Prehistory of ‘neuroanthropology’: Charles Laughlin

One can point to many intellectual predecessors to neuroanthropology: cognitive anthropologists who paid attention to discoveries in the brain sciences; phenomenologists who followed Merleau-Ponty’s example (not just his texts) and brought together philosophy of mind with a range of data from cultural studies and psychology to neural imaging, artificial intelligence, and robotics; psychologists (ecological, developmental, and others) like Esther Thelen and Susan Oyama who worked with dynamic systems models of human emergence….  I could go on.  I wound up here through the influence of all of the above as well as cellular biologist and feminist, Anne Fausto-Sterling; mathematician and systems modeler, Peter Taylor; anthropologist Tim Ingold; my informants in Brazil; and my colleagues, especially the good anthropologists at the University of Notre Dame.

But the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has an older pedigree in anthropology than the one I offered in my opening description.  Although I picked it up from Dominguez and Mason, the term appears in at least two separate contexts, one less relevant (although inspiring) and the other more directly applicable to this.First, the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ has been associated with the work of Oliver Sachs, one of the more riveting science writers and humanist observers of the damaged human brain.  Sachs is the neurologist responsible for such wonderful books as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and An Anthropologist on Mars.  In his hands, ‘neuroanthropology’ is a kind of subject’s-eye-view of neurological anomaly.  Although there are many ways that Sachs inspires, one of the most relevant is that he attends, not only to the organic causes of disorders, but also to their phenomenological affects. 

The other predecessor for the use of the term, ‘neuroanthropology,’ however, is Emeritus Prof. Charles Laughlin, of Carleton University.  His works on the subject, and on neurophenomenology, were well ahead of his time, so much so that I have found it hard to track down too many works that make reference to them.   (Here’s hoping that we change that because his work is remarkable.  If you’re interested, I’ll be discussing it more, but you can get ahead of the curve by heading straight to his website.)

Laughlin (1997:63, fn.1) suggests that a neuroanthropological theory must necessarily provide a way of understanding the ‘evolution and development of the hominid brain that integrates both data from the neurosciences and the cross-cultural data on the full range of human experience.’  Laughlin even expresses some concern with the way the word ‘adaptation’ was being used by his contemporaries, a concern that I think has been borne out in the explosion of simplistic models of brain ‘adaptation’ now on offer in popular science accounts.  Laughlin spotted some of the challenges that we still face, such as persistent mind-body dualism in a field that still likes to ritually abuse Descartes while it conveniently ignores, for example, how inorganic its models of ‘embodiment’ are and how idealist its models of culture (or ‘imaginary’ or ‘discourse’) can sometimes be. 

Although I may have quibbles with Laughlin’s theories in places (such as the theory that the infant nervous system is substantially ‘hard-wired’ or his argument that the neural system primarily functions to build ‘models’ of the self and world), I feel like I am arguing with a contemporary, not with a predecessor. Many of the tactical choices he makes in terminology and contrast are just that: tactics, engaged with an eye toward a particular constellation of goals and obstacles. For example, Laughlin engages in a kind of universalism that he tactically employs against overly culturalist or relativist interlocutors; unfortunately, a nuanced understanding of the relation between brain and culture must also contend with the overly glib universalizers in fields like evolutionary psychology. I’m sure that Laughlin would agree that we have to constantly push and pull, rescuing our theories and models from misunderstandings that are often diametrically opposed orthodoxies. For example, Laughlin’s (1997:51-52) complex discussion of the emergence of the body image from a host of other structures, over developmental time, with mutual adaptation between the organism and the environment, could easily be recast in a ‘dynamic systems’ vocabulary with no substantive changes (he makes use of cybernetic models, for instance, that are very similar to dynamic systems models).

The overall tenor of Laughlin’s work, however, his efforts to combine cross-cultural comparison with emerging data in the brain sciences, his synthesis of symbolic with phenomenological perspectives, his willingness to collaborate with other scholars, and his focus on issues like the body image and religious experience, all make him an excellent candidate as an inspiration and predecessor to contemporary neuroanthropology.  The fact that he builds ambitious theoretical frameworks from a combination of neurological and cross-cultural data with evolutionary theory clearly anticipates some of the challenges ahead for neuroanthropology, and we could do far worse than to start with his works.


Laughlin, Charles D. 1997.  Body, Brain, and Behavior: The Neuroanthropology of the Body Image.  Anthropology of Consciousness 8(2-3):49-68.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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