Neuroscience On Out: The Forest and the Trees

Often on this blog we have argued about the relevance of neuroscience to our work as anthropologists.  Today, however, I want to turn the tables.  Neuroscience needs anthropology.  Given the emerging models of neural function, with their emphasis on embodied learning and active interaction with the environment, some of neuroscience’s best ideas can only be tested in the field. 

This thought came to me through my colleague Cameron Hay, an anthropologist at Miami University in Ohio.  I was reading over a near-complete draft of her paper on memory, anxiety and healing among the Sasak in Indonesia.  Cameron wrote: 

“Neuroscientists are well aware that the isolated models of mind and its cognitive processes that they tend to study are invalid and that the person’s social, cultural, and physical environment has ‘an active role in driving cognitive processes’ (Henningsen and Kirmayer 2000: 472-3). Neuroscientific methods do not allow for the kind of holistic exploration that anthropology encourages, therefore, the link between anxiety and memory retrieval is somewhat under explored; however, there are some tantalizing associations.”

 While laboratory research and even ecologically-valid experimentation certainly have a vital role in expanding our current understanding of our brains, the extension from brain research to the workings of the mind and behavior is not a simple step.  Extrapolation is, in effect, bad science, because it is not based on scholarly research. 

Greg has made a similar argument repeatedly, but from the other side.  For example, social science’s use of “embodiment” and “subjectivity” has often worked as “arm’s-length surrogate terms to get around dealing directly with psychology and biology.”  Or, in his consideration of Bourdieu, “The ‘body’ in Bourdieu is a very thin, non-corporeal, non-biological entity… It more closely resembles a grammar, a semiotic structure, or a cultural pattern than an organic flesh-and-blood creature, with all of the complexity, diverse levels of synthesis and nested dynamics, and inconsistencies.” 

Greg, using both anthropology and biology, aims to tackle the problem through research: “In fact, I think habits, skills, and bodily conditioning do affect the subject to an enormous degree, but my instinct is not a full-blown theory until I do the hard yards involved in articulating a theory.” 

And so with increasingly sophisticated views of brain functioning.  These theoretical developments look more and more like forest views, rather than the studying of individual trees that has marked the past 100 years of neurological research.  But to actually understand the forest you need to go out and wander around.  You need to get out in the real world, and not study it from a map or an armchair in the lab.  Indeed, anthropology became a scholarly field when it stopped doing armchair research and began to engage in long-term field work among people. 

There are examples—Oliver Sachs as a neuroanthropologist, Edwin Hutchins studying “cognition in the wild,” and others I could name.  But the point I want to make is broader than any example.  It has to do with where neuroscience has arrived, and how best to test, or at least examine, the validity of its ideas.  The forests of interacting neurons in the brain, with their own topologies and ecologies, exist literally in reference to real life.  Real life is what people do and experience, and that is the realm of anthropology. 

Put differently, if you want to know how brains work at a systemic level, go study where those systems emerge in action.  That is in everyday life.  And studying everyday life, using an integrative and comparative approach that looks for patterns and variation, is precisely what anthropology offers.  Who knows, maybe it will drive new theories on how brains accomplish all that they so magically do. 

Let me end by providing a couple illustrations.  First, theories of consciousness generally treat it as some odd mix between a laboratory phenomenon and a philosopher’s mental exercise.  But Nicholas Humphrey offers a differing view: 

“One of the consequences of this particular view of consciousness — consciousness identified with introspection and self reflection — was that it meant one had to exclude from the club of conscious beings a whole lot of animals, babies, and other more primitive organisms, which don’t have this level of self reflection… Surely consciousness can exist at a much lower level, exist unreflected on, just as the experience of raw being: as primitive sensations of light, cold, smell, taste, touch, pain; as the is- ness, the present tense of sensory experience, which doesn’t require any further analysis or introspective awareness to be there for us but is just a state of existence. Surely that is what it’s like to be me, or what it’s like to be a dog, or what it’s like to be a baby. That’s what it’s like to be conscious. I call it the “thick moment” of consciousness. What matters is that I feel myself alive now, living in the present moment. What matters is at this moment I’m aware of sounds arriving at my ears, sight at my eyes, sensations at my skin. They’re defining what it’s like to be me.”

 Generally Humphrey has looked to literary works and animal research as ways to examine the “thick moment” of consciousness.  Building on Geertz and his thick description, but grounded in trusting his informants and doing the hard work of reading what is relevant, Greg aims to get at habit, sport, pain, and skill. 

Or to go further afield, to help gain that eagle eye’s view, I rather like this piece on “Research explores why conservation efforts fail: lack of anthropological insight main cause.”  It notes all the careful technical science that goes into conservation work, then notes the many failures.  Why? 

While many basic conservation strategies and concepts are sound in theory, their practical use is often seriously flawed. The strategies and policies are designed in academia and then applied too generally, in a ‘top-down’ and often eurocentric manner, as an inflexible, regulatory ‘blueprint’ that foolishly ignores local culture, economics, social behavior and politics. Conservationists need help from anthropologists and ethnographers, they urge. These social scientists carefully analyse and learn to understand the complexities of how [people] interact with nature and its resources. Environmental anthropologists take a broad, but very empirical and detailed perspective through participant observation and other dedicated fieldwork techniques.

In other words, the extrapolation from theory on out needs to be more of a two-way street.  Take brain science into the real world, and then see how that changes the developing views of what and how brains help us be people.

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