Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined

Our colleague, Paul Mason, sent the following post in from fieldwork in Indonesia. He apologized to me for it being ‘rough,’ and I still have to get a bibliography off him for it, but I thought it was well worth posting, especially because it does a great job of highlighting a whole host of intellectual precursors for what we’d like to do. Paul worked in the brain sciences, including in brain imaging, before we lured him over to anthropology, so he’s especially well positioned to help us carve out this new space. I think he brings a whole host of elements to the table that someone like me, trained in cultural anthropology primarily, can’t help but find fascinating and informative. So here’s his original text, with his apologies that it is ‘rough’ (we all know what it’s like to try to write from the field).

The brain is the organ of society and the biological vector of culture (Mason 2006). Neuroanthropology, a field of enquiry at the intersection of science and culture, is “The study of the cultural basis of mind and the biological basis of cultures” (Mason, 2005). Oliver Sacks is perhaps the most famous neuroanthropologist bringing fame to the field through his work on the ‘Neuroanthropology of Tourette’s Syndrome’ for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. The first proponent of the merging of neuroscience and anthropology was Ten Houten (1976) who defined the field as “the investigation of the cultural determinants of the ways in which our brains are developed historically and put to use” (p. 506). The research field was later defined by Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili (1979) as, “The study of the relationship between the brain and sociocultural behaviour.” Neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has also advocated the unification of neuroscience and anthropology in his book, L’homme Neuronal (1983). The merging of neuroscience and anthropology is not altogether new. Paul Broca, a neurologist, famous for the discovery of Broca’s area of speech production in the brain, was also an anthropologist (Monod-Broca 2005). According to Couser (2001) neuroanthropology aims to study both how culture shapes neurological processes and how neurological substrates may produce distinctive cultural behaviours.

TenHouten (1991) situates Neuroanthropology as a subdiscipline of Ethnoneurology. Various ethnoneurologies include:
– neuropolitics
– neuro-ontology
– neurosociology
– neuroaesthetics
– neuroeconomics
– neurophilosophy
– neuroanthropology
– neuroepistemology
– neurophenomenology
Ethnoneurology is “the investigation of sociocultural variation in the human use of the nervous system and brain” (TenHouten 1989:163). It is “the study of ways in which members of societies, cultures, nations, and
other social organizational formations have historically made use of, and presently make use of, their brains” (TenHouten 1997:10).

Neuroanthropology has a number of sister disciplines which include:
– neurosociology (Bogen et al. 1972; Turner 1985)
– neurophenomenology (Varela 1996; Varela, Depraz & Vermersch 1999)
– Physiological Sociology (Barchas 1976)
– Social Psychophysiology (Cacioppo, Petty, & Andersen, 1988)
– Social Neuroscience (Cacioppo & Bernston 2001)
– Social Cognitive Neuroscience (Ochsner & Lieberman 2001)
– Cultural neurohermeneutics (Reyna 2002)
– Cultural Neurophenomenology (Laughlin & Throop 2001, 2005, 2006; Throop & Laughlin 2002, 2003; Dornan 2004)

Of these disciplines, Neuroanthropology is most closely related to Social Cognitive Neuroscience and Cultural Neurophenomenology. Social Cognitivie Neuroscience is the study of humans at the neural, cognitive and social levels. Cultural Neurophenomenology is the study of the interactions between individual experience, culture and reality.

The practice of neuroanthropology incorporates “…a mixed phenomenology and ethnography…which is deeply informed and empirically inspired by the best current theory in the sciences of the embodied mind” (Sutton 2005:50). It integrates the first-person methods of co-phenomenology (Cornejo 2006) with the third-person methods of hetero-phenomenology (Dennet 1991; 2003) as well as the socio-cultural investigative tools of anthropology. It recognises that society is a temporally localised group of interacting embodied brains that comprise, “the structured organisation of the individuals who constitute a community” (Lewis, 1989:178). The propagation of socially instituted thoughts and behaviours between individuals and across generations produces culture where culture is defined as “a socially sanctioned accumulation of alternatives that have been selected from the vast range of human possibility” (Freeman, 1979). The reiterative causality between brain, culture and the environment is the main focus of neuroanthropology.

“The hope is to shed light onto how culture is doubly embodied; i.e., how the behavioural patterns people are exposed to, throughout their lives influence the development and functioning of their brain and what are the neurocognitive mechanisms that allow humans to build a world of shared understandings”

Juan Fernando Domínguez-Duque
Sketch of a Theory of Cultural Indeterminism: A Neuroanthropological Perspective, 2006


Paul Mason

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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. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, 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 neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

8 thoughts on “Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined

  1. Paul,
    That’s a great post. I particularly like how you lay out the mix of phenomenology and ethnography informed by neuroscience and by anthropology and your phrase “the reiterative causality between brain, culture and the environment” at the end of your post. And your quote from Domínguez-Duque reminded me of work by Bradd Shore, a psychological anthropologist at Emory University, particularly his 1991 article “Twice-Born, Once Conceived: Meaning Construction and Cultural Cognition.” I also now have plenty more citations and materials to read on work outside anthropology, particularly the neurosociology of Warren TenHouten.

    That said, I want to make an argument for a much older involvement within anthropology with the meaning and import of the brain. I hadn’t known that about Paul Broca, so that’s a definite starting point. But on the American side, I see Franz Boas as a definite founder of “neuroanthropology,” as he is in most things anthropological in the United States. Boas’ initial interest was in “psychophysics,” particularly “the relationship between subjective experience and the objective world.” That led him to Baffin Island, where he quickly realized the need for the larger scope of a study on the Inuit there—hence cultural anthropology. So, psychophysics led him to cultural anthropology, and I think today we are at a point to go back again.

    Boas also was a “neuroanthropologist” because he took on the main use of the brain in his day, the biological determinism packed around views of “unchanging” brain size as reflecting permanent differences among “races.” His demonstration of the environmental variation of cranial form, particularly that “cranial form changed in response to environmental influences within a single generation of European immigrants to the United States,” remains a landmark in American anthropology.

    And, of course, Boas laid out the four fields and anthropology’s holistic approach, and I believe that we need this sort of integrative approach to be able to understand how we are ourselves, including how our brains work.

    Alfred Kroeber, Boas’ student, is also a father figure in anthropology, and his 1923 textbook Anthropology is striking because of how integrative it is, making a case for direct connections between anthropology and other fields. For me, I see that textbook as one of our most direct precursors to the work we are trying to do today.

    Neuroanthropology, though not called that, has a definite history through American anthropology though the rest of the twentieth century. On the biological side, we have the work of Ralph Holloway and his at-the-time controversial argument that brain re-organization happened before the emergence of the Homo line. On the cultural side, I could point to the latter work of Victor Turner (a Scot, I know, but his professional career was spent as a professor in the US). Turner’s 1983 essay “Brain, Body and Culture” is certainly another precursor to today’s neuroanthropology.

    Alongside the history of interest in the brain in anthropology, there has also been a justified wariness of how brain and psychological science are used in the social arena. And brain research has passed through several historical epochs, and to my mind, finally appears at a point where its understanding of the brain offers us exciting opportunities for cross-fertilization. Earlier views, from the symbol and meaning free behaviorism to the excessively innate cognitive revolution, did not provide for a lot of theoretical overlap with anthropology. But the increasing importance of Hebb’s theory on synaptic plasticity (e.g., his 1949 book on The Organization of Behavior), the emergence of new methods like brain imaging, the increasingly detailed knowledge about specific brain systems, and the theoretical and popular work of authors like Chagneux or Damasio have placed neuroscience in a much more complementary position to anthropology.

    So, here’s my statement on how anthropology has unique strengths that match up well with the emerging brain size. These strengths make neuroanthropology a distinct enterprise from many of the other “neuron” sister disciplines, and offer us a bright future if we but seize it.

    So my list:
    – the critical evaluation of biological determinism
    – the use of a holistic approach (which matches well with the complexity of the brain)
    – the recognition of at least a moderate relativism (e.g, the moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which matches with the understanding of how brains wire together based on patterns of use and input (i.e., through interaction with the local environment, largely structured through historical processes)
    -the focus on human evolution, including the evolution of our brains, as crucial to understanding our “cultural biology”
    -the importance of ethnography as a method to understand people’s behavior, experience and relations

    Bradd Shore article:

    Warren TenHouten webpage

    Early!! Anthro Article on Broca:

    Clarence Gravlee on Boas cranial form research:

    NY Times article on Ralph Holloway

    Victor Turner’s “Brain, Body and Culture” article

    Nice Overview of Antonio Damasio’s work:

    A Consideration of the moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

  2. I’m glad I found this weblog because I am a neuroscientist with a strong interest in culture. I don’t have any training in anthropology, so I’m not familiar with many terms and concepts that I’ve encountered. However, I would like to mention 2 other important thinkers who wrote about the unity of culture and biology: E.O. Wilson, the author of Sociobiology, and Consilience, and Robert Trivers, originator of parental investment theory.

  3. I will have to look up Robert Trivers. He sounds interesting – Thanks Double Helix.

    Dlende, you might laugh: My Honours research was in Psychophysics. I then side-stepped and did post-grad studies in Anthropology.

    Meanwhile that list of references will keep me going a while! While I have a copy of Brad Shore’s book which I referred to frequently earlier in my PhD, I was unaware of his article. Thanks for posting those references. I must apologise, but unfortunately, my references are in a filing cabinet in Australia which I probably won’t see for another five months. I will post the references as soon as I return to Oz!

  4. Hi Paul, very nice piece! I would only add that two works that played a pivotal role in the founding of neuroanthropology are Earl Count’s (1973) Being and Becoming Human. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold and Charles Laughlin and Eugene d’Aquili’s (1974) Biogenetic Structuralism. New York: Columbia University Press.


  5. Wow! I can’t believe Jason Throop commented on this blog!!! I have been really interested in your work with Charles Laughlin on cultural neurophenomenology. Meanwhile, yes I do agree, Laughlin and d’Aquili’s (1974) pioneering work on Biogenetic Structuralism should undoubtedly have been noted in the above blog. The absent-minded PhD student who sent the above blog to his supervisor to be posted should definitely be scolded! I shall be sure to have a word with him personally! :o)

    I have not yet read Earl Count’s (1973) Being and Becoming Human, but my friend and colleague Juan Dominguez also once recommended it to me. As soon as I return from fieldwork, it will be added to my ever-growing reading list. I have just finished reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s (1980) Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind). For an Indonesian historian who was jailed though not trialled for 14years, Pramoedya certainly has a beautiful literary style with a gift for portraying the way different cultural mindsets interact… Next on the list will be a PhD thesis I recently acquired from the Universitas Negeri Padang – wow the amount of bureaucracy I had to get through to finally obtain but a few photocopied chapters! Incredible! It reminds one, that fieldwork in Indonesia is always facilitated if one travels are accompanied by several packets of Cigarettes filling one’s pockets…

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