The Cultural Brain in Five Flavors

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.

In this sense, the symbolic brain is a holistic approach, integrative but not quite synthetic. Different strands of research are used to understand human behavior and experience, with the triangulation of perspectives providing a fuller view of why people do what they do. Psychological anthropology, from older strands of symbolic and cognitive anthropology to more recent work on embodiment, practice theory, and memory, is at the center of this intersection.

For more discussion, see the posts The Everyday Brain and Our Everyday Life, Moerman’s Placebo, Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction, and I’m Not Really Running: Flow, Dissociation and Expertise.

The Inequality Brain

In contrast, the inequality brain is more interested in outcomes, in how people end up in different life spaces and with different physical and mental problems through the joint work of many processes—inside and outside the person—that work to create differential variation.

No, I can’t explain what that means either, but it sure sounds like some good academic gobbledy-gook. Basically I am trying to say that society can f— us up, and understanding how the f’in process works through our brains and bodies is what the inequality brain is about.

Want it in f’in academic terms? Society, through institutions, ideologies and social ecologies, limits access of important social resources and opportunities, while also increasing exposure to risk factors and reinforcing the impossibility of realizing cultural ideals on a daily basis. But to understand HOW those processes have their pernicious impact, you also need to take into account things like human development, the true socio-biology of stress, and the canalization of biological processes.

We have plenty of posts on this area, such as Poverty Poisons the Brain, Addiction and Our Faultlines, and Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate (as long as you supplement that with Comfort Food and Social Stress). But a lot of this style of analysis built from two early posts on stress and social inequality, the first on Sapolsky and the second on Blakey.

The Theory Brain

With the theory brain, emerging research and theory from the neuroscience has substantial implications for how social science theory and methodology works. The hard-wired, determinist, mechanistic, and closed views of the brain (as popular as they might still be in popular culture) are falling by the wayside, with more dynamic, plastic, and processual views taking their place, and an increasing body of evidence of how brain function plays into basic social phenomena such as language use, identity, categorization, and the like.

Established views in social science, where patterns of culture and social structures are often seen to play a determinative role, have not caught up to the changing views of how our human biology functions. But interestingly enough, the more recent post-modern turn has opened the doors to more dynamic and person-centered views. Culture is “contested, temporal and emergent, as James Clifford wrote. Rather than speaking of “Bedouin culture,” it is better to examine “what life is like for one old Bedouin matriarch,” to draw on some of Lila Abu-Lughod’s words.

However, the post-modern emphases on particularities and reflexivity have not given birth to a new wave of theorization that matches well with emerging understandings of our brains. Lurking behind the ideas used to explain complexity and partiality and perspective is an old view of “representation” as something mental, categorical, and efficacious. On the one hand, this type of thinking is precisely what they react against, that old homogenous view of culture; on the other hand, “structuring structures” and the emphasis on gender, race, and class recreates these same forms of representation.

The move to consider embodiment, phenomenology, practices, and experience represent new ways of thinking about social problems that match better with the research and ideas emerging out of recent cognitive neuroscience. At present, however, these appear as styles of analysis, rather than theories. A non-determinative yet participatory view of the brain offers ways to create more robust approaches for these developing strands of social science.

On the implications of neuroscience for social and cultural theory, we have pieces like Beyond Bourdieu’s Body, Cabbies’ Brains, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Is Right… Sort Of, and How Your Brain Is Not Like A Computer.

The Brain Transformed

As neuroscience has grown, so has its explanatory reach, and as normal, one’s reach generally exceeds one’s grasp. Neuroscience has many internal debates about what sorts of models, ideas, theory and processes to use as they increasingly develop the notion of a dynamic and interactive brain. And most neuroscientists are not familiar with social theory, nor grounded in the reality of human diversity and ethnographic data that anthropologists bring to the table. Put differently, anthropology has much to teach neuroscience!

If the brain is plastic, so that activities and experience matter, then culture has a direct effect on how the brain works. If the brain does not store exact representations, but relies on recreating memories and on environmental context and on-going behavior to function, then the social relationships, lived contexts, cultural ideologies and symbols, and societal structures that surround and embed people in particular lives matter in how the brain works. If evolutionary history, from our sixty million years as primates to humans’ two million years of tool use, matter, then drawing on appropriate models of evolution (including that plastic, embedded brain) will help in understanding how the different parts of the brain develop and interact with one another in adaptive fashion. Anthropology brings these sorts of ideas into play, providing both the necessary context and the specific information that can guide an understanding of just what our brains are doing and are not doing.

To take one example, rather than seeing our sense of balance as an innate instinct, balance is a trained and plastic skill, integrating various parts of the brain depending on the task at hand, whether that is dancing or just learning to walk.

For more, see Why Brain Science Needs Anthropology, Synesthesia and Metaphor, Affect at the Interface, and Blaine Breaks World Record for Breath Holding.

The Critical Brain

The critical brain takes on two areas. The first area, one we delight in doing, is taking on the bad use of hard-wired biology, evolutionary psychology, and the like in discussing how brains might work and how our minds and cultures link into brain function. Hard-wired metaphors, innate modules declared by evolutionary fiat, brains that become the cause of everything—these are just not good scientific ways to think about the cultural brain.

The second area examines the ideologies and symbolisms surrounding the brain in our culture-at-large, as well as the social uses and consequences of our technological understanding and manipulation of neurological processes on society. Brain scans are seen to determine identity, the brain represents the new “genes,” manipulations of the brain through pharmaceutical drugs have dramatic impacts on our society. Critical analysis and sophisticated empirical work is needed to not just understand the brain, but the overall effect of neuroscientific knowledge, related technologies such as imaging, and the professions who use and control the knowledge and technology.

For the first variety of criticism, we have discussed boobs causing the subprime mortgage crisis, why memes are bad science, the failures of evolutionary psychology, scientific proposals to locate morality in the brain, and much else besides. For the second type, we’ve addressed free will and neuroscience, tried to get beyond the it’s good/it’s bad dichotomy that prevails when discussing our use of drugs, brought up David Brooks’ neural Buddhists, and discussed neurosexism.


So there are our five flavors of the cultural brain. Five flavors of neuroanthropology.

Interested in combining qualitative and brain research to understand a specific behavior or problem? The Symbolic Brain is likely for you. Worried how our society impacts brains in differential ways, favoring some and not others, and how the person’s own brain biology plays a role in that? Go for the Inequality Brain.

Want to build better theoretical approaches and analytical categories in social science, while taking into account that our brains and body have a significant role in how culture and social structure play out? Then the Theory Brain can help. Or just looking to have a better grasp of that dynamic, interactive, embodied brain? The one that gets shaped by skilled activity and contextual memory and societal rituals? Brain Transformed is your flavor.

And if you like taking on those puff-chested phonies whose reach has definitely exceeded their grasp, and who also miss just how much the social practice of brain research and our societal interpretations of new knowledge impact our lives today, then I can suggest the Critical Brain for you.


In writing this post, I have realized that Greg has focused more on flavors #3 & #4, the theoretical intersection of neuroscience and anthropology, while I have focused on flavors #1 & #2, what those intersections might mean for understanding particular problems. (Both of us do the critical stuff.)

Oh, sure, I’ve thrown in some philosophical musings, and tried to lay out the field of neuroanthropology though New York Times articles. And Greg has taken on specific problems like how your mood affects your health, brain doping, and getting into trance. But overall I think the five flavors capture pretty well what we are doing. Still, I will be interested in what Greg thinks, and how all this jives with any proposals he is developing.

One last note. What gets left out here? The mind-body problem and all the hand wringing over consciousness, brain mechanisms, and subjective experience. Important stuff, but in the realm of philosophy of mind. We are proposing a more empirical version. After all, brain/culture has already figured out how to solve those problems. We’re interested in how it plays out.

7 thoughts on “The Cultural Brain in Five Flavors

  1. Loving it. nicely explained brains. the five flavours is a good device to add our comprehension of different types of research and outlook. thanks. look forward to reading more

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