What’s the ‘culture’ in neuroanthropology?

Some cultural anthropologists are afraid of the brain sciences; they fear that neuroscientists want to dissolve culture into the study of the brain, discounting the necessity of studying culture, social interaction, systems of meaning, symbolism, everyday life, and all the things that cultural anthropologists have argued are important for shaping human life. Emily Martin, for example, one of the most interesting anthropologists working on the way that cultural assumptions shape medicine, medical education, and the like, writes in an article on the ‘mind-body’ problem of the dangers of ‘neuro-reductionist’ thought.

Martin’s fear is that, ultimately, although some in the brain sciences explicitly claim to have an interest in cultural differences, they do not grant the social the same degree of ‘reality’ as the cellular and organic. As Martin writes, although they sometimes discuss social and cultural differences; ‘… the levels in neuron man, a figure frequently reproduced in neuroscience texts, begin with molecules, but go no farther than the central nervous system’ (2000:574). I’m sure that Martin is right for a lot of neuroscience texts; but I would argue that cultural anthropology texts, in the main, probably demonstrate the same degree of partiality.

She sees ‘the neuroreductive cognitive sciences as the most dangerous kind of vortex—one close by and one whose power has the potential to suck in disciplines like anthropology, severely weakening them in the process’ (ibid.). Martin encourages anthropologists to unite ‘in opposition to a position in which the dyke between nature and culture has been breached, and all of what anthropologists call culture has drained through the hole and dissolved in the realm of neural networks’ (ibid.: 576).

Normally, I would argue that Martin is over-reacting, worried about a possibility that is too remote. But then, every once in a while, I read something that helps me to realize that Martin’s fear, however exaggerated, are grounded in concrete experiences. Rather than a ‘dyke between nature and culture,’ I find that the real issue is the slipperiness of the notion of culture that some in the brain sciences use. That is, if we look carefully at what they are using as the ‘cultural’ in their own attempts to grapple with cross-cultural differences in the brain, cognition, and development, we find that however well meaning, given the wrong tool, one is likely to wind up with a bit of a mess. Unfortunately, although I like the majority of what they write, I fear that this is the situation with a recent piece I stumbled across by reading Encephalon’s recent posting, Briefing the Next US President on 24 Neuroscience and Psychology Issues.

Stephanie West Allen, JD, writes a fascinating blog on conflict resolution, Brains on Purpose, that’s informed by brain sciences, including a relationship of some sort with Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist who’s written a wonderful book, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, based on his work with sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder (that book is a fascinating read, although some of the work on the uncertainty principle and attention at the very end of the work is much more conjectural). Her recent post, A key to cross-cultural conflict resolution: Around the world in almost 80 (0,000,000) brains, makes a number of points that I would echo and is clearly keeping up with some of the more intriguing studies that are coming out on neuroplasticity and cultural differences in perception (such as the study Daniel discussed in Puzzles and Cultural Differences).

But how do we talk about cross-cultural differences and understand them? This is the thorny problem, in my opinion, for the brain scientists trying to reach across the gap between studies of the brain and the social sciences. It’s not so much the reductionism that Martin fears — reducing culture to cells — as another kind of reductionism — does the modeling of culture adequately encompass the lived complexity of growing up in a cultural milieu? Do we assume that a difference in means between test populations is ‘the difference’ between their ethnicities? Do we ignore parallels and commonalities? Assume that observable differences in behavior necessarily result from differences in brains? Treat culture like a list of traits or a varied environment? The pitfalls are all around us, as any cultural anthropologist would warn.

So, when I suggest that Allen stumbles (in my opinion), I understand completely; we’re more likely to stumble than nail it, especially when we are trying to generalize from narrow results to over-arching principles, a necessary step in influencing fields outside our own in positive ways. But, like I warn my daughter, some trouble can be anticipated by the company we keep, and Allen chooses a shady crowd of pals with whom to explore inter-cultural communication. Specifically:

Even before knowledge of brain differences among the cultures, people studying cross-cultural communication and interaction devised several ways of looking at how cultures differed. One of the most well-known is Geert Hofstede’s value dimensions or cultural dimensions. People using Hofstede will look at cultures on these five dimensions…

Hofstede’s five dimensions are basically acceptance of hierarchy, individualism/collectivism, masculine domination, uncertainty avoidance, and time orientation. I won’t go into explaining Hofstede’s continua very much (you can check it out online, I’m sure), but his system evaluates cultures on these five sets of distinctions and awards scores of 0 to 100 to allow comparisons. Allen offers one .pdf handout that adds about a dozen more contrasting pairs in a system that very much mirrors the sort of stuff found in the literature on inter-cultural communication. Unfortunately, the kind of thing that Hofstede does is rife in business consultancies, international educational orientation, and similar fields, where simplistic descriptions of other cultures (sometimes even ALL other cultures) are contrasted with ‘our culture’ (sometimes not even recognizing that ‘us’ may be terribly heterogeneous).

I think what Allen is trying to do is admirable; pointing out that different patterns of thought, expectations, and even neural conditioning influence conflict resolution is helpful on all sorts of levels. However, these systems of classification are rife with problems, and often do little to increase understanding. For example, they are a kind of Western scale applied to other cultures; how ‘egalitarian’ or ‘individualist’ are other societies? Well, we’re egalitarian and individualist, so how much are they like us? Of course, this sort of evaluation can be extremely biased. Often, the scales are seemingly dressed up in neutral language, but looking closely at them, they often seem merely to confirm stereotypes, rather than offer anything terribly insightful or new to help intercultural understanding.

But the bigger problem, for me, is that the cultural scorecard method substitutes a blanket list of qualities for any real understanding of how cultural differences in development (including ideology, behavior, environment, customary practices, and a host of other elements) actually produce neural differences. For example, to understand the effect of material poverty on brain development, we can’t simply equate income level with brain development. We have to understand how poverty would be manifest in people’s lives — do they have enough food? access to schools? work at a young age? face few employment prospects? — including other social factors that might mitigate the effect of absolute material privation. Likewise, whether a society is ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivist’ (a favorite distinction among inter-cultural communication people) depends on how and where we look. For example, Americans may be individualist when it comes to their families (but not all of them), but they are very ‘collectivist’ when it comes to nationality, for example, expressing a degree of patriotism (but not all of them) that would be considered almost xenophobic in some other places. And while many Westerners congratulate themselves on their society’s achievements in creating opportunities for women, there are many ways in which Western societies can have very retrograde attitudes toward women, whether that woman is a candidate for her party’s presidential nomination or the victim of rape or says ‘the c word’ on television.

In other words, I think that a real interest in culture’s effects on neural development requires us to view both brain and culture as emerging from a number of processes. Creating the neuroanthropological synthesis requires, not only attributing causal efficacy to both culture and biology, but also recognizing the processual and dynamic complexity of both. Creating culture scorecards doesn’t really get us there; it may even substitute self-satisfied stereotype for a genuine interest in how cultural environment shapes each individual in distinctive fashion.


Martin, Emily. 2000. Mind-body Problems. American Ethnologist 27 (3): 569-590.

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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.

2 thoughts on “What’s the ‘culture’ in neuroanthropology?

  1. Your observation about dimensional models of culture (e.g., Hofstede) is right on. Like all models, they are limited. They have their usefulness, primarily as starting points for greater exploration of culture, but cannot ever be complete explanations of culture.

    More realistic, in my opinion, are the theories offered by cognitive anthropologists D’Andrade and Strauss & Quinn. Strauss & Quinn’s book, A cognitive theory of cultural meaning, is an excellent resource that describes the complexity of culture as a phenomenon emerging from the interplay between intrapersonal cognitive schemas and extrapersonal structures in the world. It doesn’t reduce culture to a neuronal phenomenon entirely, though it takes into account the cognitive schemas (activated neural networks) individuals develop and utilize as they interact with their physical and social environments. Similar activations in response to similar patterns, evoking similar understanding, emotional reactions and motivational force. When these schema patterns are shared among individuals, they are said to constitute cultural schemas. It contrasts sharply with classical notions of culture as static entities and represented by dimensional models.

    It might be something you’re interested in examining.

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