The term ‘neuroanthropology’

With some regret, I’ve taken up the term ‘neuroanthropology’ as the title of this blog. I think neologisms (or, in this case, a ‘re-oligism’) should not be bandied about lightly. But no other term seemed to really capture what I hope will be the shape of a new convergence between anthropology, brain sciences, developmental psychology, and evolutionary biology. 

‘Evolutionary psychology,’ it seems to me, has become associated with an adaptationist branch of genetic determinism inconsistent both with evolutionary sciences and the plasticity of the brain; ‘cognitive anthropology,’ on the other hand, seems too… well… ‘cognitive,’ in the sense that it too often is about consciousness and logical thought when the new convergence needs to consider many other types of neural processes (perception, motor control, regulation of autonomic systems, subconscious conditioning…).  Although neuroanthropology should certainly build on some of the remarkable work by scholars such as Maurice Bloch, Roy D’Andrade, Naomi Quinn, Claudia Strauss, and others, new discoveries in the brain sciences are quickly making old models of how the brain works appear much less plausible and requiring us to throw our net wider than that typically labeled ‘cognition.’

The term ‘neuroanthropology’ comes to me directly from the work of two Australian scholars, Paul Mason and (through him) Juan Dominguez.  Both of these anthropologists have helped me, in conversation (with Paul) and in their writings (both Paul and Juan), to better crystallize a project that has been lurking for me since I began to take seriously what capoeira practitioners, devotees of an Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, claimed about the transformations worked by the art on their bodies, perceptions, and experiences.

Dominguez, according to one account of a paper he gave in Cairnes, has defined ‘neuroanthropology’ as ‘the study of the effects of “enculturation” on the human brain, the relationship between the brain, subjective experiences and culture, and the evolution of the neurobiological mechanisms that underpin culture’ (see original story here).  (I’m hoping that both Paul and Juan will post copies of some of their earlier work on this blog, so look for it in the future.)

I’m entirely happy with Dominguez’s definition.  There seem to me to be two primary sides to the neuroanthropological project that I wish to focus on, and one other that I probably won’t personally grapple with.  All three are alluded to in the definition Dominguez offers:

First, what are the effects of enculturation upon the brain?  In this sense, anthropologists have data that brain scientists would love to get their hands on because, increasingly, developmentalist perspectives on the brain recognize that the effects of different environments, training, social interaction, and behaviour patterns upon the organic structure of the neural system and brain are great.  So the neuroanthropological project is to bring anthropological awareness, knowledge, sensitivities, and research to the holistic study of the brain.

Second, as Dominguez suggests, the brain affects subjective experiences and culture, helping us to better propose cultural theory.  The primary point is not that the brain has certain ‘universal’ traits; rather, the point is that the brain’s capacities, including its variable capacity to remodel itself, have implications for cultural theory.  Understanding the brain allows us to propose more plausible cultural theory, in part by drawing attention to how the brain is encultured.  In their introduction to a special issue of Anthropological Theory, Naomi Quinn and Claudia Strauss caution that ‘it is so difficult to keep inherently psychological terms and implicit psychological theories from slipping into cultural analyses’ because cultural theory must, necessarily, include some sort of theory of the subject.  Unfortunately, because anthropologists resist engaging more seriously with psychology, Quinn and Strauss, ‘find that even those theorists who disavow psychology have to rely on implicit psychological models, which typically, once brought into the open, can be seen to be naïve.’ 
The same could easily be said about the brain sciences.  Theories of human enculturation must necessarily make assumptions about the human brain, body, and nervous system.  Anthropologists tend to do so with very little awareness of empirical research in the brain sciences or theory emerging from these fields, even when those theories are very congenial to anthropology.  (This observation was first brought home to me when I was working on imitation and mimesis, the senses, and pain perception in sports, and I found that the anthropological literature was remarkably immune to very interesting findings occurring in neurosciences on these subjects
Dominguez’s definition also points to a third project, which, broadly construed, would be to engage with evolutionary theory from a grounding both in the neurosciences and in cross-cultural anthropology.  I’m a bit more hesitant to embark on this project, so I’m hoping that some of my colleagues will.  My reluctance stems primarily from a sense that evolutionary explanations have so often been a problem, with examples like evolutionary psychology so in evidence.  My sense is that we need to clear a lot of ground before I will, personally, be comfortable making evolutionary arguments.  In fact, it is clear that the brain can only be understood in an evolutionary framework; I am in no way an ‘anti-evolutionist.’  In fact, as Emily Schultz of St. Cloud State argued at the recent American Anthropological Association, I am an ‘anti- anti-evolutionist.’  (Emily’s another one I hope will contribute to ‘Neuroanthropology’ soon.)  However, too often ‘evolutionist’ explanations are a kind of neo-Darwinist adaptationism.  Here, I’m thinking of some of the theorizing about ‘massive modularity’ or evolutionary adaptation of the brain in the work of people like Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby.  These approaches fail to take into account the complexity of a ‘post-neo-Darwinist’ evolutionary theory (thanks to Emily and Agustín Fuentes for that one), but they also fail to take into account the plasticity and developmental emergence of brain structure

So, in short, all of these topics will be revisited: 1) the implications of cultural variation and anthropology for the brain sciences; 2) the implications of the brain sciences for understanding human variation, culture, and sociability; and 3) understanding all of this in evolutionary perspective — but a more cautious evolutionary perspective than some discussions of the brain and culture, one better informed about mechanisms other than natural selection (or in addition to natural selection) that shape the brain’s emergence — balanced with a careful attention to developmental issues such as plasticity and modularization.


Quinn, Naomi, and Claudia Strauss
2006 Introduction to Special Issue on The Missing Psychology in Cultural Anthropology’s Key Words.  Anthropological Theory 6(3): 267-279.

2 thoughts on “The term ‘neuroanthropology’

  1. Although I am currently in the field, I hope to check-in frequently through the ever-slow Sumateran internet to see the exciting developments of the neuroanthropology blog!

    It will be great to see some discussion about the co-developmental and co-evolutionary relationship between brains and culture!

    I share some of Dr Downey’s hesitation in using the term neuroanthropology, though maybe for slightly different reasons. The term neuroanthropology for me is an aspiration. In practice, my research is probably closer to psychophysical ethnography. My long-term desire is to couple cognitive ethnographic fieldwork with context-driven neuroscientific experiments.

    It is after having worked in several neuroscience laboratories, (gaining some experience and familiarity with areas including neuroimaging, neuroinformatics, neurobiology, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, psychophysics and psychology), as well as having had the opportunity to converse with brilliant scholars from a number of fields, that I have come to an understanding that brain research can be greatly complemented by the anthropological.

    The merging of neuroscience and anthropology is not, as Dr Downey points out, altogether new. Paul Broca, a 19th century neurologist, famous for the discovery of Broca’s area of speech production in the brain, was also an anthropologist. Since the time of Broca, the disciplines of academia have become increasingly specialised and somewhat increasingly embedded in their respective approaches. However, certain respected contemporary researchers, such as fellow countryman to Paul Broca, Jean-Pierre Changeux, have advocated the unification of neuroscience with anthropology (e.g. Changeux, JP. L’homme Neuronal, 1983).

    The endorsement of interdisciplinary diplomats from the neurosciences and social sciences, is an opportunity to navigate new understandings, fresh ideas and to develop a deeper comprehension of Homo sapiens sapiens.

    Related Links:

  2. After several days of playing around with the idea of neuroanthropology, including too many Google searches and meandering deviations into literature far and wide, I must say that I am rather happy with the term neuroanthropology. It captures rather elegantly what we want to say—that the conjunction of neuroscience and anthropology has much to tell us about ourselves. But it places emphasis on the anthropology, with neuroscience as the modifier. That is unlike the recent and quite readable book, Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, where the neuroscientist authors coin the term “cultural biology.” Culture, evolution, and anthropology are the modifiers in this book, which emphasizes what recent brain science tells us about ourselves. (For someone who emphasizes the cultural side in cultural biology, see Laurence Kirmayer’s 2006 article—also a useful read.)

    Neuroanthropology places emphases on lived processes as much as biological processes, and offers ethnography as one of the best ways for us to understand those lived processes. Sure, the term might stand accusations that run from corny to trite, but it is also catchy and tight, so who am I to complain?

    Liars, Lovers and Heroes link:

    Kirmayer Citation:

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