Neuroprospecting: Mining cultures for neuro-behavioural data

Bioprospecting: pursuit of plant-derived chemicals for pharmaceuticals: the process of searching for and extracting potential pharmaceutical compounds from plants.

Neuroprospecting: pursuit of culture-specific behaviours for neuroscience: the process of searching and extracting potential neuro-behavioural data from cultures.

Group Sari Bunuan Macan Andaleh play Gendang Tambuah in a procession
Photo: Paul Mason

This time last year, I was in the field documenting some festivities held at The End of Fasting in the highlands of West Sumatra. The ceremonies I documented were inherently tied to tradition, heritage, local economy, history, religion, social changes, education, available materials, collective memory, creativity and political influences to name just a few factors. Through my observations, discussions with research collaborators (Pak Indra Utama, Bu Ernida Kadir and Pak Fadil from the STSI Padang Panjang), as well as my direct participation in the events, I have been able to, over time, come to an understanding of how the expression of the music and dance in the performances embodies encultured ways of feeling, moving and thinking.

The different ways in which people interact with music as a result of cultural entrainment offers neuroscience beautiful context-sensitive non-invasive techniques to understand the human brain. Music and Dance are both non-verbal human activities and one can be used to probe the other. Through my own fieldwork, I have found that there is often no need to set up specific ‘stimulus-response’ experiments, but that the various cultures of the world have already developed their own context-sensitive experimental findings through the expression of music and dance. I have no doubt that collaborative research between neuroscientists, anthropologists, and the various musicians and dancers of the world will offer us deeper insights into the workings of the human brain!

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Paul Mason

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

2 thoughts on “Neuroprospecting: Mining cultures for neuro-behavioural data

  1. Paul, I quite like your line about “context-sensitive non-invasive techniques” to study neuro-behavioral phenomena. I also think anthropologists, informed by some neuro-behavioral understanding, could produce novel understandings of how performances embody “encultured ways of feeling, moving and thinking.” Your point goes both ways, and as anthropologists, it’s the second one that we have more access to given our location in the field (double entendre) and our methods.

    That aside, while I agree wholeheartedly with your point, I am worried about labeling this “neuro-prospecting.” Certainly I encourage neuro-behavioral people to get outside their labs and go to another country to gather data. But why call it prospecting? Do they then extract the relevant cultural techniques and repackage them for capitalist benefit in their home country? Certainly with the push into brain training and the like, I could definitely see this sort of thing happening – selling what others have developed through some dubious repackaging into neuro-behavioral terms.

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