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:
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