I was in Melbourne last week and caught up with my friend and colleague, Juan Dominguez. Our chats are always fast-paced and intense. We seem to cover 50 new topics every minute and all of them circle around a central theme: neuroanthropology.
Juan and I hadn’t seen eachother for maybe a year and he was dying to show me a new book that he found in a local bookstore. The book is called, “The Brain that Changes itself” by Norman Doidge. Upon finding the book in the second bookstore we visited (the book had sold out in the first), Juan immediately flipped to Appendix 1, The Culturally Modified Brain: Not only does the Brain Shape Culture, Culture shapes the brain, (page 287). The appendix covers areas such as neuroplasticity; the relationship between the brain and culture; how cultural activities can change brain structure; as well as some of the false claims of evolutionary psychologists. Concerning the over-enthusiastic claims of evolutionary psychologists, I particularly appreciate the drawbacks that Doidge points out about modularitarity. Doidge knows when and how to use clinical and experimental examples to backup his arguments. I won’t say more, because I want to encourage readers of this blog to pick up a copy of the book and have a read of this appendix for themselves. To provide a precis of a precis would seem fruitless, especially when Doidge’s writing style is very engaging and his content, for geeks like me, is fascinating.
The central theme of the entire book is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, for some, is heralded as “the most important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries” (see www.normandoidge.com). I would like to go on a tangent for a second and talk about the hype about neuroplasticity.
Researching neuroplasticity is incredible. I have been privileged to see first hand the effects of seasonal neuroplasticity on hamster and rodent brains. I have also worked with stroke patients and seen how their motor-recovery can be mapped with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. But there is something about the wider social understanding of this research that intrigues me. Personal experience makes me believe that people have thought for a very long time that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, I won’t be surprising any anthropologists to suggest that the important breakthrough of neuroplasticity is probably a culture-specific breakthrough. The ability of humans to adapt to new environments, new cultures and new physical conditions has been observed for donkey’s years. It almost seems to me a shame that sometimes we need a scientific proof to give weight to empirical observations. At the same time, I find myself quickly subscribing to the epidemic of requesting scientific proof when someone tells me of an empirical observation. However, we don’t need to understand neuroplasticity to know that Stroke patients can recover but the discovery of neuroplasticity has encouraged us to find the best ways to rehabilitate stroke patients and accident victims. Neuroplasticity in some circles has become more than a part of biological textbooks and has become a source of hope for the sufferers of brain damage and their carers. Although trained in neuroscience, I have become aware and increasingly convinced of the input anthropology can have to the brain sciences. A certain kind of socio-cultural neuroethology can inform us greatly about the capacities of the brain. Neuroscience does not have a monopoly over an understanding of the brain and I look forward to seeing how anthropologists can inform and guide neuroscientific discovery.
Meanwhile, I believe that we all need to equip ourselves with the latest information, and if it is made digestible and more interesting through popular science books such as “The Brain that Changes itself” then all the better for us. It will be fantastic to see more such books hitting the shelves of bookstores. Thanks Juan for the heads-up on this book!
p.s. Doidge’s book also brought my attention to a book by Bruce E. Wexler (2006) that I look forward to reading, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, ideology and social Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). Oh, and In googling for that book, I found this funky little link: Mind, Brain, Law and Culture