By Daniel Lende
Next week is the Critical Neurosciences workshop, where I will help lead a discussion of the cultural brain. So I better figure out what I want to say!
Thinking about it yesterday, I came up with this. Rather than one “cultural brain” and lots of arguing about what that means, I will argue that we have five distinct varieties of the cultural brain to consider.
Each flavor deals with a different sort of problem at the intersection of human culture and neuroscience. I will outline these different intersections below, and provide links to our posts to give further depth.
Here are our five flavors:
-The Symbolic Brain: Culture, meaning and the brain combined
-The Inequality Brain: Bad outcomes through society, power, and the brain
-The Theory Brain: Neuroscience impacts social science theory
-The Brain Transformed: Social science impacts brain theory
-The Critical Brain: Taking down bad brain justifications and examining the cultural uses of the brain
The Symbolic Brain
The symbolic brain represents the increasing convergence of work in anthropology and in neuroscience on questions of meaning, symbolism, subjective experience, and behavior. To take an example from my own work, understanding compulsive drug use has required that I examine how processes of attention and behavioral involvement are altered by consistent drug use and how people interpret their own use, from the reasons they had to use to what the experience of use represents to them.
In many ways, this work focuses on a central problem raised but not resolved by Clifford Geertz when he wrote that we should treat human behavior as “symbolic action—action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies (1973: 9).” Today, rather than reducing that significance to either a cultural pattern or a brain function (both determinist approaches), people interested in the cultural brain are looking for synergies between different domains of research.