Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ

In January, The Wall Street Journal carried a short excerpt from science writer
Sharon Begley’s excellent, but unfortunately titled book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. The article, How Thinking Can Change the Brain, is excellent, as is the book, which I’d highly recommend, but both engage in a couple of pervasive rhetorics for talking about brain function that I believe make it harder to really theorize about issues like neuroplasticity.

That is, although I like Begley’s work, some of the ways that she writes about the brain puts her readers, if they’re not already neuroscience savvy, two steps backwards before moving toward greater understanding. It’s sad because I think her book is one of the best works for a general readership on recent research, and the brain imaging projects with Tibetan monks which forms the central narrative of the book are fascinating on so many levels. Begley has a brilliant eye for turning research into story-telling and with the meditation research, she’s picked an ideal subject on which to exercise her skills.

If only she would stop carrying on about ‘Mind’ and ‘Brain’ like they were the two primary characters…

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Balance between cultures: equilibrium training

Way back in January, I posted ‘Equilibrium, modularity, and training the brain-body.‘ At the American Anthropology Association annual meeting, I presented my current version of this research, significantly updating it with ethnographic material from Brazil, a comparative discussion of different techniques for training balance, and a series of graphics that I hope help to make my points. The title of that paper was ‘Balancing Between Cultures: A Comparative Neuroanthropology of Equilibrium in Sports and Dance.’

I’ve decided to post a version of this paper here, with the caveat that it’s still a work-in-progress. I’d be delighted to read any feedback people are willing to offer.

Introduction

Boca d' Rio does a bananeira

Boca d' Rio does a bananeira

As a cultural anthropologist interested in the effects of physical training and perceptual learning, I see ‘neuroanthropology’ as a continuation of the cognitive anthropology advocated by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn (1997).

The new label, however, reflects engagement with a new generation of brain research, what Andy Clark (1997) refers to as ‘third wave’ cognitive science, or work on embodied cognition.1 Much of the ‘third wave’ does not focus strictly on what we normally refer to as ‘cognition,’ that is, consciousness, memory, or symbolic reasoning. Rather embodied cognition often highlights other brain activities, such as motor, perceptual and regulatory functions, and the influence of embodiment on thought itself; this is the reason I’m thrilled to have endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky as part of this panel, as his work is part of the expanded engagement of neuroanthropology with organic embodiment.2.

My own entry into neuroanthropology results from three influences: a phenomenological interest in cultural variation in human perception, anthropological study of embodiment, and apprenticeship-based ethnographic methods. This method posed an odd question during my field research on the Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, capoeira. Simply put, as a devoted apprentice-observer, I failed to maintain hermeneutical agnosticism and started to ask, ‘Is what my teachers and peers report — and I too seem to be experiencing — plausible?’

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Cultural Neuroscience

Shihui Han and Georg Northoff have just published Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach. This article will prove foundational for “cultural neuroscience,” a term Han & Northoff use near the end of the article. I highly recommend that everyone read the full version (pdf), but will outline and comment on it here.

In this Perspectives piece in Nature Neuroscience Reviews, Han and Northoff review the evidence on how culture influences neural mechanisms, highlight the need to integrate social neuroscience and cultural cognition research, argue for transcultural neuroimaging as an effective method for cultural neuroscience, and lay out implications for the future of this emerging field.

But if you don’t take my word for it, here’s their abstract:

Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live. Although psychologists have provided abundant evidence for diversity of human cognition and behaviour across cultures, the question of whether the neural correlates of human cognition are also culture-dependent is often not considered by neuroscientists. However, recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Cultural Effects on Cognition

Han and Northoff systematically cover research on “cultural effects on cognition,” including perceptual processing, attentional modulation, language and music, and number representation and mental calculation. Their Figure 1, presented below, summarizes research on culture and attention, highlighting context-dependent differences in attention between Americans and East Asians.

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

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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The Cultural Brain in Five Flavors

By Daniel Lende

Next week is the Critical Neurosciences workshop, where I will help lead a discussion of the cultural brain. So I better figure out what I want to say!

Thinking about it yesterday, I came up with this. Rather than one “cultural brain” and lots of arguing about what that means, I will argue that we have five distinct varieties of the cultural brain to consider.

Each flavor deals with a different sort of problem at the intersection of human culture and neuroscience. I will outline these different intersections below, and provide links to our posts to give further depth.

Here are our five flavors:

-The Symbolic Brain: Culture, meaning and the brain combined
-The Inequality Brain: Bad outcomes through society, power, and the brain
-The Theory Brain: Neuroscience impacts social science theory
-The Brain Transformed: Social science impacts brain theory
-The Critical Brain: Taking down bad brain justifications and examining the cultural uses of the brain

The Symbolic Brain

The symbolic brain represents the increasing convergence of work in anthropology and in neuroscience on questions of meaning, symbolism, subjective experience, and behavior. To take an example from my own work, understanding compulsive drug use has required that I examine how processes of attention and behavioral involvement are altered by consistent drug use and how people interpret their own use, from the reasons they had to use to what the experience of use represents to them.

In many ways, this work focuses on a central problem raised but not resolved by Clifford Geertz when he wrote that we should treat human behavior as “symbolic action—action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies (1973: 9).” Today, rather than reducing that significance to either a cultural pattern or a brain function (both determinist approaches), people interested in the cultural brain are looking for synergies between different domains of research.

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Cabbies’ brains

The BBC has a nice piece covering the continuing research of Prof. Eleanor Maguire (Wellcome Institute of Neurology, University College London) on the distinctive development of the hippocampus in the brains of London taxi drivers: Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job. Prof. Maguire’s research in this area is pretty extensive (see publication list). She’s found a great naturally occurring experiment in the brains of cabbies who have to navigate London’s notoriously byzantine downtown streets.

As the BBC report describes, driving a cab in London is difficult and demands a well-developed knowledge of urban geography:

In order to drive a traditional black cab in London drivers have to gain “the knowledge” – an intimate acquaintance with the myriad of streets in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.

It can take around three years of hard training, and three-quarters of those who embark on the course drop out, according to Malcolm Linskey, manager of London taxi school Knowledge Point. “There are 400 prescribed runs which you can be examined on but in reality, you can be asked to join any two points,” he told BBC News Online.

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Cultural Aspects of PTSD, Part II: Narrative and Healing

Bremner et al. 2000.  MRI showing decreased hippocampal volume in Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Narrative and memory are interwoven in our consciousness, and thus explorations into trauma from both humanities and social science perspectives almost invariably discuss narrative in one form or another. An ongoing debate within psychological research, for example, ponders whether the coherence of trauma stories is correlated to the amount of emotional distress associated with a given traumatic memory. It is hypothesized that the greater the distress, the less organized the narrative. If this were the case, we might expect that the coherence with which an individual is able to talk about the trauma would increase as the memory is processed and resolved, a finding for which we have some evidence.

We do know – when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – that narrative matters. As I wrote in an earlier post, the most effective therapies yet proven for reducing PTSD symptoms are the exposure therapies, particularly Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy. These therapies are more effective for reducing the full range of PTSD symptoms than any pharmaceutical yet identified. And the crux of these therapies rests on telling the story of the trauma, sometimes over and over again. This simple practice, this process of speaking, has been reliably demonstrated to result in an improvement of PTSD symptoms for many patients.

But for all its clinical benefit, this extraordinary observation tells us very little about the mechanisms of psychic healing after trauma. Instead, it points to a growing body of evidence that suggests it is not just narrative that matters in PTSD, but, more intriguingly, that it is the type of narrative that matters. Unstructured psychodynamic therapies, for example, have not been demonstrated to lessen the severity of PTSD, even among patients who continue in therapy for years. And yet certain ways of narrating memory do make a difference, and this phenomenon once again points to a role for anthropologists and other culturally-minded researchers in exploring the cultural-emotional-physiological-environmental interactions at play in post-traumatic processing.

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