The Culturally Modified Brain

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 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 

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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

5 thoughts on “The Culturally Modified Brain

  1. Paul Mason, refering to Norman Doidge’s, The Brain That Changes Itself,wrote an excellent blog. Doidge says that all humans have what is called the “culturally modified brain.” Brain and Culture are like two-way traffic. Just as the brain changes from one generation to another, so also the culture. It is the brain that shapes culture and culture that changes the brain.

    Since the time of the invention of the printing press in 1450 A.D., the human brain has been intensely playing with the calling cards of rationality, what is called reading, writing, and arithmetic. Without using the calling cards of rationality we cannot think of changing the modern scientific culture to more humane culture. In other words, reading, writing and arithmetic are making us smarter day by day. The modern scientific culture we have created for ourselves is giving us the illusion that we are becoming smarter and smarter day-by-day.

    The kind of problems that we are creating for ourselves, the results that we see in terms of suicide, homicide, homocide, genocide, fractocide and ecocide makes us wonder if our brains are rewiring for better or for worse.

    Having thousands of universities worldwide, and with so much research going on in the fields of science, technology, missiles and bombs make us wonder if we are Homo sapiens are some other species. I think we need to rethink who we are once again. We may not be human beings, but some other species.

    Charles Mark

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