thereby orchestrates energetic resource allocation and trade-offs, both acutely and through time. Reciprocally, peripheral activity (e.g., immunologic, metabolic, or energetic markers) influences affective-cognitive processing.

By guiding attention, memory, and behavior, affective-cognitive processing also informs individual stances toward, patterns of activity in, and relationships with the world. As such, it mediates processes of niche partitioning that adaptively exploit social and material resources. Developmental behavioral neurobiology has identified multiple factors that influence the ontogeny of emotion regulation to form affective and behavioral styles. Evidence is reviewed documenting roles for genetic, epigenetic, and experiential factors in the development of emotion regulation, social cognition, and behavior with important implications for understanding mechanisms that underlie life history construction and the sources of differential health. Overall, this dynamic arena for research promises to link the biological bases of life history theory with the psychobehavioral phenomena that figure so centrally in quotidian experience and adaptation, particularly, for humans.

In this second article, Carol is tying her work back into evolutionary theory. If the first took up more the cultural/psychological side, then here we are grounded in the mechanisms and ideas of biological anthropology. She writes here:

Given the evidence of gene-environment interactions and developmental effects discussed above, combinations of history and circumstance will condition the phenotypes generated from the genetic structure, and thus influence the impact of that structure on corresponding experience, welfare, behavior, and the balance of selective pressures upon genetic diversity. Such gene-environment interactions and their consequences for function and welfare deserve investigation across a wide range of human cultures and conditions. Such study bears exciting possibility for unlocking dynamics among culture, social conditions, the nature and distribution of social niches, and selection pressures operating on allelic variants (779).

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology.

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion.

Update: You can see Carol lecture on Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion regulation here.

Posted in Developmental psychology, Emotion, Evolution, Human variation | 2 Comments »

Death Becomes Us

Posted by dlende on August 10, 2010

In Do the Right Thing, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, highlights new research that “our decisions kill us.” He draws on the work of Ralph Keeney, whose paper (pdf) Personal Decisions Are the Leading Cause of Death, uses US data to show that “44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour.”

This phenomenon is not limited to developed/industrial countries. Nicholas Kristof writes:

If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

And it’s not just premature deaths and worse education, these types of behaviors cost a lot. Just take the May headline, Governments’ Drug-Abuse Costs Hit $468 Billion, Study Says. Most of those costs were in health or law enforcement, with just 2 percent spent on prevention, treatment, and research.

This is where we need really innovative approaches to understanding consumption, human decision making, and how we regulate our behavior. Behavioral economics is not all that; we do WEIRD research, instead of MYOPICS studies; we say poverty poisons the brain, but forget about just how poverty comes to be; we blame bad behavior on bad hormones, rather than doing more substantive work to understand people’s behavior.

Neuroanthropology can offer novel approaches, from understanding the development of addiction in four steps to better grasping the integrated dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder to examining different components of food, obesity and eating and understanding the complexities of video games and other modern obsessions.

These problems are not all caused by biological mechanisms or social construction, they are not all rooted in human psychology or deviations from rationality. They are human phenomena, requiring that we integrate ideas across multiple domains. To do that, anthropology needs psychology and neuroscience, just as they need anthropology. The impact of what we DO is enormous. And I’m betting that understanding what we do better will help us become more human – to find ways to deal with our own decisions and flaws, not just through technical fixes or imposed solutions, but also through finding ways to better promote our potential.

Posted in Addiction, Decision Making, general, Human variation, Sex | 1 Comment »

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

Posted by gregdowney on July 10, 2010

The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).

More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits. They don’t ignore universals – discussing them in several places – but they do highlight human variation and its implications for psychological theory.

As is the custom at BBS, the target article is accompanied by a large number of responses from scholars around the world, and then a synthetic reflection from the original target article authors to the many responses (in this case, 28). The total of the discussion weighs in at a hefty 75 pages, so it will take most readers (like me) a couple of days to digest the whole thing.

It’s my second time encountering the article as I read a pre-print version and contemplated proposing a response, but, sadly, there was just too much I wanted to say, and not enough time in the calendar (conference organizing and the like dominating my life) for me to be able to pull it together. I regret not writing a rejoinder, but I can do so here with no limit on my space and the added advantage of seeing how other scholars responded to the article.

My one word review of the collection of target article and responses: AMEN!

Or maybe that should be, AAAAAAAMEEEEEN! {Sung by angelic voices.}

There’s a short version of the argument in Nature as well, but the longer version is well worth the read.

Of course, I have tons of quibbles with wording or sub-arguments, ways of making points, choices of emblematic cases and the like in the longer BBS article (and I’ll get to a couple of those below the ‘fold’), but I don’t want to lose my over-arching sense that there is so much right in this piece. So before I get into the discussion, I just want to thank all of the authors, not just Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, but also the authors of the responses, who pulled it together when I didn’t try. The collection is a really remarkable discussion, one that I find gratifying in such a prominent place, and I do hope that the target article has a significant impact on the behavioural sciences.

If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along. If that colleague still doesn’t get it, please stop talking to them. Really. You. Are. Wasting. Your. Breath. If Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan don’t shake their confidence, I’m not sure what can.

The weirdest people in the world?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in general, Human variation, Psychological anthropology | Tagged: , , , , , , | 60 Comments »

Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

Posted by gregdowney on May 7, 2010

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Posted in Cognitive anthropology, Conferences, Embodiment, general, Human variation, Skill acquisition, Sport | 3 Comments »

Psychopathy: Is It In You?

Posted by dlende on May 3, 2010

By Kevin Brandenberg & J.P. Malette

When one considers crime and its relationship to society, psychopathic behavior remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing conditions of the human mind. Psychopathy describes individuals who, put simply, don’t have a conscience and thus commit actions, often times illegal, without any moral consideration.

Gatorade, the popular sports drink, uses its slogan “Is it in you?” to describe the competitive drive in athletes, which is presumably enhanced by drinking their product. Just like the Gatorade slogan suggests about athletes, is pyschopathy a condition simply found in some and not in others? Or are there other factors that go into this serious mental condition? This post will explore the mental condition behind psychopathic behavior, how it differs from the normal human condition, and how it relates to the treatment of crime in society.

Psychopathy: What Is It?

While not always associated with crime, psychopathic behavior often comes up as a reason for and a cause of both small and horrendous crimes. A recent review indicates psychopathy is an accurate indicator of a person’s susceptibility to criminal behavior and violence.

“Although psychopaths make up only 4% of the total population, they represent about 50% of serial rapists, as well as a significant proportion of persistent wife batterers. Overall, psychopaths are twice as likely to reoffend as other criminals, and three times as likely to commit violent acts again after being convicted.” (Copley 2008)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in general, Human variation, Mental Illness, Violence | 10 Comments »

Exporting American mental illness

Posted by gregdowney on January 10, 2010

The New York Times Magazine has a great discussion of the effects of the exportation of American ideas about mental illness, titled appropriately, The Americanization of Mental Illness by Ethan Watters, based on his forthcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, coming out this month from Free Press. The article is quite good, offering some intriguing cases, such as the rise of virulent, American-style anorexia nervosa in Hong Kong, the effect of possession beliefs on communities’ reactions to schizophrenia, and how the narrative of mental illness as ‘brain disease’ might actually lead to great stigma as it spreads and replaces local understandings. The article is well worth a read, and I’m looking forward to the book.

graphic by Alex Trochut, NYTimes

The ethnographic record is full of conditions that didn’t make it into the most recent edition of the DSM — amok, nervios, koro, zar — you can check out Wikipedia or some other source on ‘culture bound syndromes,’ such as Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes in Psychiatric Times, to get a fuller discussion of some of these conditions. The Psychiatric Times piece suggests that there are at least 200 culture-bound syndromes.

One thing I really liked about the New York Times Magazine article, however (and by extension, Watters’ book, I suspect), is that the discussion of ‘culture-bound syndromes’ usually tends to treat other people’s syndromes as ‘culture-bound,’ Western psychological illnesses as not ‘culture-bound.’ Watters’ work points out that Western mental illness is both itself culture-bound and that persuading people to believe in Western-style mental illness can affect the way that psychic disorders manifest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in general, Human variation, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness | Tagged: , , | 21 Comments »

The Encultured Brain: Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

Posted by dlende on October 8, 2009

Encultured Brain Large
Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

By Greg Downey and Daniel Lende

Neuroanthropology places the brain and nervous system at the center of discussions about human nature, recognizing that much of what makes us distinctive inheres in the size, specialization, and dynamic openness of the human nervous system. By starting with neural physiology and its variability, neuroanthropology situates itself from the beginning in the interaction of nature and culture, the inextricable interweaving of developmental unfolding and evolutionary endowment.

Our brain and nervous system are our cultural organs. While virtually all parts of the human body—skeleton, muscles, joints, guts—bear the stamp of our behavioral variety, our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and disproportionately susceptible to cultural sculpting. Compared to other mammals, our first year of life finds our brain developing as if in utero, immersed in language, social interaction, and the material world when other species are still shielded by their mother’s body from this outside world. This immersion means that our ideas about ourselves and how we want to raise our children affect the environmental niche in which our nervous system unfolds, influencing gene expression and developmental processes to the cellular level.

Increasingly, neuroscientists are finding evidence of functional differences in brain activity and architecture between cultural groups, occupations, and individuals with different skill sets. The implication for neuroanthropology is obvious: forms of enculturation, social norms, training regimens, ritual, and patterns of experience shape how our brains work and are structured. But the predominant reason that culture becomes embodied, even though many anthropologists overlook it, is that neuroanatomy inherently makes experience material. Without material change in the brain, learning, memory, maturation, and even trauma could not happen. Neural systems adapt through long-term refinement and remodeling, which leads to deep enculturation. Through systematic change in the nervous system, the human body learns to orchestrate itself as well as it eventually does. Cultural concepts and meanings become anatomy.

Although every animal’s nervous system is open to the world, the human nervous system is especially adept at projecting mental constructs onto the world, transforming the environment into a sociocognitive niche that scaffolds and extends the brain’s abilities. This niche is constructed through social relationships, physical environments, ritual patterns, and symbolic constructs that shape behavior and ideas, create divisions, and pattern lives. Thus, our brains become encultured through reciprocal processes of externalization and internalization, where we use the material world to think and act even as that world shapes our cognitive capacities, sensory systems, and response patterns.

Our ability to learn and remember, our sophisticated skills, our facility with symbolic systems, and our robust self control all mean that the capacity for culture is, in large part, bought with neurological coin. This dynamic infolding of an encultured nervous system happens over developmental time, through the capacity of individuals to internalize both experience and community-generated tools, and then to share thoughts, meanings and accomplishments. Thus, a central principle of neuroanthropology is that it is a mistake to designate a single cause or to apportion credit for specialized skills (individual or species-wide) to one factor for what is actually a complex set of processes.

Most academic research implicitly or explicitly utilizes a reductive cause-effect approach; in popular understandings of the brain, the tendency to single out causal factors is even more prevalent. Rather than one set of genes or an overarching system of meaning, humans’ capacity for abstract thought emerges equally from social and individual sources, built of public symbol, evolutionary endowment, social scaffolding, and private neurological achievements. In neuroanthropology, the goal is not simply to juxtapose a simplistic critique against a one-side initial account, but to attempt a much more holistic, synthetic exploration of how various elements in these dynamic relations interact to produce cognitive functions.

Neuroanthropology: Areas of Application

Neuroanthropology has four clear roles: (1) understanding the interaction of brain and culture and its implication for our understanding of mind, behavior, and self; (2) examining the role of the nervous system in the creation of social structures; (3) providing empirical and critical inquiry into the interplay of neuroscience and ideologies about the brain; and (4) using neuroanthropology to provide novel syntheses and advances in human science theory.

The interaction of brain and culture is neuroanthropology’s core dynamic, exploring the synthesis of nature and nurture and cutting through idealized views of biological mechanisms and cultural symbols. Using social and cultural neuroscience in combination with psychological anthropology and cultural psychology, neuroanthropology builds in-depth analyses of mind, behavior and self based on an understanding of both neurological function and ethnographic reality. This research creates robust analyses of specific neural-cultural phenomena, recognizing that each may demonstrate a distinctive dynamic; for example, neuroanthropological investigation reworks our understanding of human capacities like balance (often assumed to be something innate), studies how practices like meditation shape and piggyback upon neural functioning, and examines the interactive nature of pathologies like addiction and autism.

Neuroanthropology has profound implications for our understanding of how societies become socially structured. Inequality works through the brain and body, involving mechanisms like stress, learning environments, the loss of neuroplasticity, the impact of toxins, educational opportunities (or their absence) and other factors that negatively shape development. Neuroanthropology can play a fundamental role in documenting these effects and in linking them to the social, political and cultural factors that negatively impact on the brain. At the same time, technological and pharmacological interventions are playing an increasing role in managing behavioral disorders, often with great profit for companies, while cognitive enhancement drugs, brain-computer interfaces, and neuro-engineering will surely be used in ways that create new separations between haves and have-nots. Finally, societal appeals to “hard-wired” differences remain a standard approach by people in positions of power to maintain racial, gender, sexual and other inequalities; a deeper understanding of the complex origins and unfolding of key neural and physiological differences undermines accounts that assume these distinctions are inescapable. At the same time, neuroanthropology points to new ways to think about how people become talented and ways to understand intelligence, resiliency, social relations and other factors that shape success in life.

In societies across the globe, the brain now acts as a central metaphor, a substitute for self, a way to explain mental health, a short-hand for why people are different. In reaction, critical approaches have looked at the interpretation and use of brain imagery, psychoactive pharmaceuticals, public presentations of neuroscience research, and related social phenomena. Meanwhile, the pace of neuroscience research, and innovations in associated technologies, has been breathtaking. One aim for neuroanthropology is to make sense of these three related but often conflicting factors in ways that provide grounded research and critical insight into what the realities of brain and self actually are. Neuroanthropology will play a central role in mediating between the claims of different sides with the expertise gained from empiricism as well as the theoretical and critical framework gained from the combination of neuroscience and anthropology. This aspect of neuroanthropology is an absolute necessity given the convergence of these three recent historical phenomena – accelerating research, social reworkings, and intellectual interrogation of both.

Neuroanthropology makes direct contributions to theory development. At the most basic level, it provides a broad umbrella to integrate concepts across academic fields. Embodiment, for example, is an idea explored from basic neuroscience, psychology and cognitive linguistics to anthropology and philosophy. Neuroanthropology provides the conceptual and methodological tools to work through what we mean by such a broad-ranging idea.

Neuroanthropology also has direct implications for anthropology and neuroscience. It demonstrates the necessity of theorizing culture and human experience in ways that are not ignorant of or wholly inconsistent with discoveries about human cognition from brain sciences. Rather than broad-based concepts like habitus or cognitive structure, neuroanthropology focuses on how social and cultural phenomena actually achieve the impact they have on people in material terms. Rather than assuming structural inequality is basic to all societies, neuroanthropologists ask how inequality differentiates people and what we might do about that.

Similarly, on the neurological side, the principal theories of brain development, neural architecture and function remain tied to a biological view of proximate mechanisms and evolutionary origins. Yet it is abundantly clear that many neurological capacities, such as language or skills, do not appear without immersion in culture. Neuroanthropology highlights how that immersion matters to the brain’s construction and function. For example, neuroanthropology can take a basic idea like Hebbian learning — “what fires together, wires together” — and examine how social and cultural processes shape the timing, exposure, and strength of activity, such that the coordinated action of brain systems emerges through cultural dynamics. Neuroanthropology opens up a vibrant new space for thinking about how and why brains work the ways they do.

Neuroscientists and Anthropologists as Partners

By placing the focus on the individual’s nervous system and its relation to the world, neuroanthropology asks challenging questions of scale and depth for both neuroscientists and anthropologists, demanding both groups stretch beyond accustomed frames. For neuroscientists, seriously considering human diversity may require changes in research methods, in such basic processes as averaging and amalgamating imaging data, removing outlying data points (some of the most interesting individuals), and in finding test subjects. It can help cultural neuroimaging researchers to develop a much more sophisticated understanding about what results of comparative brain scan of Asians and Western Europeans might mean and why seeing doesn’t always translate into cultural believing. Thus, neuroanthropology offers to neuroscientists more sophisticated ways of thinking about neural environment, based upon over a century of debate about the nature of cultural variation and how to conceptualize patterns of behavior.

The same thought and subtlety that goes into understanding the relations among parts of the brain and body can be extended to consider how elements of the cultural and social environment are tied into specific brain functions, illuminating some of the specific ways that mind can become extended through cultural leveraging. That is, simply adding ‘culture’ as a single population variable fails to really illuminate the dynamic, inconsistent processes through which neurological potential is channeled by specific cultural institutions or practices. Because the nervous system is embedded within the world, shot through with the environment down to its cellular structure, integrative models of its development must include interacting elements from both inside and outside of the skin.

Although brain scientists have reached out to other interlocutors, we believe that anthropology is an especially strong potential partner. The influence of culture, social interaction and behavior patterns are immediate and susceptible to direct research, often more so than evolutionary theories about brain architecture origin. In addition, ethnographic research offers concrete evidence of how social and cultural dimensions of the environment might affect cognitive function, and illustrates the range of neuroplasticity in developmental outcomes well beyond what most experimental protocols consider. Anthropologists explore naturally-occurring experiments in which the nervous system is developed over a lifetime in diverging directions.

For anthropologists, neuroanthropology entails a return to integrative research after decades in which many biological and cultural anthropologists have seen each other as the primary opposition. The anthropological study of the nervous system calls on anthropologists to make good on our promises of holism. Psychological anthropologists have called for a greater focus on elements of neuroanthropology — affect, memory, neural-based models of cognition, biocultural integration — but a wholesale shift requires anthropologists to maintain a simultaneous consideration of what may have previously been apportioned to different specialties in the field. The nervous system inherently spans boundaries between specialized knowledge of such areas as evolution, child development, physiology, perception, phenomenology, behavioral research, biology and culture. Although some researchers might pull back from considering biology out of a fear of reductionism, the nervous system resists obstinately any simplistic explanation, throwing up counter-examples such as varying degrees of mental modularity, cognitive heterogeneity, and complex mixtures of neuroplasticity and innate endowments shaped by evolution.

With rare exceptions, anthropologists have not participated extensively in the growing movement toward cultural neuroscience. The time is ripe for this engagement: brain scientists are no longer content to just treat cultural difference as a demographic variable, and anthropologists are no longer so afraid of ‘universalizing’ or ‘psychologizing’ that they cannot get involved in this expanding area of research. Anthropologists offer to brain scientists more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable differences in brain function, a range of resources for extending neurological accounts beyond the individual human organism. Neuroscience research offers to anthropology a more nuanced way of linking universal human tendencies and cultural particularity, and in grounding one foot of the holistic study of human subjects firmly in biology.

Neuroanthropology is a sustained effort, not to mine brain sciences opportunistically, but to engage continually in interrogating the brain sciences to enrich holistic anthropology, while also contributing to the unfolding of cultural neuroscience. Neuroanthropologists will have to keep abreast of new research techniques and findings, and to be willing to modify, expand, or shed outright our theories if they are unsupported by data. Anthropology has tended to be a theoretically heterodox field, producing more than its fair share of paradigms for understanding human social life, so neuroanthropologists should have abundant resources on which to draw, as long as we are willing to range far and wide for our intellectual frameworks, including into the past paradigms of relevant fields.

Unlike some people working in this area, the organizers of this conference do not believe that only one research method will contribute to neuroanthropology, nor that this emerging field of thought will become dominated by a single account of how the brain functions. The brain itself is baroque, fashioned over evolutionary time out of a host of modules and functional units that are still incompletely integrated. Every type of neurological activity does not obey the same rules, nor are they equally susceptible (or immune) to self-reflection and conscious thought. Some cognitive capacities are characterized by deeply-ingrained stereotypical species-general responses; other functions are remarkably plastic, even susceptible to substantial revision and conscious redirection. No one simple theory can explain how every system works so we should recognize that enculturation will vary even among the regions and networks within the brain. If an account of one system remains consistent with its functioning while defying expectations arising from other systems, this is as likely to be a product of the brain’s heterogeneity as it is a reflection of differences in research methods or approaches.

Enough over-arching theories have foundered on human neural heterogeneity to offer ample warning: neuroanthropological theory will have to be partial and incremental rather than overly generalizing and prematurely sweeping. That is, no single enculturation process affects all brain areas equally, so no single account of the relation between brain and culture is likely to prove compelling in all cases. We propose an evidence-based theoretical eclecticism, recognizing that some of our disagreements are likely to arise from the fact that we theorize from different case studies in neural acculturation.

We also see neuroanthropology’s role as a constructive contributor to integrative brain science, not just policing its borders or offering constant critical scrutiny. Certainly, critique has its place, but without helping to produce better paradigms or suggestions for improvement, critique simply leaves conscientious researchers without positive alternatives to the practices that warrant criticism. Full engagement must include constructive proposals for improving both brain science and anthropological research.

Thinking through Human Problems

Neuroanthropology stakes out a new space for research. In examining the interaction of biology and culture, neuroanthropology considers how activities, contexts, and experiences are crucial to forming what it means to be human and how humans are similar and different around the world. Rather than conceiving of subjectivity as a text to be interpreted and the brain as composed of hard-wired circuits or innate modules beholden to selfish genes and evolutionary algorithms, neuroanthropology posits that subjectivity and the brain meet in the things that people do and say and the ways we interact with one another and the environment. Thus, it does not limit itself to psychology, which has a predominant focus on internal states, often separate from the body, physical activity, and the specifics of interaction with cultural environments. Moreover, neuroanthropology does not limit itself to Western notions of mind, self or consciousness, which can dominate discussions in some academic settings.

The inherent variety among different brain systems means that conscious reflection and experience-based accounts have a crucial relation to many of the phenomena we study. Experience-based ethnographic descriptions can offer valuable insights into brain functioning. At times these descriptions can help illuminate the influence of context and experience; at other times, neuroanthropological accounts may highlight the limits of conscious awareness and demonstrate the self-deceptions inherent in some kinds of neurological functioning. For this reason, neuroanthropology brings an ethnographic sensibility to brain research, including a willingness to take into consideration native theories of thought and individuals’ accounts of their own experience. Thus, careful ethnographic research, in-depth interviews, and the analysis of indigenous worldviews will always be central to the neuroanthropological synthesis

At the same, researchers must explore automization, endocrinology, emotion, perception, and other neural systems that contribute to patterns of variation but are not entirely susceptible to reflection. For example, practices of child rearing and early formative experiences are clearly influenced by cultural ideologies about how children should be nurtured, but many of the organic mechanisms through which these ideologies take hold of individuals and affect their long-term development may be unknown, even invisible to the participants.

For a long time, anthropologists have focused on culture as a system of symbolic associations, public signs, or shared meanings. But from the perspective of the nervous system, patterns of variation among different groups may include significant non-conscious, non-symbolic traits, such as patterns of behavior, automatized response, skills, and perceptual biases. This neuroanthropological framing opens more space for considering why all types of cognition may not operate in identical fashion, and how non-cognitive forms of neural enculturation might influence thought and action. Given this type of functioning, neuroanthropologists will have to return to an older notion of ‘culture,’ one that considers capabilities, habits and other forms of collective action (and not just meaning). While it can prove useful to speak principally of ‘culture’ as shared representations, we also must recognize that ‘cultural variation’ will include other sorts of patterned, shared conditionings of the nervous system.

For this reason subjects’-eye-view accounts are critical to neuroanthropology in a way that they might not be to other cognitive theorists. First, we recognize that theories about how the mind works or what it needs are themselves part of the developmental environment in which the brain is formed. Even if these ideas don’t accurately represent actual neural function, they do influence the brain-culture system, and can have an impact on the way the brain works even if that is in a way utterly unintended by those who hold the ideas. That is, whether indigenous theories of thought are accurate, they are part of the ecology of brain conditioning.

Second, consciousness itself is part of complex neural systems, adding degrees of self-regulation, restraint, learning, monitoring, cuing, and a host of other capacities. How people understand and experience their own thought is part and parcel of neural activities, although not necessarily an all-encompassing awareness or even the most important part of that function. Yet most of our cultural and neural functioning is submerged, only accessible to consciousness with extraordinary effort and special techniques, if it is accessible at all. Thus, research techniques should focus on capturing both our conscious awareness of why we do what we do and the inherent processes that shape the flow and outcome of that doing.

Third, we would point out that cognitive science itself is a hybrid, composed of researchers working in a range of fields from philosophy and psychology to neurophysiology, artificial intelligence and robotics. Different types of neurological functioning are susceptible to different types of research and demand varying degrees of analytical flexibility, including modeling and simulation. Although neuroimaging has made remarkable strides in recent decades, even its practitioners recognize that it must combine with other sorts of fields and data in order to draw robust conclusions beyond the narrow confines of experimental protocols.

Fourth, cultural resources like subtle differences in language may support distinctive phenomenological insights into the human nervous system. That is, other cultures may notice things about the human nervous system that our own communities have not observed, thematized, or codified. For example, the cognitive neuroscience of highly skilled communities or specialists who refine certain brain functions, such as meditation, perceptual skills, or high performance cognitive abilities in areas like mental calculation, recall or spatial navigation, have demonstrated marked empirical differences in brain function in imaging studies. But something similar might happen as well in indigenous folk theories of thinking or other neural functions, and we lose a vital resource if we do not ask ourselves how ethnographic communities come to their own ideas about the mind and experience.

When anthropologists and other ethnographers have engaged with cognitive science, they have made remarkable contributions. Neuroscientists with anthropological inclinations have made similar important advances. But overall the traffic has been too little in both directions, and the contributions made have been piece-meal rather than systemic or sustained. The brain sciences need the research and insights that anthropologists have developed in order to seriously explore the wide variation in human cognitive and neural functioning. Anthropology must move beyond critique and engage with these fields in a constructive mode in order to answer basic questions about culture, inequality, and human difference. Together, we can help construct the frameworks that allow the best of diverse research on the brain and human nature to be shared across disciplinary lines.

The potential gains are enormous: a robust account of brains in the wild, an understanding of how we come to possess our distinctive capacities and the degree to which these might be malleable across our entire species. The applications of this sort of research are myriad in diverse areas such as education, cross-cultural communication, developmental psychology, design, therapy, and information technology, to name just a few. But the first step is the one taken here – by coming together, we can achieve significant advances in understanding how our very humanity relies on the intricate interplay of brain and culture.

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Greg Downey is senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University. Daniel Lende is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

This essay on Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now? is the conference statement for The Encultured Brain: Building Interdisciplinary Collaborations for the Future of Neuroanthropology.

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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Conferences, Cultural theory, Embodiment, general, Human variation, Inequality, Psychological anthropology | 14 Comments »

Catching Happiness: Christakis and Fowler and the Social Contagion of Behaviors

Posted by dlende on September 12, 2009

Christakis & Fowler Obesity Network

Christakis & Fowler Obesity Network

“Is Happiness Catching?” is the feature article in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Clive Thompson writes about the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed 15,000 people starting back in 1948. Originally framed as a study of physical disease, the data are now being turned to social ends.

Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist and doctor at Harvard, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego, have taken this data set to examine a question that dates back to Durkheim and his ideas about collective effervescence, anomie, and suicide – how do our social relationships affect what we experience and do? As Thompson frames it:

By analyzing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people.

Their research shows that common explanations for problem behavior, such as individual being at fault or peer pressure, are inadequate. What we experience and how we act spreads further than we think. Take a major illness affecting a mother late in life, and the strain and stress her daughter experiences caring for her mother. That strain can affect the daughter’s husband, who in turn shapes his friend’s life.

Christakis saw this through his clinical experience, and with Fowler, decided to study the impact of social networks. One of their main findings is that in the Framinghamn study, “drinking spread socially, as did happiness and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. They termed this the ‘three degrees of influence’ rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know.”

When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. Even more astonishing to Christakis and Fowler was the fact that the effect didn’t stop there. In fact, it appeared to skip links. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese — even if the connecting friend didn’t put on a single pound. Indeed, a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight.

Christakis and Fowler’s work provides an in-depth description of the functioning of social networks – not a examination of why loneliness spreads so much as an examination of how it does. In other words, there is not a theory of social contagion of behaviors, but an examination of the role of social networks in loneliness. As they write in an in-press paper co-authored with John Cacioppo:

Results indicated that loneliness occurs in clusters within social networks, extends up to three degrees of separation, and is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks. In addition, loneliness appears to spread through a contagious process even though lonely individuals are moved closer to the edge of social networks over time. The spread of loneliness was found to be stronger than the spread of perceived social connections, stronger for friends than family members, and stronger for women than for men.

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Posted in Human variation, Psychological anthropology, Relationships | 5 Comments »

Gravlee et al: Race, Genetics, Social Inequality, and Health

Posted by dlende on September 11, 2009

Color SES SBP
Clarence Gravlee, Amy Non and Connie Mulligan have just published an outstanding article in PLoS ONE, Genetic Ancestry, Social Classification, and Racial Inequalities in Blood Pressure in Southeastern Puerto Rico. The abstract opens:

The role of race in human genetics and biomedical research is among the most contested issues in science. Much debate centers on the relative importance of genetic versus sociocultural factors in explaining racial inequalities in health. However, few studies integrate genetic and sociocultural data to test competing explanations directly.

Note how that fits so well into the points just made in Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue. But Gravlee, Non and Mulligan don’t just say we need to overcome the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, they do research that bridges it and even better, test ideas on both sides: “We draw on ethnographic, epidemiologic, and genetic data collected in southeastern Puerto Rico to isolate two distinct variables for which race is often used as a proxy: genetic ancestry versus social classification.”

This type of collaborative research can be crucial to getting the data to answer complicated questions. Connie Mulligan and Lance Gravlee deserve credit for taking the time to discuss how to bring together their respective approaches before going out to do research. In this case, the data come down more on the nurture (or social) side. As they write:

Our preliminary results provide the most direct evidence to date that previously reported associations between genetic ancestry and health may be attributable to sociocultural factors related to race and racism, rather than to functional genetic differences between racially defined groups.

Before someone gets all hot and bothered, Lance has also shown how to bring nurture back to nature. In Gravlee’s recent paper, How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality (pdf), he gives us following: “Drawing on recent developments in neighboring disciplines, I present a model for explaining how racial inequality becomes embodied – literally – in the biological well-being of racialized groups and individuals. This model requires a shift in the way we articulate the critique of race as bad biology.”

In the PLoS paper, Lance, Amy and Connie are aiming squarely at the use of race in medicine, where it has become common in some circles to use racial classification as a proxy for genetics. Basically this research destroys the proxy notion, since social classification turns out to be a better predictor of blood pressure than genetic ancestry.

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Posted in Cognitive anthropology, Embodiment, Human variation, Inequality, Medical anthropology, Methods, Stress | 5 Comments »

 
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