Neuroanthropology Session at the AAA Conference

Greg and I are organizing a session for the annual American Anthropological Association meeting, held this year in San Francisco from November 19 to November 23rd.  The session is called, “The Encultured Brain: Neuroanthropology and Interdisciplinary Engagement.” 

We still have one or two spots that might be open for people interested in presenting on neuroanthropology at the AAAs.  So please contact either me ( or Greg ( as soon as possible, as we need complete abstracts before March 10th.  Please let us know what you’d like to present on! 

Here’s our session abstract: 

As a collaborative endeavor, neuroanthropology aims to better integrate anthropology, social theory, and the brain sciences.  In this panel, we explore the implications of new findings in the neurosciences for our understanding of culture, human development, and behavior. Neuroanthropology can help to revitalize psychological anthropology, promote links between biological and cultural anthropology, and strengthen work in medical and linguistic anthropology.  However, recent anthropology has not engaged neuroscience to produce the sort of synthesis that began when Franz Boas built cultural anthropology from psychophysics. 

Neuroscience has increasingly produced basic research and theoretical models that are surprisingly amenable to anthropology.  Rather than “neuro-reductionist” or determinist approaches, research has increasingly emphasized the role of environment, body, experience, evolution, and behavior in shaping, even driving organic brain development and function.  At the same time, the complexity of the brain makes a mockery of attempts to pry apart “nature” from “nurture,” or to apportion credit for specific traits.   Research on gene expression, endocrine variability, mirror neurons, and neural plasticity all beg for comparative data from across the range of human variation — biological and cultural. 

Neuroscientists and other social scientists are already actively working on these sorts of integrated models; books like Wexler’s Brain and Culture and Quartz and Sejnowski’s Liars, Lovers and Heroes actively incorporate anthropological materials.  In the social sciences, books like Turner’s Brains/Practices/Relativism aim to bring neuroscience into social theory, often with critical intent. 

However, these works often leave out the best of anthropology.  Although our research is being borrowed, we are being left out of the conversation precisely at a time when we should speak with authority.  In the present round of integration, simplistic understandings of culture dominate, and, at times, outside authors read our research through unsettling ideological lenses.  And, given the emphasis on experience, behavior, context and development, the absence of ethnographic research and insight into precisely those domains that impact our neural function is startling. 

Anthropology has much to offer to and much to learn from engagement with neuroscience.  An apt model is just how important genetics has become in anthropology, cutting across the entire discipline.  A similar revolution is waiting with neurobiology, if we can draw on our strengths and build neuroanthropology on inclusion, collaboration and engagement, both within and outside anthropology.  To this end, this session explores areas of anthropological research related to the brain where heredity, environment, culture and biology are in complex relations, with human variation emerging from their nexus rather than being determined by a single variable.  Participants explore addiction, motor skill, XXXX, XXXX — brain-related phenomena that can only be explained by dynamic models including both “bottom-up” (biological, neural, and psychological levels) and “top-down” (cultural, social, and ideological) factors.  Participants highlight that no single model of the biological-cultural interface holds for all cases.  The papers in this panel also suggest ways in which anthropologists might intervene in public discussions of crucial human characteristics and make our concerns more persuasive for other academic disciplines exploring the complexity of the human brain.

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