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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?

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

Chains of Difference

Posted by dlende on June 25, 2010

Chains of Difference: A Community Clinical Anthropology Project is an effort to use anthropology to bridge our differences. Two of its key efforts are combining education and anthropology to help us deal better with the problems that can arise from our very diversity, and the idea that amateur anthropology – learning about and practicing anthropology outside formal settings – can be crucial to this process of negotiating our differences.

Here are three aims from their Welcome post:

-The discussion of contemporary dilemmas that stop us from learning more about each other across difference (religious, class difference, cultural, generational, etc): what can we actually ask each other about diversity and how to do it?

-The ideia that making anthropology a practise accessible to all can enhance inter-cultural relations and promote cooperation across difference

-The aim of passing direct knowledge of the practise of amateur anthropology across generations rather than relying on indirect educational means (e.g. internet). Adults trained in amateur anthropology can ideally pass the knowledge onto children and encourage them to pursue knowledge on questions of difference across diversity from a very early stage.

Chains of Differences is a project initiated by Pedro Oliveira, a Portuguese clinical psychologist
with a PhD in social anthropology recently completed at Brunel University.

Alongside Chains of Difference, Oliveira is starting a post-doctoral project focused on bring together clinical psychology and anthropology through “running multi-family groups and researching them simultaneously through an action-research ethnographic methodology.” He would love to get feedback on this project, so you can find the complete description of his proposed work here.

Link to Chains of Difference Facebook Group.

Link to Chains of Difference blog.

Posted in Links, Psychological anthropology | 6 Comments »

Stealing Pears: We All Want To, But Why?

Posted by dlende on April 26, 2010

By JP Sullivan & Joe Ahmad

First, refresh your knowledge of Saint Augustine’s Confessions with this helpful rap video:

In the second book of Confessions, St. Augustine relates to us how he and his friends stole pears from a neighbor’s grove. What bothered Augustine was not the act of stealing, but the pleasure he derived from the act. In fact he and his companions had no practical use for the pears, for they were not hungry, and they threw most of them away. Frustrated, he writes,

But it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired. I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I picked them so that I might steal. For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed. (II.6)

For the rest of the second book, Augustine wrestles with the question of why he and his companions felt pleasure in stealing the pears. He makes two conjectures. The first is that he felt pride from the thrill of breaking the rules. He writes,

Since I had no real power to break [God’s] law, was it that I enjoyed at least the pretence of doing so, like a prisoner who creates for himself the illusion of liberty by doing something wrong, when he has no fear of punishment, under a feeble hallucination of power? (II.6)

By attempting to break God’s law, or more generally, the natural law, Augustine remarks that he was trying to imitate God, by showing that he was God’s equal and free from the jurisdiction of his law.

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Posted in Brain imaging, general, Psychological anthropology | 3 Comments »

Augustine’s Original Sin

Posted by dlende on April 16, 2010

By Mason Weber & Luke McNiff

St. Augustine’s Confessions is considered to this day to be one of the most important and influential works of Christian, and specifically Catholic, writing. Augustine’s work is an autobiography on the surface but, upon deeper reflection, can be seen as both an indictment of mankind’s sinful ways and a calling to come to Christ for all of Christendom, and humanity for that matter. He grants further insight into the concepts of original sin, mankind’s motives for sinning and how man can go about escaping and rectifying a repetitive whirlwind of sin and self-destruction.

As members of Professor Daniel Lende’s Anthropology of Compulsion, a freshman seminar at the University of Notre Dame, our task was to read Augustine’s work and make a presentation to the class about some of the most important themes of St. Augustine’s Confessions. In this post, we will delve into the themes of original sin, motives for sin, and escaping the pattern of sin from the standpoint of our class’s opinions expressed during our discussion and come to a consensus interpretation of this work.

Original Sin

At the outset of the book Augustine describes his now famous life of sin in which he wallowed during his youth. He fancies himself no different than any other person in that he has a natural aptitude for sin and crime. He says “we are carried away by custom to our own undoing and it is hard to struggle against the stream.” (Augustine 36)

This description of original sin as a roaring stream is strikingly appropriate, as advocates of original sin paint it as an inescapable force that holds back the human race as a whole. For example, Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History provides the following description: “peccatum originalis [original sin], the belief that we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing — that this world is a vale of tears because we made it that and, somehow, couldn’t have made it anything else.”

Most readers (and the vast majority of our classmates) would take offense with this pessimistic notion of human nature. Upon viewing the clip below, depicting a minister who berates his constituents for their own disposition towards sin, the class was certainly taken aback.

Some may take the idea of original sin as an accusation directed towards humanity as a whole. Discussion was met with quite a bit of flustered and frustrated students’ explanations of, “I’m not evil. How can original sin be serious?”

Yet upon further reflection, our classmates were able to recognize their own faults and come to the understanding that Augustine and certainly Jacobs are not portraying humans as hedonistic demons roaming the earth in search of sex and thievery, but rather as people who must fight temptation toward sin. If we as humans are naturally inclined to sin, we must do what is unnatural in being a pious and socially acceptable individual.

Augustine’s Motives for Sinning

In Augustine’s Confessions he offers a few different potential motives for why people sin. At least one of these motives can be applied to any given sin and each pose interesting questions. In brief, his three motives presented are peer pressure, sinning for the purpose of gain, and sinning for the sake of sinning. The first of these motives is the temptation of peer pressure of which he writes:

“It was not the takings that attracted me but the raid itself, and yet to do it by myself would have been no fun and I should not have done it. This was friendship of a most unfriendly sort, bewitching my mind in an inexplicable way. For the sake of a laugh, a little sport, I was glad to do harm and anxious to damage another; and that without the thought of profit for myself or retaliation for injuries received! And all because we are ashamed to hold back when others say ‘Come on! Let’s do it!’” (2.9).

In this passage, Augustine tells the reader that the reason he stole the pears was because his friends’ excitement was overwhelming him and so he gave in. He even points out that he was not influenced by selfish intentions or any other reason but for the fun of doing it with his friends. This act is innocent enough but it still reflects a serious motive for sinning and Augustine includes this passage so we can thoroughly discuss the temptation of peer pressure. During our class discussion, we related this motive to a riot killing thousands of people to mere high school peer pressure.

Augustine’s second reason is sinning for the sake of sinning. In other words, one might sin just for the feeling of breaking the rules or for the experience. Augustine writes, “Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden” (2.9) Here, he claims that his true motives were to sin for the sake of it. Augustine also points out that they may have eaten some of the pears that they stole but this was not the pleasure they were after when committing the act.

Finally, Augustine’s last reason for sinning:

“And in the games I played with them I often in order to come off the better, simply because a vain desire to win had got the better of me. And yet there was nothing I could less easily endure, nothing that made me quarrel more bitterly, than to find others cheated them. All the same, if they found me out more and blamed me for it, I would lose my temper rather than give in” (1.19).

In this, Augustine tells that he cheated in a small game in order to win, in order to better himself. This seems to be the most common motive for sinning and during a discussion in class, the majority of people tended to agree with this motive over the others. Once again, his sin is displayed in a minor context but still portrays the underlying reasoning in his actions.

The class was inclined to think most sins consisted of a combination of two of the three or even all three at once. The example of the Nazi culture came up throughout our discussions of sin and is a great instance in which all three motives can be seen. The Nazis obviously gave into peer pressure and were caught up in the culture of the Hitler, which represents the first motive listed. The class also pointed out that many of the Nazis and Hitler were just sinning because they were purely evil and wanted to break the rules and kill people for the sake of it. Lastly, the Nazis would often steal from their victims and would kill people simply in order to move up in the rankings of the Nazi army. And the paragon of this last motive was Hitler as he was power hungry and wanted to rule the world, which obviously fits under this rule. As the discussion grew, Augustine’s words of wisdom seemed to resurface over and over again in many of the modern examples that were brought to light.

When asked, “Why do people sin?” the class responded with almost identical reasons as presented in Confessions. Even after discussion, these ideas of original sin and motivations for sinning followed us and we began to realize how the words of Augustine and Jacobs described the modern world and rang true all around us.

How Should Humanity Respond to Original Sin?

So now that we’ve come to an agreement that original sin is a plausible description for human nature, an obvious question to follow is: how do we escape it?

Luckily for some, Augustine and the church have a ready-made answer: God. As Augustine reflects on his youth, he was in search of this answer as well, asking “will this torrent never dry up? How much longer will it sweep the sons of Adam down to that vast and terrible sea which cannot easily be passed?” (Augustine 36)

Later in his journey towards piety, however, he seems to have, through scripture, come to the conclusion that only through seeking higher truth in God can humanity overcome the rushing river of original sin. Augustine’s idea was met with some resistance by our class.

The class discussion on this idea was perhaps reflective of how the youth of the world are becoming more and more secular in thought, as everyone was in agreement that recognizing the Christian God and Jesus cannot be the only way to escape a life of sin. An example brought up time and again was of a man who has lived his life in isolation, say in the middle of a desert, and has never had the opportunity to learn about God and the Christian traditions of sin and morality. Is this man evil and damned to eternal suffering? He most certainly is not. The class was able to recognize that there is a difference between being a “good” person and being a “religious” person, and that the former is much more important than the latter.

Posted in general, Psychological anthropology | 5 Comments »

Cross-Cultural Psychiatry: A Special Report from Psychiatric Times

Posted by dlende on February 10, 2010


Psychiatric Times issues periodic special reports, and the latest one features a wealth of articles and ideas on cross-cultural psychiatry.

Ronald Wintrob, chair of the World Psychiatric Association–Transcultural Psychiatry Section, writes the Introduction to Cross-Cultural Psychiatry for this special report. He notes how migration has increased over the past 20 years, and that 12.86% of the US population are immigrants. Psychiatrists have put increasing effort into engaging these populations.

One of the most practical applications of cultural psychiatry to clinical practice in all fields of medicine is the open-ended questioning of patients and their families about their personal and family background characteristics. This includes identifying features of race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic class, relevant immigration history, experiences of acculturative stress, and personal and family aspirations. A discussion of these background characteristics can lead naturally to the clinician’s exploration of the presenting clinical symptoms and history. Knowledge of the patient’s background will increase rapport with patients and families and aid the process of collecting a more reliable history. In addition, it will improve the likelihood of treatment adherence. This process has been described as “cultural case formulation.”

Three main articles comprise the special issue:

Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health by Simon Dein, senior lecturer of anthropology and medicine at University College London. This piece provides an in-depth examination of what is currently known about the relationships between religion and mental health, and also includes a handy set of four check points that summarize the main themes of the article.

Cultural Considerations in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, by Toby Measham, Jaswant Guzder, Cécile Rousseau, and Lucie Nadeau, all in the department of psychiatry at McGill, which presents a series of guidelines and suggestions for how to handle cross-cultural issues in practice with children and adolescents

Cultural and Ethnic Issues in Psychopharmacology, by Keh-Ming Lin, professor emeritus in psychiatry at UCLA. This piece goes from the placebo effect to genetic variation, and argues that “cultural and ethnic influences… should be regarded as central in determining the success of treatment interventions.”

Under the whole category of cross-cultural psychiatry at Psychiatric Times, you can also find other articles, including this one by J. David Kinzie on A Model for Treating Refugees Traumatized by Violence.

Link to the Introduction to the Special Report on Cross-Cultural Psychiatry.

Posted in Links, Medical anthropology, Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology | Leave a Comment »

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.

Encultured Color Bar

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 »

PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury: Trauma Inside Out

Posted by dlende on September 22, 2009

by Drew Matott and Drew Cameron

by Drew Matott and Drew Cameron

By Zoë H. Wool

Jake was fond of saying that even though he had become dumber, he wasn’t quite dumb enough. He knew that the improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq had mangled his body, brain and self.

Jake (a pseudonym) lost 30 IQ points due to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from that IED blast. According to the military, he was still smart enough to function and hold down a job, so they didn’t plan to include TBI in his disability rating.

He fought them on this, just as he fought them on the decision not to amputate his leg. After countless surgeries and rehabilitation techniques, his leg was almost useless, allowing him maybe 30 minutes of use before it started rebelling against its reconstructed form. The pain that caused was excruciating; he simply couldn’t use it more.

Eventually Jake won his battle to lose his leg. It was the best thing that happened to him during the year I got to know him while doing my dissertation fieldwork at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (yes, that Walter Reed).

Dealing with, or writing about, TBI is rarely as clear as an amputation. The same is true of TBI’s nearly constant companion, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). TBI and PTSD are not injuries that you can see, unlike a lost leg. Despite the high numbers of TBI and PTSD cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, the relationship of these conditions to more obvious forms of combat trauma remains a fraught one: Witness the debate about PTSD and the Purple Heart.

Most people think that the Purple Heart, that most iconic of military honors, is awarded to American military members injured in combat. As with most issues military, it is not quite that simple.

In 2008, after months of consultation, the decision was made not to award the Purple Heart to those suffering from PTSD because, in part, the medal “recognizes those individuals wounded to a degree that requires treatment by a medical officer, in action with the enemy or as the result of enemy action where the intended effect of a specific enemy action is to kill or injure the service member.” PTSD doesn’t count.

Though the decision was officially framed in rather bureaucratic terms, the debate which surrounded it raises much deeper issues about the nature of trauma. Thinking through these issues has led me to think about the Cartesian split between the (internal) mind and the (external) body and the nature of trauma inside and out.

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Posted in Brain Mechanisms, Embodiment, Mental Illness, Psychological anthropology, Violence | Tagged: | 7 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 »

Brain, Dance and Culture

Posted by Paul Mason on July 24, 2009

slide2_Paul H Mason_copyright 2009

“Dance is created by the embodied brain, influenced by culture and shaped and inspired by our relationship to and our perception of the environment” (Mason, 2009:28). Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cognitive anthropology, Ethnography, general, Play, Psychological anthropology | 7 Comments »

Neuroanthropology and the Contemporary Culture of Entertainment

Posted by dlende on June 30, 2009

Thriller Ipod
By Peter Stromberg

Over the last century, anthropologists have often chosen to study exotic symbolic systems — rituals, myth, art — and frequently managed to illuminate the cultural logic underlying what seem initially to be “irrational” practices.

So why haven’t anthropologists leapt to study one of the most exotic and powerful symbolic systems in human history? I’m talking about the Western (and predominantly American) system of “entertainment”. Not only is this system central to contemporary Western culture, it has arguably played a major role in the breakdown of the cultures of many indigenous communities.

Entertainment should be a significant focus of anthropological inquiry. Alas, it is not.

Admittedly, some interest in the topic has emerged in the last couple of decades. Much of this material is promising; often authors pursue the insight that in some ways entertainment activities are similar to rituals. This is not only an accurate observation, but it points to the possibility of beginning to map how entertainment works to establish some of the central meanings of contemporary life.

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Posted in Play, Psychological anthropology | 4 Comments »

 
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